Friday, September 21, 2012

Phnom Penh - The fun, the sad, the educational.

Cambodia, nestled between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, was unchartered territory for both Brad and I. 

Our first stop was to be Phnom Penh, and I honestly did not have any expectations before arriving, but my gosh, did I want to do a whole lot of reading after I left. 

We were quite fortunate that my dad had a friend who lived in Phnom Penh, who picked us up from the airport and drove us to the hotel (we stayed at the Blue Lime hotel, great little place!). She was an expat who has now lived in Phnom Penh for about 6-7 years and it was fascinating listening to her observations and insight, to hear what the psyche of the locals were like, after the aftermath of the horrible years under the Khmer Rouge.

Driving around, I was impressed and saddened. It was easy to see a lot of development was happening, which is good, and that this was a developing country, but there is something depressing about seeing that the newest shiniest and biggest buildings are the president's offices or housing. What about the hospitals? Schools? It's amazing to think how much growth and development could be potentially be missed out on, since the doctors, the scholars, the thinkers, the politicians were pretty much all killed under the regime of Pol Pot. I would try to give a summary into the history of Cambodia, but I'm no historian, so here's the wiki page!

Having arrived on a Sunday afternoon, the riverside was lively, there's not much to do in Phnom Penh, so Sunday the locals come out, have dancing (or exercise maybe?) classes, hang out and play. 

Our host took us to dinner at a lovely restaurant called Malis, which apparently means 'jasmine' in Khmer, the local language. An unexpected oasis on a wide empty looking road, serving up a fine dining version of Cambodian cuisine. 

Green mango shakes are appreciated, anywhere I am, and at Malis it was a delightful end to the day. 

Refreshing green mango salads, fish amok (which I found quite similar to Malaysian otak otak), and an absolutely delightful beef and rice, wrapped in a lotus leaf were amongst some of the savouries we devoured. The beef and rice must have been one of my favourite things ever. 

I had to try their dessert, with the Malis signature pannacotta being on the top of my list. Infused with jasmine, I loved the light, sweet and well, aromatic flavour. I was one of those kids who would pick jasmine flowers, nip of the ends and suck out the nectar….so yeah. Totally my thing. 

After rolling out of Malis, we had a quick drive around the newer part of Cambodia called 'Diamond Island', where casinos and other such corporations were setting up. Again, an interesting contrast and a bit of an odd juxtaposition to the rest of the developing city.

We finished our night with 50 cent beers at a bar near our hotel. I know! 50 cents. It was actually a surprisingly decent beer as well for the price!

Brad was so impressed he actually instagrammed! So proud!

I didn't take any pictures of our hotel, the Blue Lime hotel, but it is quite cute. The whole place is done up a little more urban, with concrete furniture and what not, than your typical hotel. You do have to go down a bit of a narrow and obscure laneway to get there, but there is a security guard outside the gate and tuk tuk drivers who hang around outside, so I think it's generally pretty safe. Only thing I was really bummed about was not getting the opportunity to use the great looking pool!

The next day, our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Suicide Museum. If you plan on visiting guys (which I highly, highly recommend you do), bring your tissues.

It's a heart breaking place. A former high school that was turned into a prison during the Pol Pot regime, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned here during it's operation as a prison. It could house 1000 to 1500 prisoners at any one time, who were repeatedly tortured to give names, or admit to being a spy, before getting sent off to be killed at the killing fields. 

Tuol Sleng is left very raw. They've come in, cleaned the place up and left it as it is, which is what makes it as striking as it is. It's one of those places that you walk into and feel the weight of the atmosphere sit on your shoulders. Building A, saved for high ranking politicians and other more important prisoners, had rooms that were bare, but for a rusty bed frame, a set of clamps/chains and a picture on the wall of a tortured body. It is quite harrowing. 

The other buildings are wrapped in barbed wire, to keep the prisoners from escaping and committing suicide. To stop prisoners, who they were probably going to kill, from committing suicide. I don't know about you guys, but i just found that incredibly tragic. 

