Wow! Cambodia. Of all the places in the world to be, we are in Cambodia. Every time I go to a new country I have this feeling that comes over me that can only be explained as complete awe of where I am and what I am doing. I feel like I need to be pinched so that I can wake up from this dream. For me to actually be in a country far away from my normal life and experiencing how others live is an amazing blessing and I feel so fortunate to get the opportunity.
Cambodia is an all together new experience for me. It is, so far, the most chaotic place for driving that I have seen. The streets are busy with motorcycles, scooters, tuk tuks, cars and trucks. Vehicles go through intersections with a confident boldness that borders on crazy, nearly missing each other, honking to indicate their presence and merging into one anothers lanes as if dancing at a rave. Somehow though, it all seems to work.
We are staying in a multi-story hostel by the river in an area that is heavy with budget travelers. Therefor, our meals are not as cheap as we expected. I thought every meal would be under $2 but that has been the more rare exception in this area. Three to five have been the average with a few spurges ranging from seven to even twenty dollars one night.
When we eat local food it is the cheapest. Usually fried rice, Amok curry or some kind of sugary noodle dish. There is a night market near by with lots of vender stands. In the center are a bunch of mats to sit on. You pick out the items you want to eat and pay for it. Then they cook it up and bring it to you on the mat.
I have been able to get away with eating vegetarian which I am grateful for. I am still experiencing the food of the culture just minus the meat. I think when we get to Vietnam and I start eating pho, I’m pretty sure that it will be made with beef broth but we will see. There’s only so much I can do and though it is important for me to not eat meat it is also important to experience a culture. So I teeter on the fine line and try not to make a fuss about it if meat slips in somewhere.
Two days ago was not the easiest day in Cambodia. For our first full day as tourists we chose to experience the history of genocide the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the people of Cambodia between 1975 and 1978. We went to the S-21 Genocide Museum where people where held as prisoners before going to the Killing Fields. It was a high school turned into torture and interrogation quarters for “enemies of the state”. It made me sick to visit this place because this was where the most pain was inflicted and it was still palputable. I just can’t understand how things like this have happened and still do happen in our world. It brought up a lot of philosophical questions and made me physically sick to my stomach.
From there we traveled in our tuk tuk to the Killing Fields. Mind you this is just one of 300 mass burial sites associated with the killing of millions by the Khmer Rouge, a group that enjoyed western support well after the genocide became public, even maintaining a seat in the UN for several years after. This killing field, known as Choeung Ek, is an open air museum with a beautiful and poignant stupa in the middle as a memorial and an excellent audio tour. The audio tour was key to understanding what happened here. While I walked along the paths through the fields, I could see clothes and bone coming to the surface of the mass graves. I had to watch my footing as to be respectful and not step on a victims remains. There were many vial and disgusting horrors that took place here. I imagine that death might have seemed a relief for many of the victims of Pol Pot and his regime. Visitors place friendship bracelets around the fenced burial areas, which seems a lovely way to connect and send love to the victims buried here.
We left the fields in a state of numbness, questioning how people can do this at all let alone to their own fellow country men. I don’t think I will ever begin to understand how careless and horrible human beings can be. I can only hope we continue to evolve to more compassionate beings. The tuk tuk ride back to the hostel was enough shear exposure to stimuli to take us all back to the present moment. Not forgetting what we saw but moving forward with the day all the same. We enjoyed dinner local style that night at the night market and watched some traditional dance and karaoke on the center stage before heading off to bed in our hostel.
The hostel is a pretty darn good accommodation. Granted it’s not a five star establishment but for seven dollars a night, it’s good. We are in a four bed dorm, which is nice because there are three of us plus the one extra traveler that takes the top bunk above Jose. There have been three different people in that bunk while we have been here. Four dorm bunks equal less snoring, less lights turning on and off, less doors opening, less fussing with travel gear, etc. Our beds are super comfortable and we are all sleeping soundly as a result. We have one other dorm room on our floor with either six or eight beds. There is one shower and one toilet between us all. There are two extra showers and toilets two floors down if these get full but honestly, I’ve only had to wait a minute or two to get in this one. There is no door on the bathroom. The walls and doors of the shower and toilet are some type of heavily etched glass – somewhat see through. 🙂 Did I mention that this is a co-ed bathroom? Fun! It takes a little getting used to especially when one needs to “use” the toilet whilst someone else is in the shower (or visa versa). It doesn’t bother me a bit after five days here. I guess I eventually adjust to my surroundings.
