The tear jerker...

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Flying over Cambodia really didn’t leave me with the best impression. The air was so hazy, even when we were still flying over the ocean. You couldn’t see the detail of the water and it took a while to see any detail of the land. It turns
out that the land I flew over doesn’t actually hold much detail. The part I flew over (apparently it’s different up north but I am yet to suss that out) is just huge expanses of cleared agricultural land, which is punctuated by the glare from the occasional tin roofed building and which is flatter than Central Australia for lack of sand dunes or the occasional mountain range or even hill. Closer to the city, the plantations became greener and obviously more houses popped up. Many of these houses looked like housing estates where the shape of every roof was exactly the same and crammed in super close together. As I looked out the window it finally hit me that no matter what my opinions of this place were to be it would play host to the biggest journey of my life in terms of cultural differences and quality of living but also in terms of the primary reason I was heading there; to do a Vipassana meditation course, which will require concentration and discipline unlike I have never been able to muster before and 10 days without any form of communication unless I’m asking the instructor a question. That is huge!!!

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, I walked straight into customs (no getting lost like in bloody Changi!!), walked up to the counter to buy a visa and the two people who had literally just finished serving the person in front of me looked at me, sat down and fell into a deep conversation! I stood there assuming they’d just say a couple of quick things and then acknowledge me but no, they didn’t. So I had to interrupt them then they served me. I hate international airports
(actually I love them but I hate the staff in them.) Customs officers are the first people you meet going into a country (except in Changi, the first person you meet will either be a Marcs shop assistant or in my tragic case, the’ left luggage’ guy!) and they waste no time in spoiling the reputation of the character of every person in their country! The looks on the travelers’ faces were priceless though because they would take our passports, not give them back and not explain what they were doing with them. So everyone had this expression of feigned patience and understanding because we were somewhere so different and we all knew there would be these communication barriers but also of complete and awkward nervousness as our passports were removed and not given back without explanation of where to collect them! I eventually got all my forms and visa together though and stepped into the halls or room, really of a rather modest airport indeed. The taps in the bathroom are marked very clearly with signs telling you not to drink the water and the general décor of the place is very simple until you step outside where there is a beautiful water garden before you meet a line of tuk tuk drivers holding name signs who have been sent to pick up awkward visa-holders such as myself!

Troy was going to send me my very own tuk tuk driver holding a sign with ‘a name that wouldn’t necessarily be mine but that I would know is for me’ so when I got to this line of drivers one of the first signs I saw had some random name
on it and underneath it said ‘me mates place’ so I exclaim ‘did Troy send you!?’ The man kept saying ‘yes’ and I was thinking ‘he’d better not be lying to me!’ so I had a quick squiz around for any other signs that might be for me.
It turns out he was lying to me because right there to my left was Troy!!!! He was holding a sign ‘Amy Browns Stains Thomas!’ Haha, a bit of a blast-from-the-past kind of sign! (Browns Stains is the nickname of our home town, not an awkward inside joke!) I was so stoked to see him that I couldn’t say anything constructive ‘Oh my god, this is so exciting! I was about to go with that other driver! He lied to me!’ *insert lot’s of giggling and gasping between every phrase* haha!

As if Troy surprising me wasn’t exciting enough he then took me on his scooter back to his place and if I thought that walking through the streets of Little India took some skill, it is nothing on driving (and later, walking) through the streets of Phnom Penh! Oh my god! They drive on the opposite side of the road here but you generally can’t tell because it’s really just a matter of going with the flow of traffic. If that means scooting over to the other side of the road then so be it. That means that no matter what side of the road you step into you have to look both ways. That is if you bother looking; generally you just step out and everything falls into place around you. You have to be very confident with your actions on the road here. Hesitation will spell disaster and stopping out of courtesy will just create confusion and you will simply become a new obstacle for everyone to negotiate their way around. I learnt this lesson walking through the markets when I came to a super narrow spot and there was this really old, frail man opposite me who I naturally stopped for so he could pass through first. Next thing I know everyone behind me overtook and cut the old guy off anyway. He finally got through then the woman behind him stopped for me. I should have just gone in the first place because that was the natural progression of things. And as it would happen, you never fuck with the natural order of things, even if it is to help an old person!

Troy took me to drop off my luggage before we went for lunch. His house is great! It’s in a building with a bunch of Khmer families living in the levels below us. To get to his apartment you first have to walk through a communal garage
then up two flights of Asian-sized stairs…the stairwells are so freaking narrow! The first flight takes you through the living quarters of one of the families. This is all very quaint and it’s nice to see the inside life of the Cambodians but if you get downstairs, realise you’ve forgotten something, run back to get it then come back down again, it just becomes 5 minutes of awkward giggles, sighs and ‘hi’s’! Upstairs is huge and open; four bedrooms, two bathrooms. It isn’t anything pretentious though; it just makes you feel like you are living in Cambodia. The sound of motos scooting past at all times of day and night floats up to us on the thick, humid air and people push their carts and the food vendors cook and do their thing on the streets of suburban Phnom Penh below.

