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Cambodia: Phnom Penh

sunny 38 °C
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As per usual we get to the travel agent where we're being picked up super early (Lauren's fault). We nip up to the shop to buy some travelling snacks and I inadvertently purchase cuttlefish flavoured peas (that I thought were wasabi peas). Needless to say I didn't eat the fishy peas.

We got on our Kumho Samco coach and were happy at how cold it felt compared to Hồ Chí Minh's molten streets. The bus was modern and clean and even had WiFi (which only worked for an hour but still). After half an hour one of the attendants came round and asked for our passports and $70. This was obviously for getting through the border and paying our visas but we were naturally uncomfortable with the idea of handing our very important little books over. Lauren initially refused saying that we'd sort it all our ourselves but after reading a testimonial on the Seat61 website that explained the bus companies use your passports to fill in all the forms for you, we relented and handed them over. The poor attendant didn't speak very good English and had to stand beside us while we jostled with the decision. His face read "fucking awkward tourists" and of course he was right.

When we arrived at the Vietnamese border we waited around for quite some time while a Vietnamese family tried and failed to surreptitiously talk about us. They pointed at Lauren's tattoos, our clothes and our shoes. I don't mind being the novelty every once in a while. The bus had given everyone's visa forms, passports and money to the fellas at the desks and one by one they called us up to go through. There was another British couple (male and female) on the bus and when the girl was called up one of the bus staff looked at the photo and gestured to me and then looked perplexed when I shook my head. Us whiteys do all look the same.

On the Cambodian side things were a swifter and smiley-er. We were a little miffed at the $35 pp visa fee as our Lonely Planet Guide said $20 and it was only 1 year old, but this set the precedent for the rest of Cambodia's prices - which were A LOT more expensive than anticipated.
We had our usual truck-stop where we voided our bladders and got some rice and veggies for a couple of dollars each.

We then spent the rest of the journey to Phnom Penh (another 5 hours) watching the outside temperature gauge at the front of the bus go up and up. At one point it said 39 degrees. We cried into our air-conditioned laps. Maybe Hồ Chí Minh wasn't the hottest place after all.
The further we got in to Cambodia the more we felt reminded of India; the landscape seemed to have a bit of an orange tinge and there was sandy dust everywhere. The roads were barely roads; mostly wide dirt tracks with a bit of concrete still remaining and plenty of potholes.

The bus took 7 and a half hours instead of the supposed 6. Becky and Kate were meeting us but we had no way of contacting them to tell them we were late so we hoped they weren't worried. As we parked up we immediately saw Becky's frantic waving through the window; they'd waited for us. Despite the blistering wall of heat that hit us when we stepped off the bus we were joyful and relieved to see their welcoming and familiar faces, and they even had a beer for us!
We hopped into their friend Heng's tuk tuk and set off on our way to our digs for the next 8 days.

Of course Becky and Kate's home was lovely, and massive. We had a whole room to ourselves with an en suite bathroom and Becky had even cleared some space in the wardrobe for us. We both enjoyed a figurative exhale as we settled in to what felt like a home from home.

We all went for dinner at a Khmer restaurant called Eleven One Kitchen where we enjoyed some delicious ricey/noodley dishes packed with flavour. Lauren approved of both the Angkor and Cambodia beer (which in many instances was cheaper than water).

That night we slept like babies; relaxed in the knowledge that we didn't have to do any forward planning for at least a few days. Becky and Kate were in work during the week so they'd leave before we got up in the mornings. I woke up hot and bothered and in pain only to discover that mother nature had decided now was the time to rid me of my useless uterine lining. Let me tell you, 39° heat + 60% humidity + period doesn't make for a happy Aisha.

The girls' cleaner turned up at 9:30am and we tried our best to politely stay out of her way whilst simultaneously trying not to flash her any of our bits by accident.
After lazing around for a few hours watching telly and trying not to sweat our organs out, we decided to brave the outdoors and walk to the Russian market which was only 15 minutes away. As soon as we left the apartment we regretted moaning about the heat in Hồ Chí Minh city; an igloo compared to Phnom Penh.

After a while we got used to the back and forth with the never-ending tuk tuk (remork) drivers; "hey lady, tuk tuk?", "no thank you, we're walking", and repeat. We made to the market with a few electrolytes left and entered under the corrugated roof. We then remembered the book mentioning that the market wasn't air-conditioned and so got incredibly hot in the day. Marvellous. We did our best to take in as many stalls as possible. There was an interesting mechanical section filled with hundreds of metal thingamabobs for cars and motorbikes and god knows what else. I couldn't help thinking that Guy Martin would've felt like a kid in a sweet shop.
Desperate to get out of the heat and humidity we ran into the nearest restaurant we could for some sweet sweet air-con relief. The restaurant was Cafe Yejj, where we had an unfortunately underwhelming meal, but didn't mind too much as it's a place where disadvantaged Cambodians, particularly women, are trained up in the hospitality trade. We were mostly just happy to cool down.
That evening when Becky and Kate had returned from work we ordered a delicious Khmer takeaway and chatted the night away; putting the world to rights while filling our faces.

