I heart Cambodia PART TWO

Jun 20, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Uncategorized

(By Cori) Cambodia continued….after our time in Battambang in December 2011 we headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and left there in time to spend New Year’s on the coast in a seaside fishing town called Kep.  These final two weeks in Cambodia continued to convince me that I was in a very special country.  Read on!
Phnom Penh turned out to be, unexpectedly, a really memorable city

Usually we end up disappointed by capital cities when we’re traveling…they either are not tourist-friendly, too polluted, crowded, may not be safe, and just don’t have a great vibe or cozy feel.  Yet Phnom Penh ended up being a very enjoyable place to pass 3-4 days. Why?
We made a new friend. While waiting for our bus in Battambang we started chatting with a guy who looked like he was either Canadian or American (we were right – he was from Denver Colorado). Thom turned out to be a kindred spirit and we happily shared life and travel stories all the way to Phnom Penh and then Thom told us to pick a place for dinner and he’d treat us that night. WHAT?! We were so surprised and also super excited…this would be the first time during our travels (10 months at this point) that we’d actually be eating at a nice restaurant and not giving thought to budget. Yay! After an amazing night of food and beers and lots of personal, professional, and travel stories, we were all fast friends and spent the next two days sightseeing and dining together.  You meet a lot of people while traveling, less I suppose when you’re a part of a couple but still a good amount, yet being a picky person in general, it’s not often that I want to spend extensive time (usually a few hours is enough) with new people, or have any urge to follow up on a conversation that was started. Happily, Thom was different and joined a short list of people that I’ve met during my travels who I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to keep in touch post-trip.


We ate well.  Phnom Penh, catering to tourists and expats alike, has an abundance of restaurants to choose from – from the very budget conscious to the gourmet foodie, featuring cuisines from all over the world. Who knew? We had our first taste (literally) of this at the dinner Thom treated us to at a lovely restaurant called FISH where we feasted on salmon, snapper, and all sorts of yummy fishy appetizers that I can’t recall now.  Dinner for another two nights in a row (yes, shameful but we couldn’t help it) was at CANTINA, a Mexican restaurant that for the first time in all our travels, produced exceptional Mexican food. Homemade chips, guacamole, and amazing beer battered fish tacos made us instant fans. But our favorite meal? Our last day in the city while we were waiting for our bus to Kep we were searching for a quick and easy lunch close to the bus terminal where we could stow our big bags and have a cheap meal. Most of the restaurants that fit the bill were Chinese, and the one we stumbled into had friendly staff that greeted us with waves and smiles and our waiter cheerfully gave us menus that were in Chinese only (but had pictures!) and pantomimed that we should point at things we wanted. We ended up ordering what seemed like dumplings of some sort, a plate of string beans, and a plate of some tofu saucy dish. Sounds bland, right? Well when they came out we realized that we were in for Chinese family style dining with a big bowl of rice in the middle of the table and individual small bowls to scoop in rice and a portion of the main dishes. It was beyond delicious – the highlight for me were the crunchy string beans with a garlic sauce that was so unbelievably good I ate probably 80+ beans. A totally unexpected experience and one that set us up well for our bus ride to Kep.


We went to fun markets. We had read about the Russian Market (so called because of its popularity among Russian expats during the 1980s) and heard it was a great place to get cheap designer goods and souvenirs so we figured we had to go. It was set up as most markets are, with narrow and dark aisles absolutely overflowing with vendor stalls. What was for sale ranged from hardware to cosmetics to food (both raw and prepared), clothing, souvenirs, you name it! I was in search of high quality goods and got lucky when we found a stall selling crocodile skin accessories. Very unlike me, but I fell for a crocodile wallet and Brandyn managed to bargain down to a mere fraction of what I would’ve paid at home. The vendor wasn’t happy about it which meant we had gotten a good deal. With my fun purchase out of the way it was time to move on to checking off an item on Brandyn’s ‘to do’ list – trying durian. For those not in the know, durian is a big fruit (maybe the size of a small watermelon) with a spiky exterior that has a reputation for being really really stinky – like a very ripe bleu cheese or old gym socks.  In many places (like hotels) its banned. Literally – there are signs with pictures of durian and an X through it. So OF COURSE we had to try it, and we had been on the lookout for a small piece of durian that we could purchase, but most markets only sold the whole thing, which was a waste since we only wanted a tiny slice and we certainly couldn’t bring the rest of it home since it was banned in our hotels. But we got lucky at the Russian market! We found a fruit vendor that was willing to slice off a chunk of durian for us, and the second she put the knife to the flesh whoo-whee you could smell that! We carried our little styrofoam-packed bundle out to the street and opened it up. Fleshy, pale yellow fruit in a weird bloated oval shape – unappealing. We all tried it (me, Brandyn and Thom) and agreed it wasn’t worth all the drama but it was an unusual fruit. It was creamy and tasted a bit sharp (kind of like it smelled) but it was the texture really that I didn’t like. Very slimy yet firm, hard to describe but not a sensation I had before.