We went for a relatively ‘expensive’ $5 lunch before Troy dropped me off and headed back for work. I decided to go for a walk without a map…hmmm…I’m not good at this! Somehow it worked out though. I zig zagged through the backstreets, risked life and limb crossing a main road, strolled through a pagoda did a little more zig zagging then stopped to ponder how I would get back to Troy’s! He’s a clever cookie and had given me the business card of a guest house across the road from his place so if worse came to worse I could show the card to a tuk tuk driver and he would take me there. BUT I’m a stubborn cookie and the streets are numbered rather than named unless it’s a main road but even then it will have a corresponding number. This is a good thing because they work chronologically though not  ecessarily in units of one. So I decided, ‘no, the streets are numbered and they go in order so I can figure out easily enough how to get back to Troy’s street.’ Super easy stuff until I realised there are no street signs! Argh!!! Thankfully I bumped into a long canal running up the side of a street. The canal doesn’t have much water in it but what it does have is thick and brown and full of rubbish and most likely dead bodies; probably those of cocky tourists who thought they could find their way back but never did! The canal smells pungent and sulphuric just like Rotorua but it was a relief to find because Troy had introduced it to me earlier as ‘Shit Street Canal’ and it runs along the next street down from his joint! Now, on the day, I swear I saw another canal on an intersecting street but according to the map I’m looking at now there isn’t another one*blushes*. But at the time this meant that I wasn’t sure if I actually was on the right track and with my innate ability to get lost I couldn’t believe I could possibly have ended up on the most efficient path home! But I had *power to me* woot! Still, it did take a lonely planet guide map, a man on a bike, a man in a tuk tuk and a Welsh escort to get me up that one stretch of road! Ahhh! Laugh or cry, laugh or cry!? (PS, for future travelers to Phnom Penh, street numbers are located on shop fronts, just cross reference with other shops incase you're actually reading the building number!) My Welsh escort was a man named John, or something like that. He has lived in Cambodia on and off for 10 years, or something like that. I really didn’t need him to escort me up the road but there’s something about solo, older, male travelers that makes them need to prove that they’re still useful and that their brains still function so I rolled with it. He was telling me a few things as we walked but it made me laugh (harder on the inside than out) when he said in his pompous
I’m-from-the-UK-but-have-done-volunteer-work-and-dealt-heavily-in-the-implementation-of-effective-education-based-solutions way “and this street is called ‘Dirty Water Street!’” Oh how he chortled! I’m thinking in my arrogant I’m-a-traveler-with-local-expat-mates kind of way “actually, no, it’s called ‘Shit Street Canal!’” Oh how I chortled!

Phnom Penh isn’t exactly going for cleanest city of the year. It is very grimy and really dusty and there is a lot of rubbish everywhere. It doesn’t smell though unless you are right next to shit canal or a breeze wafts that smell through
the air, or you pass a grate on a main road with that same water running beneath it, or you happen to walk past a particularly manky pile of rubbish or actually if you’re near the water on the ritzo Riverside stretch strangely enough. But otherwise no smell! There are limited bins around the place so mostly there are just piles of rubbish and people keep throwing their rubbish on there until the bin boys come around or people come to collect the recyclable stuff. That is the accepted way of doing things here. I can’t bring myself to do it though because it clearly isn’t an effective method and while I don’t judge it because the people here have very different priorities to the Western world I am still not willing to contribute to it even if it is the social norm. **side note here. Troy said that (and I’ve seen it) everyday people will sort through the trash, find the recyclable stuff and go get cash back on it. If it goes in private bins then bigger corporations/people will sort through it, sell it to the poorer people who then take it to get cash back but their profits are less and those rich people have just made money too. This takes care of the recyclables but there is still a
lot of general rubbish everywhere though apparently the city is heaps cleaner than it was a few years ago so I guess it’s good to see it’s improving.