The following day was the big one; visits to the two key Khmer Rouge sites in Phnom Penh. The honourable Heng picked us up nice and early and first took us to The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 11 miles south of PP. Here's some of the journey;

For those of you that don't know, Choeung Ek was one of the main killing fields during the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975-79. Thousands of Cambodian civilians (men, women and children) were brought to Choeung Ek from S-21 prison (where we visited afterwards) to be killed.
The audio-guide tour at Choeung Ek was honestly the best audio-guide we have ever had. Voiced by a Khmer Rouge survivor, it was incredibly informative, sensitive yet frank and just very well done. We spent over 2 hours walking around the fairly small site, taking in every last nugget of information on the guide. It goes without saying that the experience affected us both greatly; harrowing barely covers it. We would highly recommend that everyone visit if they're in Cambodia.

As if one horrifying expedition wasn't enough we then went to Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes (aka S-21 prison which used to be a high school). Once again, we were incredibly moved by what we saw and would urge anyone to go. A lot of people say to split the two sights up, but we wanted to do it all in one day to not only save time but to also try and get as much of a well-rounded appreciation of the overwhelming atrocities of the Khmer Rouge genocide as we could.

We were pretty quiet for the next few hours; letting all of the stories and images sink in. When B and K got home we chatted for a bit and went out for dinner at Sesame Noodle where we got three courses of SE Asian yumminess (including Japanese mochi for pudding). Just before we left a gecko decided to jump onto Emma (a friend of Becky and Kate's) and crawl up her back and arm. This turned us all into screaming idiots until the thing managed to find its way back onto a wall.

The next day Lauren and I did next to nothing other than a bit of onward planning. In the evening we had Mexican food (weird in Cambodia I know) and then went to a cute little hair salon that doubles as a gay bar at night. There were lots of buff Cambodian men coming in and out with dental-floss-straps vest tops that showed both nipples. Everyone's hair was impeccably coiffed (it is a salon after all) and for a while we were the only women in there. Later on though a few of our kind appeared (albeit Western) and we all sipped on strong cocktails and did what gays do; sang along to Britney Spears. The guys working there (who I'm presuming are also the hairdressers) were incredibly attentive and friendly and just generally the vibe was so welcoming and positive. It made me smile.

The following day, still appalled by the heat, we decided to have a swim in the apartment block's pool (on the 4th floor weirdly enough). The water was cold, which was perfect, and even though there was snot coming out of almost every one of my orifices, I managed to do 10 lengths (which for someone who can barely swim is a bit of a feat).

Sufficiently cooled off we then jumped in a tuk tuk to the Central Market, which is in and around a massive impressive colonial building (with some air-con). Lauren managed to pick up an Angkor Beer vest top for a couple of dollars and I managed to do what I do best, pull faces at cute babies.

We then walked to Wat Ounalom, where apparently one of Buddha's eyebrow hairs is kept. We mainly picked this holy site because Lauren seems to have developed a weird obsession with visiting Buddha's bodily parts. So far we've done a head hair (Yangon, Myanmar) and a footprint (Luang Prabang, Laos). Also, it was free to get in so that scored it a few points. Once we entered the grounds we were approached by an old man who opened up the little door of the Wat and invited us to climb in. We then all sat in front of the Buddha shrine while he blessed us with some water, oil and incense. It was a really lovely peaceful moment that made us feel a little closer to Cambodia than we did before.

We wandered around the rest of the grounds looking at the many old and new stupas alongside huts and washing lines of the local people. We also had a skinny black kitten latch itself onto us (my fault for stroking it).
A little walk away was Tonlé Sap riverside where we stopped in a few non-for-profit community shops; Daughter's of Cambodia and Friends 'N Stuff.

Next stop was The Flicks; an ex-pat, community-run cinema that shows new and old films for a few dollars in small, air conditioned viewing theatres. Following our education at Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng we were keen to see the 1985 film The Killing Fields which was showing at The Flicks 2. Unfortunately, we'd walked to The Flicks 3 and so had to get a tuk tuk over to the right cinema. Luckily, we just made it and we happily reclined on the wicker sofas in the cold, dark room ready to cry all over again. During the film I needed the loo but because we'd taken our shoes off to enter the cinema (a requirement) I didn't want to walk barefoot in the toilet. Lauren kindly pointed out that there were a pair of flip flops in the aisle for the toilet. I didn't think anything of this as everywhere else we've been (restaurants, theatres, truck-stops, spas etc) have a special pair of toilet flip flops usually outside the doors so you don't have to stand in piss. So I put them on and went on my merry way. It was only when the film ended that we noticed a man putting on said flip flops and leaving that I realised they weren't communal toilet flip flops, but just some poor cinema-goers shoes that I'd borrowed. He must have watched me put them on and thought "why the fuck is that girl putting my flip flops on and leaving the cinema!?" Well he must have been British because he didn't say a word to me, he didn't even look at me when I returned and put them back beside him.
That evening we introduced Becky and Kate to the brilliant Channel 4 programme First Dates (they're now hooked).