Speaking of five days… That is more than enough time in Phenom Phen. Really three days would be more than plenty but we did it this way for a couple of reasons. One – Al, coming from San Diego, was going to need some time to get over jet lag before going full steam ahead. Two – None of us really had a lot of time prior to our adventures to plan. So we needed some down time here to plan our further adventures around Cambodia. Thanks to Jose, keeping us on track, we indeed do have a plan and it looks good. Three – Writing a blog takes some logistics and time set aside in order to record all the events and include photos and videos. So having planned for five nights here was perfect. I really feel as though we all have our bearings straight now and it will only get easier as we go along.
Yesterday and today we took our time to visit Wat Phenom, The Royal Palace and The National Museum. Of those three I really enjoyed the temple (wat). It was beautiful, the least expensive ($1) and the best experience. I took some time to meditate and bring my teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, along with me (in my minds eye) and just breathed deeply in gratitude.
Though the Royal Palace and The National Museum are great and beautiful places to see as well, I don’t really know the culture well enough so it was harder to figure out what was going on. I would recommend paying the extra money for a local guide if you come to visit these places and want to understand the history better. No photos were allowed in The National Museum.
My favorite experience in this city by far was happening at a local street market. This was not the market for the tourist as Al and I were the only white people in there. It was fantastic! This is the kind of experience I am looking for in my travels actually seeing how people live and trying it on for size. Women were selling meat (not sure what kind) and chicken and fresh (some still swimming) fish and they were chopping it up and bagging it, descaling fish, separating the guts and swatting away the flies. The smell was bold and in my face and I did my best to act as if this was a normal occurrence for me in my life. I have no desire to offend these hard working vendors and customers by making a stinky turned-up nose face.
Besides meat, there were a ton of vegetables and lots of leafy greens. We found a fruit stand that had a very appealing selection and Al bought a few kilograms of oranges, mangosteen and dragon fruit. It was fun negotiating the price as the vendor did not speak a wink of English. Her friends, in the next stall, seeing what was happening helped her raise the price significantly. So we paid more than a local but still much less than at a tourist location. I would not have traded it for a world. The ladies had the biggest smiles on their faces, all of us knowing what went on but enjoying every minute of it.
We went up-town for dinner last night at the FCC hotel. Jose’s former flat mates from New Zealand are also here in Cambodia. Jana and Chris are traveling for a year before heading back to the states and tighing the knot. It happened to be Jana’s birthday so we had a grand reason to have a special occasion and it was a lovely evening having drinks (two for one) and dinner in the upstairs open air restaurant chatting about our travels and future plans.
Today we took care of a bit of business, booking hostels for the next two locations in Kep and Sihanoukville, finding a bus service to get there (seven bucks each), taking a tuktuk to a real supermarket to get some snacks and groceries (for when food is hard to find) and to do some banking. I actually think it’s fun while traveling to experience the routine chores in life. How often do you get to take a tuk tuk to go grocery shopping? The grocery store was a fusion of Western and Asian products. It was a welcome site. I picked up some tamarind, bananas (the little ones not the big one we eat in America), granola bars, peanuts, peanut butter and jelly and some pastries for our early morning bus trip tomorrow.
A few last words about our hostel, One Stop Hostel. They serve up a great two dollar breakfast omelet with fruit, juice and toast. This has meant that I have had no need to rush out in the morning and try to find something to eat. The tea and coffee are free. They did our laundry for four dollars and my clothes smell nice. It’s in a great location close to everything with good restaurants close by. The wifi has worked fantastic which has enabled me to post and keep in touch. Mostly though, the staff here are wonderful. They have been so friendly, engaging and helpful and I have enjoyed getting to know them. I’ve even made a new Facebook friend, Sokim – he is a very kind person and is the embodiment of hospitality.
Now it’s off to the beach for some relaxing after spending a week in two big busy cities. I’m looking forward to moving on to other locations in Cambodia and seeing what the countryside looks like. I hope you enjoyed this view into Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cheers!