Travelogue SEA 5: Ho Chi Minh City – Phnom Penh

24-26 December 2011

Up and out at way-too-early o’clock, our shuttle got us to the bus stop in time to catch our 7am bus to Cambodia.

The bus hostess handed out Cambodia visa application forms and Viet Nam departure forms and collected all the forms with our passports and US$25 visa fees to take care of the rest of the process for us. What a pleasure.

She then handed out fresh white bread chicken, ham and pate sandwiches (am sensing this is a local speciality combination after the last few street vendor baguettes) and water, which was a far sight more appealing than the take away breakfast the hotel had sent with us (toast, jam and milk sachets).

We were treated to a little surprise when some time into the journey the bus speakers switched from the warbling local music to Christmas carols and who should appear from the bus WC cubicle but Father Christmas himself! Bearing gifts nogal! He had a big red sack filled with gifts and gave everyone on the bus a little woven reed parcel, which turned out to have a cloth scarf inside.

We have marvelled at how into Christmas South East Asia seems to be. There are street decorations up, carols on loop in the hotel lobbies and blaring from street vendors, loads of bell-ringers in Santa suits around the town and loads of shops and stalls selling not only the usual Christmas decor paraphernalia, but also little kiddie dress-up suits (made of the usual red felt with furry collars and cuffs. In this weather?!)

Anyway, we got through the border crossing quickly and painlessly and could see the difference between the 2 neighbouring countries right from the border post signage, since Cambodia uses the Khmer alphabet so the writing is all curly whirly like the Thai writing, as opposed to Vietnamese writing which is the same alphabet as ours but with loads of added accents, cedilla and kappies. The people do seem to speak more English though and we had no trouble asking questions and ordering food at the truckstop (the food looks very different to Vietnamese, with lots of fish and atchar looking gravies, so we played it safe and had a fried rice with chicken and veg and a pork and noodle stirfry. Both delicious.)

The countryside is beautiful, with wooden houses on stilts where the area is marshy or the water levels erratic alongside the riverbank. The inhabitants seem to use the area under the house for dining, socialising and parking (their scooters). Have seen some quite impressive brick temple complexes in drier places, with big golden gates and long statue-lined driveways leading to big pagoda buildings with golden decorations on the roof eaves and guttering.

Heading into Phnom Penh, the first impression is that it’s busy and bustling but not as chaotic as the Vietnamese cities we visited (bearing in mind that it is Cambodia’s capital, but the country only has 14 million people, 2 million of which live here). The road system seems from our map to be more of a grid than the winding alleyways we’ve become used to – and the roads are numbered rather than named so, for example, our hotel is 26-28 Street 130, Phnom Penh. It does seem that the roads don’t follow strictly in sequence, so the seemingly simple system has the potential to be fraught with danger.

Our hotel is nice enough, but very well placed being just off the main riverfront, so again close to the action but not affected by it. The Central Market is also on our road, heading away from the riverfront, which is where we made our way to in search of a Khmer curry as an afternoon snack while we waited for the NZ’ers to arrive.

The market is big and under roof in a 5 pointed star shape and – as usual – divided into sections of like industry or wares. It was easy to find the food section just by following the nose because of the wide selections of fresh fish and roadfront cooked food vendors. Despite the BBQs tempting us with fresh crabs and enormous prawns and the woks ready to make-to-order, we stuck to our guns and held out for the (chicken) curry. The curry is thinner and soupier than we’re used to, but deliciously creamy with lots of coconut milk base laced with khmer spices, which only have flavour but no burn at all (you’re given whole, diced and dried chillies to add your own zing).

Leaving the market, we accidentally took the wrong feeder road and ended up taking an unintended walking tour of Phnom Penh, which wasn’t altogether unpleasant as there are wide pavements and manageable chaos as compared to where we’ve already seen on this trip. We also got to stop and peruse menus to see some of the weird and wonderful delicacies that they serve (fortunately none as icky as the horse on the spit that I saw in HCMC), giggle at the Engrish (am sure that “crapsticks” were meant to be crab) and gauge beer options and prices.

We were well versed to spot a bargain by the time we met up for dinner – at the restaurant at the riverfront end of our road that served Angkor draught at happy hour (which never seems to be a single hour and often stretches to as much as 5 or 6!) for US$ 0.60. Perfectly paired with a Beef Lok Lak (wok fried seared beef cubes in Khmer spices, traditionally served on rice in a banana leaf cup).

The riverfront is perfect for pub trawling and crawling and our Street 130 was neatly between Pub Street 136 and Pub Street 104, although we ended up spending most of the night at a second level bar overlooking the river, picking up 2 Kiwi girls and (unintentionally) an Aussie couple, who we took with us when we moved on to an Irish pub (Paddy Rice’s, cute name) we’d spotted that offers live music. Turned out to be a good move with free Christmas vodka jelly shots, buckets of Angkor on special and the opportunity for a breather from the Aussie bloke, who Aaron convinced to do a rockeoke debut, resulting in a complete butchering a Chilli Peppers song. Irish pubs are always good for festivities and merry-making so it was the perfect place to herald in a very unconventional Christmas.