The next day my cold had taken an ugly turn; I was sneezing fluorescent snot every 10 minutes and so wasn't feeling up for public interaction. By the afternoon poor Lauren was beyond bored so I agreed to go to the Angkor Market with her (a mini supermarket) where we managed to spend $25, yes 25 fucking US dollars on next to nothing. We then found a little disabled-run craft shop where I bought a bracelet made from magazines and did my best not to thank the lovely lady who served me by presenting her with a load of phlegm.

For the rest of the day we watched scary wildlife programmes on king cobras and cougars killing people. As you do.
I was feeling really awful so I stayed in bed while Becky, Kate and Lauren went to The Secret Garden to drink $2 beer jugs. Unfortunately I didn't manage to nap as I'd taken two Sno Kuff tablets (the infamous cold tablets from India) which gave me nothing but heart palpitations for an hour. We all went for tea (along with three of B an K's friends) at the French-owned L'Orchidee where I mustered up the strength to stroke the resident dogs and eat some sweet and sour tofu. It being Friday we followed our meals with drinks on the trendy Bassac Lane in a bar called Cicada. The cocktails and conversations flowed (although I stuck to water in an attempt to prevent the cold worsening) and Kate and Lauren got chatting to a guy that turned out to be a bit of a film star. He showed them a picture of him with my fantasy wife Angelina Jolie whose upcoming film adaptation First they killed my Father he was cast in. They can't remember his name though...

On Saturday Becky, Lauren and I ventured to the palace only to find it was closed. Nowhere did it say why it was closed or for how long but we took it on the chin and went to the National Museum instead. The museum was average; there were some vaguely interesting old busts and sculptures mostly of Hindu gods and Buddha and a few bits of wood and weaving work.
Then, after half an hour in a tuk tuk and plenty of stopping and starting to check maps and forums, we managed to find the street-art area just beside the gorgeous Alserkal mosque. The graffiti was plastered along the walls of a narrow, mostly residential street with a few little house-shops and cafés. Reminiscent of the likes of Nelson street in Bristol but on a much smaller and less out-there sort of way. And weirdly enough, underneath one of the tags was the text 'Bristol to Cambodia'!
Ever a capitalist-pig (I can't help it, it's in my conditioning), I couldn't help but think that it's the sort of area that would be an excellent pace to invest in. There are already little coffee-houses, art and vintage shops and alternative bars starting up. It'll turn into Beijing's 798 in no time.
It really felt wonderful wandering around and dissecting the art; as expected it had elements of satire and social commentary on both Cambodia and the rest of the world. The only dampener was the fact that my camera decided to break AGAIN! As our money is running low and there's no guaranteeing it won't break again, I've decided not to get it fixed again and to just try and pick up a cheap compact digi camera if and when I come across one.

On the way back 'home' we stopped at a popular Chinese eatery - Chinese Noodle, where you can watch the thick noodles being made out the front. We all had soup and I chucked as much chilli in as I could to try and de-congest. It was ice cream and pastries at Posh Nosh for pudding followed by a swim in the pool with two cute Kiwi kids who were neighbours.

That evening we were supposed to be going to see a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show by the Phnom Penh Players Company. Last minute the show was cancelled because of a power cut. Gutted, we instead invited some friends over and drank home-made espresso Martinis and played Cards Against Humanity. At around midnight the girls then decided it was time to go out. I, being the boring old ill bastard that I am decided to instead go to bed. At around 3am Lauren and the girls rolled in after having spent 3 hours singing karaoke at a KTV centre. Bloody ex-pats.

Our last day in Cambodia, Sunday, consisted of us all nursing hangovers (or a head-cold in my case) and lazing around for most of the morning fantasising about what type of food we all wanted. We settled on pizza and toddled down to Brooklyn Pizza where we gorged ourselves silly. To top off the indulgence we then got pedicures and exhaustedly giggled at each other for a couple of hours. We bought shit loads of sugar and fat-laden treats from the rip-off supermarket nearby (called Super-Duper) and spent our last evening trying to bring on diabetes while watching more First Dates.

Yes our time in Phnom Penh was a little more Western-focused than jaunts in previous locations but what can I say, after almost 3 months of all things foreign I think we deserved a bit of home-comfort. Becky and Kate were such generous and fun hosts and how lucky we are to have called their home ours for a week. And thank god I was ill there and not in some grotty dorm room in Vietnam. Speaking of grotty dorms, Sihanoukvile is next...

Posted by advensha 05:53 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh snails pizza karaoke tuk_tuk s21 genocide angelina_jolie ex-pats killing_fields khmer_rouge central_market wat_ounalom super_duper sesame_noodle espresso_martinis

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