moonwire

phnom penh (part 3)

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 13, 2009

I’ve spent 10 days in Phnom Penh and it’s hard for me to write about what I did. I really didn’t do all that much. Of course, I went to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (I went back another time, without the monks), but other than that, I didn’t do any of the touristy things. I would usually go out in the morning, have brekkie at the Vicious Cycle at 130 and 5th street. It’s a bicycle shop that offers cycling tours throughout the country, has a cafe and a laundromat. The food is really good and the staff is fantastic. Today, one of the employees sat down with me and we talked about life for young people here. He told me he went to university for 1.5 years, but then the money ran out so he had to go back to work. He said working at the Vicious Cycle was a really good job. He gets paid 60 USD a month for working 7 days a week from 6 AM to 9 PM with 2 days a month off. He, as well as some of the other employees sleep inside the building for free and they get 2 meals a day. It’s hard to imagine that that’s considered a ‘good job’ while I’m chowing down my food, which costs more than he makes in a day.

Rainy afternoon in Phnom Penh, taken from a tuk tuk.


I basically spent my time just walking around, observing life, take some photos, chat with the people. Then in the afternoon there’d usually be heavy showers, sometimes entire streets would get completely flooded, so I’d go to my room to read or just chill out. Then later in the afternoon I’d go out and do the same thing, ending up with having some drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club or at the bar of the Velkommen Inn, the guesthouse I’m staying at.

Kid playing with a live frog on a string.


My guesthouse is located right in the heart of the “Girlie Bar” district (but it’s definitely not a Girlie Bar) and it’s fun to see the ladies (and ladyboys) arrive for work. Strutting their stuff wearing their high heels. There’s always something to see. I could just sit there for hours.

There’s also monkeys here that come look for food, as I’ve noticed. One afternoon I was having a sandwich and fries on the outside patio, when all of a sudden, a little one jumped down onto my table, grabbed my sandwich and ran back upstairs. Apparently, I was not the first one this happened to.

My days went by very quickly here. I totally enjoyed this city. Yes, it’s dirty and grimy and smoggy, disgusting and poverty is all around, but it’s so full of life and the people are so positive and welcoming. Phnom Penh is hard to resist.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to upload photos, so I don’t have too many new ones to show. I’ve also shot 6 rolls of film here, which I’ll have to develop when I get back. However, here’s some more photos from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This place has made the biggest impression on me.

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the monks and the killing fields

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 10, 2009

A couple of nights ago, I wandered around Phnom Penh with my camera ready for action when I heard a ‘hello’ coming from an open door. I looked back and a monk came out. We chatted a bit and he invited me into his quarters. He offered me tea and sweets and we talked a little bit. Shortly after, another monk joined us and he asked me if I wanted to help him with his pronunciation of English. I thought why not and promised to be back the next day. So, the next day I went over again and I let them read from their textbooks while I corrected them, or explained the meaning of certain words. Cats were running around, other monks came and went. It was really neat. And we repeated this the next day.

After the second lesson, they asked me if I could come back again and I told them that I would, but that I was planning on going to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum the next day. Then one of them said he’d never been there and if he could come, too. I was actually pretty shocked he asked that question. It never crossed my mind a monk could ask a solo female traveler to go out to somewhere. But yes, absolutely, I thought it would be great to have them come with me and I said I’d pick them up the next day at noon.

So, the next day, I show up at noon. Monk Mony was already waiting outside, holding a book about the Killing Fields. The other monk, and I sadly forgot his name (if I see him again, I’ll ask) wasn’t able to make it so I had a bit of a dilemma because I couldn’t take just the one. So Monk Mony asked another monk if he wanted to come and he said yes. He had not been to the Killing Fields either. So we get in the tuk tuk and made our way to Choeung Ek (the Khmer name for the Killing Fields). They were slightly giggly on the way there, especially when the rain came down in biblical proportions, but as soon as we got there, it all changed.

The monks were cheap dates.  When I asked for three tickets, the lady said: “the men don’t pay, only YOU pay”.

There really isn’t all that much to see but it’s very haunting to be there. There’s a big stupa filled with about 5,000 skulls. Some of them have obvious trauma, such as cracks and parts smashed in. Then there’s the mass graves. Because it had been raining so much, they were full of water. And mud. So we walked around the fields for a bit.

The monks looking at one of the many mass grave sites.

The  Magic Tree; the sign reads: “the tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” To make sure that the killing of  people was kept a secret, the killers played revolutionary music through two loudspeakers hung from the tree, so the cries and screams would not be heard by the unknowing soldiers who were growing rice next to the site.

When we got back to the tuk tuk, I told them that I was going to Tuol Sleng, the notorious security prison 21 (formerly a high school), where between 1975 and 1979 some 17,000 to 20,000 people were taken to under the Khmer Rouge regime. Though all kinds of different people entered these chambers of hell — men, women, children, teachers, intellectuals, monks, and everybody else branded as ‘class enemies’ — their sentences were uniform and determined as soon as they got arrested: death.

Only 7 people detained here over those 4 years made it out alive after the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh in january 1979.

