Sunday, 4 May 2008

Day 347 - Phnom Penh

What a difference a day makes! The road into Kratie was really quiet, almost deserted, then the dirt road to Kampong Cham had little traffic, but departing Kampong Cham was a different matter altogether. It was a busy road all the way to Phnom Penh, the first busy road in a long time and it came as a shock. To make things worse as I ate breakfast it started to rain. I left when it eased up a little, but it wasn't long before I stopped to put a jacket on. Thankfully it only lasted an hour or so, but it made me think I had made the right decision in avoiding the dirt roads, despite the heavy traffic. 45k from Phnom Penh I had to turn on to another road, I expected it to be bigger and busier still. Busier yes, but it was smaller. Where as before I had a bit of space with a small hard shoulder, but now it had gone and it soon became apparent that the standard to driving is bad to say the least. They drive by the horn here, slowing down for nothing, regardless of the hazards in front of them and it all rather reminded me of cycling in India, but not quite as bad. Once across the river it was only a very short distance to the city centre and very easy to navigate, just stay beside the river. For some reason I had decided I wasn't going to like this place, but my first impressions were proving me to be very wrong. There are wide boulevards, open spaces in front of monuments, a nice wide grassed walkway beside the river, lots of people strolling and relaxing and playing with thier kids, I liked the place. I soon found the guest house I was using as a 'benchmark' but it was in such an exceelent location near the river and all the space and sights, that I decided to stay there.

The money here seems a bit odd, but once you accept the way it works, it's fine. The currency here is the Riel, but the US Dollar is in full use alongside it, infact if you get cash from an ATM, all you can get is dollars, very useful for the traveller. You can pay in riel, dollars or a combination of both, then recieve change in the same way. The dollar seems to be pegged at a fixed 4000 riel, which is probably a poor rate, but there seems to be no way of getting large amounts of riel, so there is no point in bothering about it.

I am also amazed at just how many different types of rickshaws and tuk-tuks there are in this world. Here the cycle rickshaw has 2 seats infront of the rider who sits very high up and looks over the top of the passengers. The tuk-tuks have 4 seater units with seats for 2 facing each other, the unit then bolts on to an ordinary motorcycle that tows the thing around. Clever and versatile really.

I am also amazed at what my body is doing. My rib cage seems to be getting bigger and bigger to the extent that it is making the rest of me look very thin. I am beginning to look like somebody that is only getting 4 decent meals a day. Added to that I seem to have aquired a new favourite pastime, picking my nose, the outside that is. It seems to peal a layer every day and must be getting very thin. I am a bit concerned it might drop off at some stage, perhaps I should put an elastic band around it.

Well my first day in Phnom Penh I did nothing, but I think I needed a day to relax and chill out. The following day I went to see a little bit of Cambodia's recent and very dark history, in the form of the Tuol Sleng genocide museum. This was once a school but it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and turned into the biggest prison in the country where 1000s of people were tortured before being taken along with their entire families to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, murdered and dumped in mass graves. At it's peak in 1978 an average of 100 people a day died there. The classrooms were turned into cells, some large with just a single bed inside (photo), then others were devided into brick cells and more into wooden cell. The top floors were group cells were people were chained to metal rods and had to ask to urinate or even move, failure to do so would result in lashings. No talking was aloud. A number of regulations had to be observed, one of which emphasises just how bad it must have been there: "6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all". It reminded me of the Auschwitz camp in Poland and once again gave me a clear reminded of just how sheltered my life has been. I am one of the lucky ones.

I overslept the following day, just the first little problem in what was to prove a bad day. I was heading out on a day trip from Phnom Penh when I suddenly had an very loud and fast puncture on the rear, I expected the worst, and it was. The rear tyre had a hole in it, but thankfully I had remembered the puncture outfit and did a repair, then limped back with a very underinflated tyre. I had only just put some more air into it for the first time in over a month, so I guess the extra pressure was enough to push the tube out through the hole then puncture itself. Well at least in made carrying a spare tyre worth the effort. I knew it would need changing soon as it is pretty well worn, but I suspect the compacted mud from a few days ago was enough to finish it off. Heading out of town I came to a junction with no sign, so made a guess later to be confirmed as correct by a couple of motorcyclists that stopped for a chat. At a roundabout I made another guess, then stopped to check only to be told I had to go all the way back to the other junction some 8k back. So much time was being wasted, I wasn't going to able to see alot. Finally I arrived at Choeung Ek, the village that is sadly only famous for the location of the Killing Fields. This is where prisoners from S-21 were brought, they were then bludgeoned to death individually, whilst loud music was played to disguise the noises. There are some 129 mass graves there and a white stupa which contains the skulls of all the corpses that have been retrieved with the injuries clearly visible. Only a very few were killed by bullets as they were considered to be too expensive. Whilst I was there the heavans opened again. I sheltered until it was over and asked for a cane juice at a little group of stalls to be told it was 3,000 riel. I refused it and told them I normally only pay 500, to which I told them I was stingy. I retorted that I thought it was disgraceful for people to profiteer from a place that is now a memorial to the thousands that were so vilently killed. As I made my way back through the busy streets there were often flooded roads. As I sat in a cafe football was on the television. I guess it was local as there was nobody in the stadium and the pitch was totally waterlogged with every step creating a splash and the ball stopping without a bounce as soon as it touched the ground. In the evening I bumped into Jane and Trevor wh I had met on Khong Island and have come here via Siem Reap.

Today I have spent on foot visiting the wonderful National Museum and the Royal Palace (photo). The museum had lots of historical artefacts and gave a little information, date, where it was found etc. Most came from Angkor Wat area but I was surprised to see was from the the International Airport. I assume that was at the time it was built rather than being retrieved by customs. There were also some elephant seats made from wood and ironically ivory. The Palace was well worth a visit I was glad to have left it until last. You can't go around the whole of the vast area as it is still in residential use, but there is still plenty so see, though typically no photos are allowed inside. Also in the complex was the silver pagoda, though really it is refering to the floor, little of which is on show as it is covered for protection, but even the silver that is visible seems to be kept in place by selotape!

So tonight I will meet up with Trevor and Jane, we are going for an Indian, well in makes a change anyway. I expect it will be a late night before I set off on the road again tomorrow. Phnom Penh has been a really nice place to stay for a few days, good things to see, even if some of them are for bad reasons, and a nice place to take it easy as well. I shall take away good memories of the place.


Rosemary said...

Hi John

If you decide to use an elastic band on your nose, it could become the latest fashion statement!

Keep up the peddling and the blogs.

Best wishes.


Tony said...

There was some mud on the Mesh Perm I did the other day. It was near Sherborne and went on for over 100 metres, and was several millimetres deep and I was quite put out.

I am Ashamed.