I spent my first afternoon getting lost…or not; I’m still unsure! And my next two afternoons at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 prison) and the killing fields of Choeung Ek. As you can imagine these were not the spriteliest of afternoons. These places leave you emotionally exhausted and disbelieving that something so horrific could happen in such recent history. S-21 prison was the biggest prison for torturing people into admitting things they had never done
and Choeung Ek was the killing field for these detainees. 129 body pits were found here and to this day the rain moves the soil and uncovers scraps of bone, teeth and cloth. You literally walk over these scraps of the dead’s clothes as
you move through certain areas of the killing fields. Pol Pot’s regime lasted from 1975 to 1979. It took 3 days to clear
the cities of people and send them to rural areas to work the land as slaves and four years to murder three million of the eight million Cambodians. Some were lucky enough to be killed with bullets but because bullets were expensive
it was also common practice to beat people, including babies, to death. The Khmer Rouge was so paranoid that ‘to kill the grass you must remove the roots,’ which is why babies were not exempt from the tyrannical brutality for fear they
would grow and seek revenge. They even turned against their own soldiers further north and there was a grave found
full of these decapitated soldiers.

One thing to note about the killing fields is how it ironically teems with life. When I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau (concentration camps) in Poland it was cold and foggy and the place felt like death. At Choeung Ek it is quite the
opposite; warm sun beats down on you, flowers blossom, the green of the plants and grass is fluorescent, butterflies and dragonflies flit and buzz about, the sound of birds constantly surrounds you and even the chickens roam around with gorgeous chicks in tow. One part of the audio tour made mention of the fact that the bones and cloth keep surfacing and how it’s as if the spirit of the people won’t rest, that they are letting us know they are still there. When you are there it is a welcome and warming thought to think that perhaps it is the fighting spirit of the people who suffered so terribly that makes that depressing place so beautiful. I hope so.

The situation in Cambodia feels so desperate. There aren’t as many beggars as I expected but apparently that’s because they periodically get rounded up and turfed out of town. I pretty much never give to beggars because I think that in Australia we have social welfare and such things that I don’t really see how we have people that desperate in our country. In Europe I would walk past them assuming they have a similar sort of deal and it never bothers me beyond the point of seeing that person because for the most part I have been in cities where as soon as you aren’t looking at a beggar you forget that it may even be an issue in that city. Here though, when you aren’t looking at a beggar you are looking at a person manually pushing a cart trying to sell goods; a cart that costs him a dollar a day to hire, which is $365 a year, which is massive money when 1000 riel is equivalent to 25c and when you aren’t watching a person pushing a cart you are seeing a woman balancing a massive load on her head or a line of tuk tuks competing for one person to pick them for a ride or a woman crouched on the floor with feet that look like they were once bound sweeping from a crouched position. People don’t look particularly unhappy and if you offer them a smile or a polite ‘no thank you’ then the grin you are repaid with is incredible but you only see opportunities for the rich. And the rich are really rich, embarrassingly so when you look at their counterparts in the street.

I have battled all week with the appropriate way to deal with beggars here because I feel that most of them genuinely have no choice. I have decided that I won’t give to children because they don’t get to keep that money and it encourages them not to go to school or other people to not insist they go to school. As for the adults, Lonely Planet recommends giving small denominations so they get money but don’t harass everyone for it assuming they’re going to
come into big money. Today a man with no arms was selling books down at Riverside. He carried a laminated A4 piece of paper that spieled that he is with a society for people with disabilities and that by selling books he is working a job not begging and it is important to support this as it boosts self esteem, etc. Anyway, I had already bought food and given money to a few people and I thought I can’t give to everybody and I didn’t want a book so I said ‘no’. He didn’t ask me again but sat down next to me by the river and made idle chit chat. He was just being friendly and it was so hot and we were in the shade. His name is Sam and I ended up giving him a little cash. His arms are missing from just below the elbow so he managed to grab that money in his stubs (sorry, that’s a terrible word but I don’t know what else to say), fold it into a small square and put it in his top pocket as easily as if he’d used 8 nimble fingers and 2 thumbs. When he wanted someone’s attention in the street he was also able to use his stubs to wolf whistle; it was quite incredible actually. I decided to ask him how he lost his arms. He said that the Khmer Rouge shot them off and he showed me scars on his throat and chest from them too. My eyes flooded with silent tears.

For all of the rubbish lining the streets and dust in the air, you could never judge these people. They are not concerned with environmental awareness, their priorities focus on rebuilding the lives that were torn from them and dealing with the psychological trauma of their past. I read over the last couple of days that every person in Cambodia is either a victim, a perpetrator or a child of one of these. Every person over the age of 33 years old has survived a suffering that
is incomprehensible to most parts of the living, particularly the Western, world. More than one third of Cambodians were killed by their own government in some of the most ghastly and inhumane ways. Yet every day, with a smile and
without arrogance or self pity they wake up and sell their goods, cook and sell their food, drive their tuk tuks and reconstruct buildings all the while being dependent not so much on their own government but NGO’s and acts of desperation to help them out. They are a true and inspirational example of the resilience of humankind.

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Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk