BUS JOURNEY #????
Not sure why we always find ourselves writing about bus journeys BUT they are just so damn funny (different than fun. The bus we find ourselves on from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is surprisingly quite modern with fairly comfy seats as well as air conditioning that works well except provides a steady drip of water on Lynda (which she does not like but should help cool her down.
We have a BUS STEWARD again, which is funny in itself...she distributes handi-wipes, bottled water and a box full of artery clogging pastries (that we give away to a person begging for them out our window at the next stop). The steward also gets on the microphone quite frequently to give some information about what area we are traveling through, how long we will be stopping etc...but she speaks so quietly and quickly that we don't think the locals OR farangs understand a word she is saying. The funnier part starts during the movie presentations. First, we have an informative National Geographic movie about Angkor Wat which is actually very positive...as we have just visited the day before EXCEPT there is cloze captioning'' in English which is REALLY, REALLY bad and so the wrong words come up all the time which means that the informational video is now a comedy...at least for Tracy. Example: "Anger What is the hurt and sole of Cambodia and all guests are Well Come" Tracy eventually has to close her eyes and just listen to the information as the words are too distracting.
Next...we have the Movie SALT...this is good, we have not seen it. However, the movie is played at such a low volume AND a Chinese Man behind us only has a HIGH volume...so, if you know the movie, we watch all the adventure scenes with Angela Joli kicking butt in some sort of superhuman way but can not figure out the likely implausible plot because during all the talking scenes we strain to listen and/or read lips. THEN, to top it off, the STEWARD updates us with a little history at the crucial end scene with Salt and her fellow CIA officer having a heart-to-heart. Hilarious....but why is Tracy the only one laughing on the whole bus???
Next...another movie starts. Tracy jokes "Let's hope it is Mr. Bones" and then practically falls on the floor when it IS!!!!...PART 2. Why do bad movies get made SO frequently but quality, important movies take 10 years to get enough funding to make a low budget film? Stupid, we say.
Anyway, we get to Phnom Penh on time and our hotel is only a few blocks away so we make our way through tuk- tuk and moto-mania, each vying for our attention, I mean money, and walk to 'Water View Guesthouse'. It is on the river's edge but our room has no windows so is not only a fire hazard but not too much of a view of the water. Funny again. But for only $25.00 ( about 110 000 in Cambodian money) a night, we can't really complain...we have two double beds, a private bathroom, fridge, TV, AC and it is nice and clean. We were a bit disappointed to learn that the hotel no longer had a pool but figured we can handle it as we are beaching it for the next few locations.
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and is a hectic city with a dawn to dusk nightlife', of a few million, at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap water systems. It has a history of an on again, off again post Angkorian capital, depending on who was in power - a port and trading city. Designed primarily by the French 'protectorate', it has broad, sweeping avenues, tree-lined boulevards, a very scenic waterfront and full on Cambodian market life which spills onto every street. It flourished in the 1950's and 60's before it was besieged & evacuated during the Khmer Rouge (more on that later) in the 1970's. Now, like other places we have visited, it is trying to move on from its tragic past as it explodes in population, attempts to revitalize and tries to figure out how best to develop as a huge tourist destination. You will likely remember it in the news at the end of November 2010 as a bridge threatened to collapse during a celebration and resulted in a human stampede which left almost 400 Cambodians dead.
We continue to be viewed as walking ATM machines...we must deal with no less than 100 requests for something per day...tuk-tuks, books, bracelets, you name it...
Here is a sample conversation with above:
Hawker: Laaadeeee...pleeeeeeease buy book.
Tracy: No thank-you, we actually have that one already (true - it is a genuine Lonely Planet, not the photo-copied versions we find here).
Hawker: Maybe you need book # 2 about Angkor Wat - more information?
Tracy: No thanks, one book is enough
Hawker: What about water, you need cold water?
Tracy: (holding up cold water bottle with ice from fridge at hotel) No thanks.
Hawker: What about sunglasses - sun very strong in Cambodia
Tracy: (gesturing toward glasses) - "No thanks, we got it covered"
Hawker: What about hat....friend has hat (pointing to Lynda) - you need hat???
Tracy: (runs away, pulling Lynda with her)
We think that the hawkers have a Canadian radar because we always get asked and they think we are sooooo nice (read gullible and generous)
Sadly, while we try to poke a little fun...it is hard to say No most of the time. Cambodians, like many other countries, are very, very poor. There are a multitude of land mine victims here. Tracy bought two books (which we wanted anyway) from a man whose story of losing both his forearms was tragic...he was so depressed, he almost committed suicide but luckily did not. Today, he is married with two young children and runs a book cart on the streets, hoping to make enough money to support his family AND maintain his dignity. In order to justify his costs, he insisted on taking off the plastic of the books to show me, which was not easy with two uneven stumps...I felt like just hugging him.