The museum is pretty much left as how it was found by the Vietnamese.  You can still see where blood stained the tiles.  On the ground floor each room has a bed with a few pieces on it, such as shackles. On the wall there’s a  photo of that same bed with a tortured to death prisoner on it.There’s nothing else in those rooms.

In another building you see displays of thousands of photos of prisoners. Some of them have blank stares, others have agonizing fear in their eyes.  Then there’s the photos of prisoners after they’re killed. Seemingly endless rows.

The top floors show the cells. They are tiny, maybe 80 cms wide and 150 cms long. Prisoners were bolted to the floor there. Some of them have barred windows, others are completely dark.

Somewhere on a wall somebody wrote:

“When this was a prison, nobody learned.
When this was a school, nobody died.”

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phnom penh

Posted in cambodia, phnom penh by moonwire on September 6, 2009

I took a tuk tuk on Friday Morning to Wattay International airport. A tuk tuk is a motorbike with a carriage attached to it. I love these things, despite perpetually getting overcharged for them (they are as much as a regular taxi). You don’t go too fast and because it’s open, except for a roof, you get to see all kinds of things. The sun was still low enough to give that nice warm light and with a few choppers flying low, and the morning ‘rush hour’ in full swing, I felt as if I was in a Vietnam war movie.

I flew with Vietnam Airlines to Phnom Penh. It was a pretty big jet plane originating in Hanoi, making stops in Vientiane, Phnom Penh and continuing onwards to Saigon. There were only few people on it. Makes me wonder if I’d been taken for a ride by being told all the flights to Phnom Penh were full until Friday. Doesn’t matter. Had I left Vientiane earlier, I would not have experienced the beauty of that city like I ended up experiencing. Just for this reason, and my own sanity, I have decided that spending a week in every place, unless I really hate it, is a good thing.

I arrived in Phnom Penh just before noon. My flight actually took off early, how un-Asian. I checked into the Tonle Sap Guesthouse on street 104. The tuk tuk driver told me not to go there as it’s the ‘red light district’. I had checked before, and yes, most bars and guesthouses here are of the ‘girlie’ variety, but my guesthouse wasn’t one of them. So I checked in. The room was ho hum. Clean, but dark without character. I had good free wifi there, which was a bonus. And a kick ass bathroom with a tub.

In the afternoon I ventured out a little in the neighbourhood. So busy. So full of life and so full of ‘crumble’ and poverty as well. But the people… I couldn’t take two steps without getting a hello or a smile. One man stopped me and pointed in the sky, I looked, there were monkeys crossing the road on the wires. I saw a man on a motorbike with a kid on the back. He was holding the kid’s IV. People holding infants and entire dining room sets while riding a scooter. Mayhem.

At night I wanted to go for a beer. The bar at my guesthouse was a bit too dingy and ‘girlie’ for me, so I went across the street to a neat little Norwegian owned place called ‘Velkommen Inn’. I sat down outside with an Angkor beer. A woman who worked there came out to sit with me and we chatted. Her name was ‘Noj’ (not sure how to spell it). We talked. She said they were also running a non-girlie 5 room guesthouse upstairs. She showed me a room that would become available the next day. I told her I’d like to move in there for the week.

The following day, I walked around some more in the neighbourhood and in the afternoon I bought my ‘krama’ (typical Cambodian checkered scarf) and took a tuk tuk around town. I took some shots, nothing really good, but it was interesting to see the city like that. After that, I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club (the FCC or ‘the F’ as they call it here) for some happy hour pastis. This place was pretty busy. All foreigners, of course. I had already been wondering where they were hiding because as I was walking through the streets I encountered very very few. I think because there’s not a lot of touristy things here, most people just pass through to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum (S21), then onto Angkor Wat.

Dilapidated apartment blocks; they’re everywhere.

I watched the sunset from their balcony. Absolutely amazing. But I also saw some disturbing stuff. I saw a man with one leg crawling through heavy traffic trying to cross the street. I was holding my breath watching this go down. The contrasts here are amazing. In the afternoon we went through a busy shopping street with modern malls and shops selling high end DSLR gear (and some film cameras, I noticed, I will go back to check that out) and well dressed Khmer getting out of a Lexus SUV, then a few streets over there’s children dressed in rags, amputees sitting in the dirt in front of make-shift shacks.

Another weird thing I didn’t realize is that this is a USD economy. The ATMs dispense USD and for most of the stuff you pay in USD but you might get change in Riel. And you can pay with a combination of USD and Riel here. At first this threw me off, but now I look at it as USD being the bills and the Riel are the coins and it’s actually very convenient.

So far, I love this place. It’s not as cheap as I imagined, though. Yes, buying a bowl of noodles at a stall is dirt cheap, but anything more like a ‘real’ cafe or restaurant is much more expensive than Thailand, or even Laos. Or maybe I’ve become jaded after Indonesia and Thailand where it’s very easy to find a $2 lunch at a restaurant. But the people here are so friendly and chatty. Yes, getting asked if I want a motorbike or tuk tuk every two seconds is kind of annoying, but just looking at their smiles makes me smile too.

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