Mug shots of prisoners are put up, like a neat little catalogue. Not just some, hundreds, including children, women, young men, old men, no one was exempt. It's incredibly uneasy looking at these pictures and having hundred of eyes bore their way into you. What could have they all possibly done to deserve being here?

I honestly did not expect to be there as long as we were, but it's easy to get caught up looking into every room, looking at every photo, reading of all the horrific deeds that happened, and wonder how people could do what they did to their own countrymen. Over what? 

Brad and I didn't go to the killing fields straight away after that. I actually hadn't planned to at all originally, so we took our heavy hearts and made our way to the national gallery and the royal palace, to get a bit more of the history and culture that wasn't so brutal. No pictures allowed at the national gallery, but I did quite like it, with an extensive collection of art and sculptures from various different eras. 

The royal palace as well, while nice, after having been to the one in Bangkok, not as impressive. But still worth a sneak peek if you're in town with the time I think.

We ended up taking a tuk tuk to the killing fields towards the end of the day, which actually worked out quite well as the sun had started to fade, and it was quite a bit cooler and breezier. 

I think I had been reluctant to go earlier, as I was a bit afraid of what I might see, and wasn't sure if I was ready to stomach what I envisioned in my head. 

But you know what? I really hadn't needed to worry and I was so glad that Brad was insistent enough that we go. 

The Choeung Ek Genocide Center/Museum/Killing Fields was a surprisingly serene spot. With a tall and elegant shrine built near the entrance, where the skulls from the famous skull map are now kept, the mass graves have been all grown over with grass, which made it feel like a very serene and relaxing place (except for the odd piece of bone or material sticking out of the ground). And at the end of the day, it makes sense, of course the Cambodians would only want their people to be resting in the most peaceful way they can. 

But that still does not detract the sadness, make sure you remember to pick up your audio guide, which comes with your entry (we didn't realise at first), as it's incredibly well done, very informative and really enriches your experience there. 

There are a couple of mass graves which have a little roof constructed over them, one of the saddest being a mass grave that belonged to over 100 children and women, who were mostly naked. But visitors had put bright and colourful friendship bracelets around the grave, which I thought was just beautiful and added a little big of light and joy that they should have had. 

Originally we were just going to do one night in Phnom Penh, but then figured there was probably enough to do that we could justify two and am I glad we did. I've met quite a number of people recently who've said they've been to Siem Reap, but not to Phnom Penh, and I would definitely say that it's worth checking Phnom Penh out. It's got a completely different vibe to Siem Reap and gives you a completely different perspective on the history. 

Our one full day in Phnom Penh was incredibly educational, heart breaking, insightful and at the same time hopeful for the future for this country. And after such a long day, I was hanging out for a wind down, which we did in style.

Everyone I met who had been to Cambodia, kept saying you'll be hanging out at the 'FCC'. And although I kept asking what it was, no one would tell me. So we of course had to go check it out….

…for happy hour!

Apparently FCC's generally are private and member only, but in Cambodia, they are, obviously, open to public. With a view over the river, the FCC, or the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Phnom Penh, is the little hip place that all the expats and tourists love.  And with everything alcoholic, half price during happy hour, why wouldn't you? We had two cocktail jugs for just $15! $15! My brain!  My brain couldn't comprehend!

Whilst the drinks and atmosphere at the FCC were great, albeit a little hot with no air con, the food I found a little bit so-so. Not bad, but not great either, just okay. And also a bit stingy on the portions in comparison to some other places. 

But still, a perfectly enjoyable evening where we could make merry, but also reflect on what we had learnt and seen and discuss what we might anticipate from Siem Reap. Phnom Penh leaves me with mixed feelings after my first visit. There is hope, there is development and growth, but there's still and edge to the place, a slight uneasiness to me. For me I found the streets were a little bit too empty and a little bit too dark, fairly early in the night, but maybe that's just cause I'm a girl too.

We headed back to the hotel early, to get ready for the 6 hour bus ride we were going to take to Siem Reap the next day….

136 Norodom Boulevard
Phnom Penh 12301

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42, Street 19z (off street 19)
Phnom Penh

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363 Preah Sisowath Quay  
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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