Ups and Downs in Phnom Penh

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After Battambang, we continued south towards Phnom Penh by bus. What was supposed to take 7 hours ended up being just over 10 hours because an hour after leaving our bus somehow broke down and though it was entertaining to watch the driver and attendant (there’s always another man who takes tickets and helps people getting on and off) slide under the bus, pull out some random metal parts and bang away at them to no real avail, we ended up having to just wait for a replacement bus to come pick us up. An older German couple started to get a bit snappy at the bus driver due to the delay which made us shake our heads in disapproval. What more could the driver do? Then we watched the couple try to flag down other buses to see if they’d take them but of course they were all full. The rest of us just found some shade, sat down (one of the little convenience stores put out a few plastic chairs for us) and watched the locals go about their daily business. The replacement bus came, and we were on our way.

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Phnom Penh is a big, busy, exciting city that has a very nice waterfront boardwalk and a lot to offer for tourists. We had booked an inexpensive hotel in the red light district which had surprisingly good tripadvisor reviews and it totally panned out for us. The location was convenient for walking around, the room itself was huge, clean and had an incredible shower and the staff were all very nice. We just happened to be around the corner from a hilarious place called Chuck Norris Dim Sum which our friend Katie had sent us the link to before we left, so we stopped in there for one of our first meals. I can’t say the dim sum was particularly good, but it was definitely memorable. The menu was filled with hilarious Chuck Norris jokes such as “Tea is free bitches” and “If you have food allergies, tough. Our food is full of allergies.” Also, every dish had a funny twist like the Mini Pork Dumpling Roulette where one of the dumplings is actually filled with super spicy hot mustard but you don’t know which one (of course I got that one on my very first bite and promptly spat it back out onto my plate). I also enjoyed the “Frickin Meaballs” and “BBQ Baby Panda Buns.” Amazing.

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Later that day, we found a friendly tuk tuk driver named Mr. Sunny to bring us out to see the two main sights we had come here to visit – the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Both, of course, serve as testaments and reminders of the Khmer Rouge violence and genocide and altogether made for a very emotional and depressing afternoon. The Killing Fields have an incredible audioguide tour included in the entrance fee, and we basically walked slowly through what now looks like a peaceful beautiful park while listening to some really horrifying stories about how this place was once the sight of where thousands of people were brought to be tortured, killed and buried. The guide tells you that scattered all around you may see bits of bone, teeth or fabric (from the clothing that the people were wearing) that continue to surface from the ground which are collected by the ground keepers on a regular basis. There are great big beautiful trees as well dotting the grounds, some of which come with shocking and sickening stories like the one named the Killing Tree against which executioners would swing children to kill them. Later on in the day when we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum we saw a painting done by one of the few survivors from that prison depicting that very scene where a soldier is swinging a baby against this tree. It’s been really difficult to get that image out of our minds ever since. Mostly though, there are just a lot of big pits on the grounds some of which have been fenced off now, with a wooden plaque hanging to describe the types of people found in them when this location was eventually discovered after the Khmer Rouge were defeated after the Vietnamese invasion. A stunning Buddhist Stupa has now been built in the centre of the fields, and when you walk inside you see that it is filled all the way to the top with skulls and bones of the victims found on the site. Similarly at the Tuol Sleng Museum, which is actually the site of a primary & secondary school which was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge, we witnessed what was the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. You can walk through what used to be classrooms and see the impossibly tiny cells that people were forced to live in, all numbered because, we were told, they didn’t use names of people so that family members couldn’t know if they were close to each other. You can also walk through rooms with the actual bedframes, small metal shell boxes that were used as toilets, pieces of steel rebar that were used as skackles and sometimes the torture weapons of the last people who were killed at this prison right before the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979. Large faded photographs of the last prisoners that were discovered when the prison was released by the Vietnamese after they were tortured and killed, lying in the very same beds you’re looking at today, hang on the walls now. They say that over 17,000 people held here were taken to the Killing Fields we’d just visited before.

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To lighten things up, we’d both been looking forward to checking out Lonely Planet’s number one thing to do in Phnom Penh which was to catch one of the two daily aerobics workouts at the Olympic Stadium. Each day at the crack of dawn and shortly before dusk about a handful of seemingly independent aerobics instructors set up their own individual sound systems around the top of the stadium stands and start playing techno dance music and leading dance/exercise routines for mostly middle aged Cambodian woman along with a few brave men. Since waking up early is not Jesse’s forte, we opted to head out to an afternoon session and arrived early to watch a pleasantly exciting soccer game being played at the stadium. As soon as about 5PM hit, we started to see a few of the instructors setting up. Once they turned on their headsets and pumped up the music, their loyal followers seemed to immediately appear to start aerobicizing. Basically once a person starts to join in, shortly thereafter someone will come around to collect the 1000 riel fee (about $0.50 CDN) from them. Each instructor has their own specific routine, and most of their regular students seemed to know the moves by heart already.  After watching in awe for about 15 minutes, I started to feel like I wanted to join in. It looked like so much fun and some of the instructors were really quite entertaining (i.e. they were taking their job very seriously!) Though no other tourists were partaking, I decided to do it anyway (Jesse, of course, opted out). Then, as soon as I joined in, some other tourist girls appeared too! Perhaps they had planned this is advance though, since they were wearing shorts and running shoes whereas I was in jeans in flip flops. Oh well! Never having done this before and not understanding the Khmer instructions being shouted at me were perhaps a few things not working in my favour and resulted in a lot of missed moves and uncontrollable laughing, but Jesse (who managed to make friends with some cute little Cambodian girls while watching me make a fool of myself) still said to me afterwards “well you were better than I thought you were going to be!” Haha. I was pretty sweaty and tired afterwards, but it really was as much fun as it looked and proclaimed afterwards that if I ever lived in Phnom Penh I would make this part of my daily routine. Maybe there’s a phenomenon just waiting to be discovered in Toronto when I get back…

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Though we had been enjoying Phnom Penh, we both started to feel like maybe it was time to move on from Cambodia. I think one of the problems was that the Cambodian food just didn’t seem to suit our palette, as many of the dishes have a distinctly sweet tone to them – Gowrie, you were right!  It’s also possible that because we both fell ill here, we just couldn’t quite mentally get over it. Though we knew there was so much of Cambodia still to explore, we chose to head to Vietnam next since we at least knew the food would agree with us and we were able to easily get our visas. It was also the country I was most looking forward to visiting before we left. That’s where we’ll pick up next!

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