Jon and I played chess, read, and rested on our bus ride. The roads were rugged but in marginally better condition than the road from Poipet to Siem Reap (but still unpaved).
Some of the delicacies available at the rest stop from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh include roast spiders and crickets! As we approached Phnom Penh we were rather surprised to see a very different city from Bangkok. You might think that Thailand and Cambodia are similar as neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, but this is the 21st century and there is now a stark difference between the capitals of the two countries. Bangkok is a modern metropolis with an expanding public transportation system, dozens of skyscrapers, and a rapidly growing middle class. Inside the city of Phnom Penh, a third of the roads arenft even paved, the per capita GDP is about $2 a day, there are no traffic laws (let alone traffic lights), and certainly no skyscrapers. Itfs more like a large village along the Mekong River than a national capital.
Even after the rain stopped the roads were flooded.
When we arrived at the bus station at 2pm, it was pouring rain like I have never seen in my life. Fortunately, we didnft have to go searching for lodging. The manager of the hostel in Siem Reap had booked us a hostel in Phnom Penh, and we were met at the station by Sam, an employee of that hostel. Sam, Jon and I all piled on Samfs scooter with our luggage and we were off in the pouring rain. (And no, Mom, no one wears a helmet in Cambodia.) The drainage system is awful and the water in the streets was ankle deep, and our scooter, weighed down with luggage and three passengers, barely broke 15mph. Sound unbelievable? Itfs common practice -- I saw an entire family (Mom, Dad, and four small kids) riding together on one scooter, and at another time I saw a man riding with three women sitting behind him! But the rain didnft keep us indoors -- we arrived at our hotel, threw down our luggage, and were off. (Fortunately the weather improved shortly after we left our hostel, and it was pleasantly cooler through the evening). I rode on the back of Samfs scooter and Jon rode on the back of his friendfs scooter of his friend. Our first destination was Tuol Sleng, a former high school also know as S-21, where the Khmer Rouge set up a torture camp when they occupied the capital in the late 1970s.
Nothing can prepare you for a trip to S-21. A former French colonial school built in the 1930s with a nice open courtyard, the Khmer Rouge regime turned it into a torture prison when they took over the capital in 1975. A visit to the former school is depressing and horrifying. Classrooms were divided into dozens of cramped cells with brick and mortar where prisoners were shackled in between torture sessions. Mundane items such as dormitory beds and gym equipment were transformed into grotesque torture instruments. In less than four years this school held 20,000 political prisoners. All prisoners were photographed upon interment, and thousands of haunting profile photos are posted as a haunting reminder of what went on at S-21. Racks of unmarked skulls lined along the wall tell of their tragic fate.
Prisoners were required to followed ten gsecurity regulations.h The translation
was posted and is transcribed here:
Of the 20,000 who passed through S-21, only seven survived. Before going to S-21 it had crossed my mind that I would also like see the Killing Fields, but a visit to S-21 was enough to realize that I didnft want to see more.
On a more upbeat note, Cambodia has moved forward since the Khmer Rouge fell, and the country now has a reasonably stable democratic government with three major parties. Whatfs more, we arrived just days before national elections and the campaign was in full swing. Getting out the vote in Cambodia appears similar to how itfs done in Japan: colorfully decorated trucks parade through the streets calling out the name of a certain party or candidate. They were everywhere -- this picture was taken from the porch of our hostel.
Jon wasnft feeling well and he headed back to the hostel for sleep. As for me, I was feeling better and wanted to see more of the city. Out of nowhere, Sam said to me, gdo you like exercise?h I answered yes -- and next thing I knew he drove us to a cramped gym along the bank of the Mekong. Yes, it turns out that American body-builders had helped some Chinese and Cambodian entrepreneurs set up a gym which is doing very, very well, even though it only cost 300 riels each (about 8 cents). The place was absolutely packed but everyone was very cordial. The equipment was almost exactly what you fd find in an American or Japanese gym, the clientele was overwhelmingly (but not entirely) male, and yes, I was the only white guy to be seen (but not the only non-Cambodian -- the manager, who was introduced to me, was Chinese).
