Cambodia is a surprisingly charming place. After disembarking from the mostly empty plane on Monday, we met our driver who would pick us up and take us to our room for the night in Phnom Penh, the capital.
And I thought that Chinese people were terrible drivers.
Cambodia puts all other drivers to shame. As we weaved in and out of motorcycles and tuk-tuks (the motorcycle taxis with a carriage on the back), we would periodically drive in the lane of oncoming traffic, sneak through red lights, and go into turn lanes just to pass people. Despite that jolt to the senses, though, Phnom Penh was a fascinating place. Little shops lined French Colonial buildings with sidewalks made of tile and dusty streets as spires of twisted, curly Buddhist architecture waved to us from a distance. It was enthralling.
We arrived at our hotel on the riverside in between bars, restaurants, and internet cafes. We were given over to extravagance a bit, due to the low prices of Cambodia, and booked a room with a river view. We settled in, unloaded, and began our day at 9 am. Immediately as we walked outside a group of tuk-tuk drivers clustered around us and asked if we wanted a ride, a phenomenon that was not to abate. Amanda and I walked through the pounding heat, past vendors selling Lychee Fanta and Lonely Planet guide books, and quickly arrived at our first destination: the National Museum. It was a beautiful old building filled with centuries-old artifacts, but our visit there revealed just how poor this country was; floors were broken, walls were unstained, exhibits were poorly lit (if at all), there was no A/C, and it only took 30-40 minutes to view everything. That was their National Museum.
We explored the surrounding area after that, taking in the sounds and smells and wondering what the various rooftops and golden monuments signified. Cambodia’s architecture is different from that of other Asian cities I’ve been to, and I think it must be due to the French colonial influence. The buildings had Chinese-style bathroom tiles everywhere, but their ugliness was offset by the beautiful flowing balconies and colored walls.
Eventually we decided to move on and got the attention of a sleepy tuk-tuk driver (named Mr. Ny, we found out later) who was alone, away from the groups of others all clamoring for our attention. I only asked him to take us to Tuol Sleng Prison, but he offered to drive us to the killing fields of Cheong Ek as well, and to wait for us as we explored the prison. We didn’t expect that, but later learned (through 3 days of experience now) that you stick with a tuk-tuk driver all day.
So off we went to the prison, which was once a primary school, and soon the grim realities of the Khmer Rouge regime began to sink in. Run by the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge had evacuated Phnom Penh, destroyed an entire country’s way of life, and killed hundreds of thousands of their own people, all within a period of 4 years in the 1970s. I had heard of Pol Pot, but the torture beds and black and white photographs of beaten victims brought his regime to life; and isn’t that why I travel, to learn about the world first-hand? I guess so.
After that we had lunch at a restaurant across the street that obviously catered to tourists, but was still good, and Amanda and I had our first taste of Cambodian food – noodles with vegetables and two eggs in a mild vaguely-coconut sauce, with a slightly spicier dipping sauce. We finished, paid, and met Mr. Ny to take us to the Cheong Ek killing fields in the jungle, where prisoners were killed en masse. It took a half hour through dusty rural roads as we passed chickens and, strangely, exactly the same shops we saw in the middle of the city, selling everything from bottled coke to tiles to incense burners. It’s fascinating how their way of life remained unchanged, no matter where they were. A large city like Phnom Penh is nothing different from the countryside.
Once at the killing fields we gazed somberly at the tower of skulls and the swampy, unearthed death pits. It was a sad but necessary trip, as it put Cambodian history into perspective for us. From there Mr. Ny took us to the “Russian Market” for souvenirs (hello bootleg DVDs) and then to monkey-infested Wat Phnom temple, on top of a large hill. The oddest part of that visit occurred when I passed into the traditional heart of the temple – full of incense, bowing worshipers, and ancient wooden beams – only to see a silly flashing LED behind the statue of the Buddha, as if he were supposed to give off an aura of unexplainable mystery, and aura that can only be conveyed through swirling blue and pink lights.
Once we left there we asked Mr. Ny to take us back to the hotel. On the way back we started talking, and he eventually stopped driving as we ended up discussing life, love, work, and politics for a half hour. He had broken his arm in a scuffle with other tuk-tuk drivers in an attempt to get passengers, and that’s why we found him alone and not as pushy as the others. We learned that a tuk-tuk costs about $900, his wife works in a European clothes factory, Thailand stole Cambodia’s land, and he worked for himself. We had to part ways, though, so he dropped Amanda and I off and admonished us “Don’t separate!”.
Amanda and I finished off the night in style, with a dinner where the proceeds went to help Cambodian street children and a few drinks at a clever nearby bar. My day in Phnom Penh was unexpected and exhilarating, sad and gratifying, and full of interesting people, and I can honestly say that Cambodia has charmed me. This was a sentiment that would be challenged the next day – as our bus broke down for an hour and a half – and reinforced the day after, as I saw one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind deep in the jungle. And now it’s a sentiment that has lasted.