KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
The morning we were to leave for the capital, we asked Sophan if it was going to be okay with his wife for him to be gone for several days and so far away from her and their two children. He told us that he and his wife had a side business selling "suits" wholesale to the market vendors in Phnom Penh. He said that he would collect a shipment of 1200 "suits" in Sihanoukville and deliver them to Phnom Penh while we were relaxing at the beach. We were all very puzzled as to how he could possible fit 1200 suits into his medium sized van, and who would possibly be buying a suit in the market and wearing it in this impossible muggy heat. When we were almost ready to depart Siem Reap, a woman arrived on a motorbike and spoke at length with him. We were all in the hotel, but Anil was lucky enough to be introduced to the woman - it was his wife. We teased him that she must have come to see him off, to ensure that he really was taking four tourists to the four corners of Cambodia, and not slipping away for some fun with another woman. He laughed and assured us that his wife just came by to discuss the business with the "suits".
The trip to Phnom Penh can be made by boat across Tonle Sap Lake - Adia had made the journey this way three years ago, or by vehicle on a paved highway. Now that we had met Sophan, we decided to drive in air-conditioned comfort as there was still a good chance of thundershowers and we didn't want to get caught in choppy waves on the massive lake. Tonle Sap is quite a unique lake, it grows from 2500 sq km to over 13,000 sq km during the rainy season. The Tonle Sap normally flows south into the Mekong River, but during the rains the Mekong becomes so powerful that it backs the waters of the Tonle Sap river so that the rivers flows northwards and fills Tonle Sap Lake. This makes the lake one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish and the flooded forests makes for a fertile spawning ground. The silt also serves to enrich the soil for crops during the dry season. Unfortunately, this unique ecosystem is threatened by deforestation and dams built further up the Mekong.
As we drove along the highway, we could see flooded forests in all directions. It was truly an amazing landscape. The trip takes about six hours by road, I sat with my nose to the window admiring the beauty of the water, the forests and the villages along the way. The people of this area have adapted their homes and their farming methods to adjust to the incredible changes that take place throughout the year. We stopped at a roadside cafe for a pit stop and a cold drink and David remarked that the cabanas along the shore seemed to sink deeper and deeper into the water the farther they were from shore - he joked that the price to rent them probably gets cheaper and cheaper the farther out one went.
At last we arrived in Phnom Penh - a bustling city on the confluence of three rivers - the Mekong, Tonle Bassac and Tonle Sap. This is a city that has been the site of tremendous violence in recent history, the genocide of two million Cambodian citizens by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's is almost too horrific to contemplate. I have seen the movie "The Killing Fields" more than once, and read the book "Stay Alive, My Son" and now I found myself at the site of all this tragedy. It was hard to fathom that this sunny, monument-filled city could have witnessed so much pain and suffering.
Sophan took us to a hotel he knew of, I think he selected it because it was in the center of the business district, close to all the tourist sites that travellers like to see. It turned out to be a large hotel with very disgruntled employees and no feeling of warmth or welcome. We had already paid for one night's stay before we determined this, so we were stuck. We gave our passports to the travel agent in the lobby in order to get our visas for Vietnam and then made the decision to look for another hotel the next morning. Jeong Ae and I turned in early, while David and Anil went out to explore. They walked down the street through a somewhat seedy neighbourhood until they got to the river about a fifteen-minute walk away. After a quick meal they asked for take-away and Jeong Ae and I ate in our rooms.
The next morning Sophan arrived to pick us up looking rather disheveled. It turns out that his small pack was unloaded with all our luggage and he had to spend the night sleeping in his clothes and was not able to shave or change to a fresh shirt before coming to our hotel. He was very relieved to find that we had his pack, he was sure it was gone forever. We set off to find a new hotel - he called someone on his mobile phone and then took us to what seemed an out-of-the way place. The hotel was almost brand-new and at that time in the morning, the place was very quiet. We looked at the rooms and found them very nice and affordable and told the manager that we would be back later in the day with our luggage to check in. The Hotel was called the Soul Garden - Jeong Ae liked the idea that it was almost Seoul Garden - her city of birth.
We spent the day visiting the National Museum with its incredible artifacts and then asked Sophan to take us to the Tuol Sleng War Crimes Museum. He seemed pretty putout that we preferred to go there and not the Royal Palace. The Tuol Sleng Museum was a high school in central Phnom Penh that was turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge occupation of the city. It was here that over 17,000 citizens were interrogated and tortured - virtually all of them were executed by the end of the war. When the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners still alive. Most of the torture victims were taken from this prison to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek for execution. Those who died during torture were buried in mass graves in the prison grounds.
Tuol Sleng is not for the faint-hearted. There are hundreds of photos of the victims, both before and after their torture - all posted in the rooms of the former high school. I chose not to go into the rooms with the most gruesome photos - just looking at the photos of the men, women and children that were taken when they arrived, knowing that none of them survived, was more than enough for me. The others toured the entire school and the looks on their faces when they joined me outside assured me that I had made the right decision.
After this chilling experience, we returned to the Soul Garden Hotel to check in and freshen up before heading out for dinner. As we arrived, two young women came out to help us take in all our luggage. I was surprised to see them all dressed up in fancy clothes and very high-heeled shoes. They dragged the heavy suitcases up several steps into the hotel and the next strange thing I saw were double rows of chairs lined up on either side of the front entrance. There were other young women in long dresses lounging on some of the chairs. We were directed to take the elevator to the fifth-floor reception desk and I was puzzled to see the words "Karaoke" and "Massage" beside the numbers of the floors in the elevator.
When we arrived at the fifth floor, there was indeed a reception desk with two older women waiting for us. Across the foyer I noticed a large window with a sheer red curtain across it. While David talked to the women about our rooms, I looked through the curtain and saw several scantily-clad young girls sitting on tiered benches. Suddenly it dawned on me - pretty slow on the uptake, I have to admit - that this hotel was in an out-of-the-way location for a good reason. It was a brothel!! Boy, did we get out of there fast - the women couldn't seem to understand what the problem was - they must have felt we knew their business all along. I told them that we were married couples and that this place was for business men. The older one stared at me blankly, but the younger one of the two seemed to understand and gave me a sweet smile. When we arrived back at the minivan, poor Sophon was so embarrassed that he had taken us to such a place. We all had a good laugh and said that this was great material for the trip journal.
We had Sophan take us over to the Riverside Quay where David and Anil had walked the night before and found a lovely hotel with great rooms overlooking the river and the esplanade. We ate dinner at a nearby cafe that supports orphans - a fitting end for a very interesting day.