After more than an hour of weight lifting, Sam and I went back to the hostel. Jon was resting (and still refused medicine!) but I was ready to go out and get some dinner. But as I left, the hostel owner, his wife, baby child, and two of his gbrothersh/employees were eating a homemade dinner on the porch and invited me to sit down and join them. It was very nice, and included rice, some indigenous Cambodian fruit, and freshwater fish stew. (My only regret is that I didnft have my camera on me and didnft get a picture.) They all spoke English reasonably well (the hostel ownerfs wife even spoke some basic Japanese) and I was able to talk with them about politics, both local and international. All of them were supporting the Sam Rainsy Party in the upcoming election, the only real opposition party led by reformer Sam Raimsi (the ruling Cambodian Peoplefs Party won a strong majority, but Sam Rainseyfs partisans won more seats). All of them appeared to have a good impression of America, and I heard gI like Americah and gI like democracyh many times. It should be noted, by the way, that Jon and I arrived in Phnom Penh at about the same time as Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was visiting the ASEANfs first annual meeting held in Cambodia.
The owner of the hostel had a very interesting biography. After finishing an advanced degree in economics from a Cambodian University, he worked for the Ministry of Commerce for several years as a bureaucrat. The government, however, couldnft afford to pay his salary on a regular basis, and corruption among his colleagues was rampant. Married and expecting his second baby, he needed a steady income and left the government to open a hostel (he expects the tourist industry to keep going up), and he had been managing he place for almost a year when we visited. He also had a very unique opinion on international aid. Cambodia, he said, receives international aid from the US, Japan, France, even China, but the vast majority goes to projects like restoring Angkor Wat, which, as noble as it may be in spirit, does precious little good for the people. He commended aid from United States, which had been used to pave roads connecting the city with the surrounding factories and markets. Scooters and civilians donft pay the tolls, but cars and trucks do. As a result, the government now has a steady source of income that comes from the people who can afford to pay, and bureaucrats will receive a regular salary.
After finishing dinner, one of the hostel ownerfs gbrothersh showed me where the nearest internet cafe was, and I sent some email. I should probably explain what I mean by gbrothers.h Those quotations are very deliberate. The Maoist Khmer Rouge killed approximately twenty percent of the population during their brutal four-year reign, and everyone lost family members. Sam, who was in his late twenties and experienced the ordeal as a young child, told me that his parents and sister were killed, but he and his older brother survived and were raised by their grandparents. But even though Sam specifically told me he had just one brother who lived outside Phnom Penh, he introduced no fewer than three other people as his gbrother.h This happened everywhere. The Mafioso at the border arranged for us to have his gbrotherh drive us to Siem Reap; the owner of the hostel in Siem Reap said that his gbrotherh owned a hostel in Phnom Penh; that same hostel owner in Phnom Penh arranged for us to stay at a hostel his gbrotherh worked at in Sihanoukville. So while I have no proof or documentation, my educated guess is that because everyone has lost family, many have adopted friends as gbrothersh and gsisters.h
The Kingfs palace is a classic Cambodian mix of Buddhist and Hindu architecture and murals unique from similar palaces in neighboring Thailand. In this photo you can see one of the main buildings on the right, and a French addition to the palace on the left that was presented to a former king by Napoleon III.
We also stopped by a market (also called the gRussian Marketh) where a variety of clothes and fabrics, foodstuffs, cheap electronics, and other things are sold. Here is one booth with dried fish and sausage for sale:
Now, I said earlier that our trip to the military museum wasnft our only encounter with generous donations of military aid. After viewing the palace, our drivers asked us if we liked guns -- and when we said gyes,h they drove us to the local military base where we were given a menu. For enough money you can shoot just about any kind of weapon. The list included half a dozen handguns, two shotguns, Soviet AK-47s, American M-16s, RPGs, anti-aircraft guns, grenades, and more. Alas, we were on a budget and didnft go wild, but we did each fire a full clip on an AK-47. Here is Jon -- the camouflage jacket was provided by the army.
Here are all of the weapons on display with yours truly.
We didnft have enough time to get lunch and instead we headed to the bus station, bought some crackers, and were off to Sihanoukville. We were in Phnom Penh for less than 24 hours but had a great time. Here is a picture of myself and Sam before we parted company.
After a three-hour bus ride (more reading! More chess!) we arrived in Sihanoukville (named after the king; also called Kampong Saom).