The first day, we slept in (I think we are trying to catch up from years of sleep deprivation OR humans just need more sleep and without the regular North American life, would enjoy it).
We stroll outside our hotel and immediately meet 'Som, a very friendly, affable Cambodian who is really vying to be our Tuk-tuk driver for the city. After a little negotiating, we agree and he follows us with his cart down our three block walk to our breakfast location and waits.
One of the books we read suggested that, as travelers, we remember that the Cambodian tourist industry is still in its infancy...breakfast reminded us of that. It was an all you can eat Western Buffet for $2.75 pp, suggested by our hotel. First, coffee was not available for quite a while. Lynda managed to get some juice (sugary flavoured water) and tried both toasters, both of which were not from this century. One miniature fork for both of us, no napkins, no condiments...we were just laughing...after about one hour, we both had had enough to eat. Funny again and who can complain with the price.
Then, Som tuk-tuked us to the KILLING FIELDS...another genocide memorial where Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge period. Once again, horrific. To the uninformed the place Som drops us looks like an orchard. On closer inspection we see dips -bowl shapes in the soil. These are the pits the soldiers used to bury Cambodians...many of who were professionals like teachers and doctors.... about 20 000 in total. An entire class of educated intellectuals were wiped out in less than four years. Their crime? Being educated. The Khmer Rouge feared they would taint the peasants with knowledge and therefore needed to be eliminated. At the site we view a short video and see some displays before walking by the towering memorial where seven floors of skulls and bones have been places. This memorial is to help the souls of the dead feel settled in the after live. It is also a place where hopefully they won't be forgotten by future generations.
We then drive back into town to a school site where three buildings- each three story high at one time housed both high school and public school students. The Khmer Rouge used this school to house political prisoners. Here men, women and children were tortured until they confessed to imaginary crimes, then they were then sent to the killing fields to be disposed of. Pol Pot as leader in the 1970's was convinced that by returning the entire population of Cambodians (3 million people) to an agrarian society, true Communism would prevail. The deaths of a third of the population leveled the playing field for his long term plan. On April 17th 1975 the entire city of Phnom Penh was emptied as families were ordered out into the countryside to commence rice production for the new state. Many died in the fields where they worked. Many were taken away if the soldiers were suspicious. Family members just disappeared and were never heard from again. The Killing Fields and the school renamed S 21 as a detention and torture centre where all a part of this horrible history.
When we walked back to meet Som and his tuk tuk, we asked him if he had ever gone into either of these two sites. He said no and that he wished both were destroyed to allow them to slip out of memory for Cambodians. Som was 12 when the worst was happening in Cambodia. He lost his mother, his father and his 8 year old sister. He didn't want to visit the sites. The memories are burned into his heart every day.
Eventually the country tired of the constant political strive. Soldiers became less enthusiastic when Pol Pot went into exile in Thailand. This along with the quickly depleting population due to the genocide allowed Cambodia to slip from the world stage. By the mid 1990's the USA, China and Russia turned their backs on Cambodia and left them to fend for themselves. What was left was a population with no middle class to restructure the economy and thousands of acres of land covered in land mines. Canada initiated the Ottawa Accord urging countries to stop the production and distribution of all exploding land weaponry. The three largest contributors to the problem: USA, China and Russia have still not signed the treaty. As for Pol Pot he died in exile before being taken to trial for war crimes. Of the Khmer Rouge leadership who sustained terror in the country for 20 years, only ONE general has been tried by the International Court of Law.
The next day we headed out to see the Royal Palace AND hilariously, it were closed for both January 1 and 2 for the Western New Years...which they do not even celebrate here. They should really try to capitalize on the holidays of other countries. We also attempted to navigate through some of the large covered markets. Each stall filled with basic unnecessary plastic crap, designer rip-offs and poorly made electronic equipment. You cannot even glance at an item without being shown 19 versions of the thing they think you want to but 20 of. Such shopper pressure...its exhausting.
We also continue to practice our skills in crossing roads in Cambodia which is a whole new experience. In some ways, it is very similar to Egypt in terms of numbers and paths of traffic but it does not matter which way you look first, because they basically just drive anywhere....you are relaxing on the sidewalk, looking for an opening in traffic and then, PRESTO, motobikes, cars and tuk-tuks come at us from all directions. We just continue to walk with purpose across the street and somehow the traffic flows and molds around us.
Finally we say good bye to Phnom Penh and leave the city by bus to travel to the beach destination of Sihanoukville. We arrive and check into our hotel which this time HAS a window and then head to the beach. Tracy reads. Lynda naps. We are asked about every 5 minutes to buy something - fruit, bracelets, sarongs....Then suddenly we are surrounded by an entourage of women intent on beautifying us - we try to say NO but soon surrender. Soon we have been massaged, manicured, pedicured, brushed, sanded and coloured. Lynda for the first time has nail polish-a frightening deep murderous red. Tracy sports lime green toes and a set of French nails. Cost $20.00