The Extremes of Phnom Penh

One of the bonuses of staying somewhere for a longer time is you get to see the real city.. sadly with Phnom Penh with it’s history it can be extreme and confronting.

We started the day with a trip to the local Tour le Jour bakery. Googlemaps had us turning at the wrong street so we had to retrace our steps. However, the roadworks had created a big traffic snarl so crossing the traffic to get onto the right side was not an option. As they say “when in Rome” so we rode over the footpath through food stalls between tables dodging the motorbikes taking the same path in the opposite direction. My spatial awareness must have been a little out because while squeezing past a Tuk Tuk Michele started screaming Stop Stop, oops Id caught her leg on the Tuk Tuks bumper. So on to TLJ for Croisants and good coffee for breakfast a great way to start the day.

We decided that Wat Phnom would be our destination so we joined the traffic. We parked the bike and secured it in a parking bay, before crossing the traffic. There was a US $2 foreigner fee but we could’ve walked up any of the other sides and avoided paying it. There were some steep steps leading to the temple and there were hundreds of buddhists praying at all different areas around the temple. The layout of the temple is a little different to many we’ve seen before with the main temple with a large Buddha at the top of the hill, a smaller temple off to the right at a lower level and a smaller shrine behind the main temple. there are smaller shrines around the main area.

There were lots of bird sellers with cages of swallows, and other small birds where for a small sum you could release a bird back into the wild however they are trained to come back. There were families buying whole cages and single people just buying one. I know its part of a prayer ritual but seeing kids just scooping birds out of cages and throwing them didn’t seem ritualistic, just seemed a bit sad. It was interesting seeing the young boys selling their birds and then counting the money they made from it.

The temples and shrines were very smoky and extremely busy as we wandered around looking at the beautifully decorated walls and admired the beautiful Buddhas in the main temple. Behind the Main temple is a large stupa containing the ashes of the royal family. As we wandered around the stupa we could hear the familiar crash of cymbals and beating of drums, which told us the local Lion Dancers were nearby. We wandered down the hill and crossed the road to a large hotel where the local Chinese were blessing the hotel as part of Chinese New Year.

A small crowd was gathered on the forecourt and we joined in. There were six lions, three red and three yellow and a Buddha accompanying and directing them. There was of course lettuce hanging from the ceiling to feed the lions, and for them to spread the prosperity. There was also a large offering table. The lions proceeded inside the hotel checking rooms. One of the legends is that a village was being terrorised by a monster Nian who was kidnapping children. A lion defeated him and chased him away, but he vowed to return. The next year there was no lion so two villagers dressed as a lion to scare Nian away and now every Chinese New Year the tradition carries on. There’s lots of red worn as this along with the loud banging of firecrackers, drums, cymbals and gongs helps scare the Nian away.It was great fun the lion dancers really put on a performance and it was so noisy. One lion got right up to Michele’s face and the gestures were cracking her up and we laughed seeing the lions little tail wagging.

We left there and after a coffee crossed the Japanese friendship bridge. The bridge has a bike lane on either side which was a bonus as there are a few large trucks involved with the construction work happening on the other side of the bridge that were crossing at the same time. We rode around checking out a new 5 star Hotel under construction on the riverfront and looked at the dodgy scaffolding. The workers here might wear hard hats but they all wear thongs?

We stopped at an interesting Buddhist Temple not far from there which was shaped like a ship and it was deserted. We took a few photos before continuing up the road to another temple complex which was a monastery and crematorium. It had some amazing mausoleums and the artwork of the statues surrounding the main temple was unbelievable. There was also a new temple under construction, and it was obvious that this part of town was booming.

We rode around for a while before crossing back over the bridge and finding a Pho shop (pronounced Fur) No Michele wasn’t outfitting herself in animal skins. Pho is Vietnamese soup full of noodles, bean sprouts, meaballs and thinly sliced meat. The bowls of Pho Bo (Beef soup)came with a plate of greens and the usual accompaniments of sugar, fish sauce, chilli, and lime. As everyones tastes are different you make the soup suit your taste by breaking the greens up and adding the accompaniments. Its the vietnamese Yin and Yang of food, soft noodles with crunchy greens, the sweetness of the sugar with the saltiness of the fish sauce. It reminded us of our time in Vietnam and our decision to “drop out” for a while.