As always, a good time was had by all… And it became too late all too soon.

We felt the late night and short sleep when we had to meet our driver at 09h00 for our sight-seeing tour! First up was the Killing Fields. The tour (US$5) includes an audio guide that talks you through a path around Choeung Ek, a real working human abattoir during the Cambodian genocide implemented by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Although a lot of the landmarks have been removed (the buildings were stripped by poor farmers for the raw materials) there are monuments and displays… And fresh clothing, bone and teeth artefacts that the eco system and weather continue to dredge up from the mass graves, which makes the experience very tangible.

It’s horrific what that regime did, killing not only perceived threats but their wives and children too so as to leave no survivors that might want to later seek revenge. It sounds like these camps were brutal, bussing in victims under the cover of darkness and killing most in very hands-on ways, like using knives, sharp jagged palm fronds and beating babies to death on tree trunks. It’s very difficult to reconcile how ordinary people can be brainwashed into performing these atrocities, or how they can live with themselves with the burden of retrospect.

The S-21 prison (entrance fee US$3) was no better. Having once been a school, the classrooms were transformed into cells and torture chambers, some of which still have the metal beds and torture implements on display. In the quad is a large wooden frame that was used to hang prisoners, mostly by their ankles until they lost consciousness and then dunk them into buckets of rank water to revive them, only to repeat the process. Some classrooms were used as is for groups or divided into individual cells a metre wide with either bricks or wood. You can freely access all the areas and there are still specks of blood on some of the floors.

The Khmer Rouge kept detailed and meticulous records so there are many rooms with display boards of prisoner registration photographs and induction transcripts. It’s very scary to see how many thousands of people were shunted through this prison and sent off to killing fields – and how young the victims were. Since most of the trafficking was done under subterfuge and the people often didn’t know they were being taken to prison, let alone where, families were split up and separated with no concept of where their relatives were. Stories told post fact also describe how family members intentionally didn’t acknowledge each other in the prisons because the policy was to remove all possible future vengeance (“to kill the grass you must remove the roots”) so, by implication, if one family member was killed, all would have to be killed as well.

The UN have put together programmes that have helped more than 6,000 Cambodians to travel from around the country to come to these prisons and killing fields to trace what happened to their relatives. It’s hollow comfort, I’m sure.

It’s unsettling to know how recent this barbaric slice of history is, with the Khmer Rouge still recognised as the reigning government until 1989 (even though the Vietnamese had deposed them 10 years earlier) and only disbanded in 1999. So many people lost their lives (3 million people of a population of 8 million over 4 years!) that it’s uncomfortable to see a 50 year old Cambodian now and wonder exactly what they had to do to still be here today, since it was literally a ‘kill or be killed’ time.

It’s atrocious that Pol Pot died a free man in 1998, at the ripe old age of 82, and that his 3 top leaders were only detained in 2007 and are only now standing trial, with fancy lawyers from all over the world defending them (how do they sleep at night?!). The only charge so far is a chap called Duch who headed the S-21 prison and has received a measly charge of 35 years imprisonment for the more 15,000 deaths he was responsible for! Shameful.

After a morning of quite sombre sight-seeing (there are even official signs at the prison with a smiling face with a line through it), it was good to head back to town where we ditched the museum in favour of lunch. I finally got the duck I’d been hankering for, served in a delicious noodle stirfry. Things were looking up!

We were a bit culture and historied out so opted to just take a few snaps of the Palace and pagoda and a stroll along the waterfront… To prepare for a long and much-needed pre-dinner nap.

Very solid thinking on the nap and we were good to go for a refuel at 7. Found an excellent curry house that lured us in with a mega meat platter (steak, chicken, pork chop, sausage and sides for US$8.50), which kept us happy alongside my very tasty butter chicken and garlic naan. Aaron had the all day breakfast, which had us convinced that we’d be back in the morning!

We did a walk along the promenade to work off some dinner and popped in at our regular spots to have a beer here and there. My mission was too get a snap of (at least) 5 people on a scooter, which is quite commonplace and a sight to be believed. It’s normally dad driving, with toddler standing in front of him on the foot platform, a kid wedged behind him, then mom with a baby on one thigh being held in place with an arm across the chest. I kept missing the opportunities with my camera being away or the flash taking too long. Oh well.

We opted for an early night, based on the long drive with the morning’s transfer to Siem Reap (which we’d already moved from 9am to 10, just in case). Was a good call and the extra hour’s sleep was well enjoyed this morning.

We did go back to the Indian restaurant for our breakfast and I bucked convention by having my second choice from the night before rather than any traditional form of breakfast. It was amazing – a chicken breast cooked in a tomato relish and served with mozzarella melted on top and then drowned in creamy mushroom sauce, accompanied by fried potatoes mixed with sliced onions and fleshy bacon. All my favourite things!

We’re now on the road to Siem Reap. A seemingly manageable 300km journey, hampered by the 30km speed limits in the towns, hay-smothered tractors and threshers in the countryside and hooting and wild lane-changing throughout! 3 hours and we’re only halfway…