|What's Cambodia like? Take 3 doses of Thailand then add one dose of France and one dose of India and that will give you an idea. :) At least that is my first impression. I arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital, on Wednesday afternoon, and immediately noticed how much the atmosphere was different from Malaysia. In the taxi from the airport, I noticed that at least half the traffic consisted of motorcycles and scooters, and there weren't any buses to be seen. The bikes weaved in and out of traffic, and so did the tuk-tuks, which here consist of a motorcycle pulling a small cart with two banquettes.
Then, upon arriving at my guesthouse, I was immediately welcomed by the owner and bartender with big smiles. The Cambodians immediately appeared more open to me than the Malaysians who are a lot more reserved.
My original plan was to stay three nights here then move on to the small town of Kampot for 2 nights, but I decided to extend my stay by one day and skip Kampot entirely. Consequently, I'm leaving tomorrow for Sianoukville and a well deserved beach break, after 2 weeks of cities and traffic!
But back to Phnom Penh. My guesthouse is very well located, a block and a half from the riverfront with all its bars, cafes, and restaurants offering Happy Hours. So after a good shower, the first thing I did was have a drink at the bar downstairs, a mojito for $3.50. If one of you had been there, you could have had one for free as it was 2 for 1 from 5 to 8 pm. I was tempted to have the second one myself, but resisted because I didn't want to venture out drunk on my first night in Phnom Penh. :)
I had dinner nearby on the outdoor patio of a restaurant: a nice beef curry for only $4 or so. Yes, they do use the US$ as currency here, as freely as their own currency, the Riel, which you can't get outside the country. There are about 4000 riel to the dollar, so they give you Riels back instead of US coins, which they don't have. So if something costs $3.50 and you give them $5, you get $1 back plus 2000 riels (which come in bills of 500, 1000 or 2000). So your wallet is constantly filled with both currencies!
Besides the fact that the alcohol flows here a lot more freely than in Malaysia (which is a muslim nation after all), another difference is that Phnom Penh is absolutely crawling with tourists. Yes, Cambodia is back on the tourist map in a big way. It's a little less hot and humid than Malaysia here, but the sun is out everyday and it's fierce. I was out all day on Thursday and got another heat headache.
I expected to be hassled by all kinds of touts and beggars in the street, but so far, I've encountered few beggars (unlike in Vietnam in 97). On the other hand, tuk-tuk drivers sit by the curb and ask me if I need a tuk tuk every 5 seconds! Fortunately, the majority of them are not persistent, although I did encounter a couple of annoying ones, including one who was trying to convince me that the National Museum (where I was going nearby) was closed for lunch (not true) so he could take me for a long ride around town or to some silk farm. I told him to buzz off.
I'm sitting on my balcony facing the street while I write this, and it's pretty noisy as you would expect, with the motorcycles and people chattering and yelling. And I have a little gecko on the wall.
In my three days here, I've visited the main attractions, including the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, the Central Market, Wat Phnom, a buddhist temple on a small hill where the locals go to pray. I've done a cruise on the river(s) (Tonle Sap and Mekong which intersect in front of the city) and finally today, made my way to the Tuol Sleng Museum, which documents the genocide that took place here under Pol Pot's regime in the late 70s. The museum is in fact the old S-21 detention center where 17000 people were tortured then sent to their death in the Killing Fields (which you can also visit but I didn't). It's another one of those places that demonstrate the worst of human nature and make you shake you head in dismay. Very sad.
Pol Pot was one of those megalomaniacs and sociopaths that come out through history once in a while. I think of his movement as a cross between the Gestapo and the Taliban. He had a strange idea of an "ideal" communist-like society which he imposed on the people, after tricking many youngsters (14 to 23) to fight for his cause under false pretenses, taking advantage of the fact that the country had been in a civil war for 5 years and peeple were looking for an end to it. He pretended to be on the side of the deposed and exiled King Sihanouk and against the militay powers that were occupying the country to persuade people to follow him and his Khmer Rouge revolutionary army. By the time his combattants realized what he was really about, they were forced to do his bidding or be killed. Anyway, pretty horrendous stuff. Between 1975 and 1978 it is estimated that about one quarter of the population (1.7 millions) were killed by the Khmer Rouges in the most gruseome ways.
OK, a few words about a more pleasant topic: food. The curries here ressemble those of Thailand (red curry, green curry) but the sauce is less thick and the flavouring more subtle than Thai food. That is, it's not as heavy on the coconut, and mixes in extra spices that you don't find in Thai, such as aniseed (more Indian I think). You also find croissant and baguette at breakfast, remnants of the French influence, which remains stronger here than in neighbouring Vietnam. Although Cambodia originally got its independence from France in 1953, I read somewhere that the French Embassy is even now promoting the French language and culture!
Three hours after I wrote the above, the cutie bartender at my guesthouse asked me out. A very good ego boost given that's he's 25! :) There began an interesting cultural experience where I got a close look at what young Khmers do on Saturday: go to a dance hall and dance to some slowish taped Khmer music while someone sings (sometimes it becomes karaoke with a member of the audience singing) and bright lights flash on the dance floor and threaten to give you a seizure. Of course there is a bit more to this story, but I'm tring to keep this journal "family friendly" (that is rated G):)