Heading out of the city we were detained by Police who alleged that I’d run a red light. I argued the toss because I believed that on this occasion I hadn’t and Michele was going off her head at him for stopping us. They wanted to see my licence, so I produced my international licence which was pretty beat up from being in my pocket. He couldn’t make head or tail of it with all the pages in Japanese, Chinese, and all sorts of languages. It was so screwed up he couldn’t even find the page with my picture on so I didn’t help him. He had a pile of licences on his clipboard and he wasn’t going to have mine Michele was reiterating that fact to him in no uncertain terms. I made the international gesture “clenched hand, thumb rubbed across first two fingers” to which he replied $20 I replied $10. I pulled out a $20 note and asked for change, lol His offsider opened his wallet, gave us change and we were happily on our way.

An old former school was our next stop, and the entry cost was only US$1, plus 1,000 riel for parking. Tuol Sleng Prison, S-21 had been both a Primary and a High School before the Khmer Rouge came to power and converted into a prison. It’s quite ironic that the Khmer Rouge, who targeted those who were educated, would use a education facility to torture people. Three 3 storey buildings had been converted into cells, the fronts covered in barbed wire to prevent prisoners from ending their own lives. Here prisoners were tortured in specially made water devices, with electric lashes, hanging by the arms and all devious contraptions and methods. It truly was a gruesome place. There were displays with confessions to crimes against the state (some of the confessions were obviously of fictitious events written by people so badly tortured that they were telling their torturers whatever they wanted to hear) and pictures of the former prisoners who met their fate not far from here. Of the 14,000 inmates who passed through the facility only seven survived.

We caught our breath in the garden and contemplated how humans could do this to other humans, to which there is no answer as it happens time and time again.

Still reeling from the experience we heeded to Cheoung Ek, the Killing Field. Although Cheoung Ek is only 17 kms from the city, it is a hard ride. There’s about five kms of road works and it’s absolute crap. As we got closer to Cheoung Ek there were two trucks bogged to the rear differential, where they sank through the road base, side by side in our lane and the traffic was banked back hundreds of metres. Two smaller one tonne trucks had tried to drive around them on the shoulder of the road and were also bogged. Luckily we were on a light weight bike and we snuck through, although riding over the road base and heading over the footpath through shops was hard going.

We arrived at Cheoung Ek and parked the bike in the bike park. At most attractions, shopping centres, etc these are located and usually for a sum of 1,00 riel or 25 cents they’ll put a ticket on your bike and give you the matching ticket, they watch your bike and make sure nobody steals your helmet. It was only US $6 entry for both of us and with this came an audioguide which told the story of this grisly place. All the former buildings are now gone from Cheoung Ek , stolen and reused by the starving population after the down fall of the Khmer Rouge and thats probably a good thing.

Cheoung Ek was the end of the line for about 20,000 Cambodians during the Kmer Rouge reign of terror. They were trucked in at night, forced to kneel blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs with wire, then executed. That sounds pretty clinical but they were bludgeoned with hoes, axes, bamboo, wooden clubs, axles, pieces of steel, or stabbed with knives, sabres, stakes, sharpened bits of metal, they had their throats cut with knives, the saw like edge of palm stems, and the women were raped and brutalised beyond belief.

The leader of the Khmer Rouge stated that bullets were too expensive to waste on executions so any means imaginable were used. There are about 141 pits around the 6 acre former orchard and as we wandered around the audio guide slowly revealed the dark past. Along the edges and on the tops of the pits bone fragments, and clothes were still visible. Around some of the larger pits roofs and fences had been erected and lots of people had tied their armbands as a mark of remembrance. The saddest part of the killing field was the Killing Tree, where babies were brought dangling by the feet to have their heads smashed against the tree before being tossed into the pit. This tree is covered in armbands as a sign of remembrance also. The bones recovered from the pits are stored in a glass four sided stupa in the middle of the complex with the skulls of the victims keeping silent vigil over their final earthly resting place. It was a very hard place to visit and trying to comprehend how humans can be so evil is very distressing

We were some of the last to leave and the guy we were paying to watch our bike was sitting there waiting. We headed back to the hotel back over the miserable excuse for a road. We cant say how glad we were to see the hotel and be off the bike. After a shower and freshen up we headed to the hotel restaurant for tea. Michele had a Hamburger and I a pirate burger two 10 ounce beef patties, and 10 ounces of pork, bacon, lettuce, egg and tomato on a bun. Exhausted after a big day it was time to call it a day.

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2 thoughts on “The Extremes of Phnom Penh

  1. That’s so sad! 🙁 It is astounding how humans can do some things to each other and why… it’s interesting to learn about the history but so chilling and haunting to actually stand and be at the place where all this horror happened. On a cheerier note, great picture of the lion dances!

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