But the market fun wasn’t over! Brandyn was tired of shopping so went back to the hotel to rest and Thom and I pressed on, visiting Central Market with a goal of buying fun jewelry. Well, we did it. We were greeted with rows upon rows of glass-encased displays of gemstones…loose ones, earrings, rings, necklaces, everything! It was totally overwhelming but I quickly zeroed in on a few cases and chose a huge aquamarine ring and a pair of pink ruby studs. The super friendly staff bent over backward to convince me the gems were real (not that I really cared- it was cheap and fun to shop). Part of their spiel was to pull out a small hand-held machine that they focused on the gem in question and pressed a button and some special light went off and beeped alerting me that it was a real gem. They then passed the machine over a fake gem (which looked the same) and the machine made a wah-wah noise or something to tell me ‘not real’. Sigh. No matter, I got some shiny jewelry for less than $30 so I was happy.

We watched group exercising. Along the banks of the Mekong River there was a wide promenade/walkway that was a good spot for gazing at the river, the French colonial buildings and restaurants across the Boulevard, or the groups of locals exercising (one of my favorite sights).  I had become accustomed to seeing pairs of older people wearing track suits and walking slowly around a park, swinging their arms energetically, or doing a graceful Tai Chi routine, but the sight in Phnom Penh was a bit unique. There were about 4 groups of maybe 20 people each out along the promenade. Each group had a leader (my favorite was a young man in tight jeans, tank top and sideways hat) and a giant boombox (yep, old school kind) and was leading the group in a sort of random aerobic dancing routine that involved a lot of movement, but yet so slow that it didn’t seem like it would cause anyone to break into a sweat. Totally out of synch with the upbeat pop or rap music playing, but everyone was having a good time – from kids to the pretty darn old – and it had a wonderful communal feel to it. We debated for a moment joining in, but opted for dinner instead.

We learned a lot about Cambodian history. All cities should ideally present opportunities for visitors to learn about that country’s (or city’s) history and experiences, and typically that takes the form of a museum or a city tour that features a few prominent cultural and governmental buildings. But in Phnom Penh we were impressed in what they had to offer by way of a history lesson.  Two of the first things we did in this city were visit the Killing Fields (or Choeung Ek in Khmer) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Center or S-21 prison camp. These are important historic sites serve to educate visitors as well as memorialize victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Killing Fields were a 30 minute tuk tuk ride outside of the city and the three of us (Brandyn, Thom and I) were not entirely sure what to expect.  It is one of many places throughout Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime executed thousands of people (I think 17,000 at this specific site) and left them in mass graves.  The area is now essentially a memorial, and looks like a wide field with various signage where old buildings used to be, and indentations in the earth where the graves were/are.  The self audio tour was perfect, allowing us to move around at our own pace listening to the explanations of various locations on the site and also some survivor stories. It was all quite emotional and I was thankful that there was shady space to sit and reflect, and ironically, absorb the horrors of what you were learning about in a quite serene environment. I had a heavy heart throughout most of the audio tour, just finding my mouth dropping open at the descriptions of the mass executions and the barbaric ways the Khmer Rouge had of killing its own citizens. I will never look at a palm tree the same way again after learning that the stems (which if you look closely have razor sharp edges all along the side) were a ‘cheap’ method for slitting people’s throats (no need to waste bullets). We also learned that after it rains you can still see bits of bone, teeth, and fragments of clothing that are washed up out of the ground…which we did. Chilling. The memorial stupa was an impressive site – a tall glass sided Buddhist stupa  that houses the categorized remains of victims that have been excavated from the Fields – maybe about 8,000 skulls in all, arranged by age and gender and body part…skulls on one shelf, arm bones on another, etc. The sheer volume of the place just made you stop and stare and think.


Our trip to the S-21 prison proved to be just as educational and shocking/horrifying as the Killing Fields. The prison is located in central Phnom Penh at the site of a former high school that was taken over and turned into a prison in 1975. Here the Khmer Rouge took innocent citizens, labeled them as political prisoners and tortured them (often in the form of interrogations to try to get them to admit they worked for the CIA – what??!!), and then those that didn’t die in the prison were often sent to the Killing Fields to be executed. Few survived. We hired a guide to help us better understand the prison and its place in Cambodian history. He took us to visit several cells that literally made me queasy. They were bare for the most part, with a rusty metal cot, some chains, and usually several blood stains (real) on the walls and/or floor. To illustrate what happened in the cells, most of them had an enlarged photograph on the wall of a victim in the aftermath of some type of torture. This was probably the worst thing I had seen…because they were real photographs and you couldn’t even in some cases recognize that it was a human on the metal cot because they were so disfigured or bloody. We also saw hundreds of ‘mug shots’ that were on display; all prisoners were photographed upon arrival to S-21 and some of them had their prisoner number safety pinned to them – through their skin, not their clothes. And many of them were young! Even worse was knowing that they were all innocent people just living their lives and then captured and corralled into prison by a completely wacko regime.  And this was happening between the time that I was born and turned 3. I was really thrown off by that – thinking about parallel lives and what I was doing and my parents were doing at the time that Cambodians were being slaughtered. Unreal.
A high point for me of visiting the S-21 prison was meeting 2 of the survivors. On January 7, 1979 when Vietnamese forces seized Phnom Penh and overthrew Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, there were 7 surviving prisoners at S-21. These individuals had escaped death because they had skills that their captors believed to be useful (for example, one prisoner was an artist and was forced to draw portraits of Pol Pot). Two of these men were at the prison selling (and signing) books about their experience and greeting visitors. Our guide introduced us to one and translated for us as he described his time at S-21. I was incredibly moved…this man had bright expressive eyes and a friendly face and though he was speaking Khmer he was making eye contact with me and speaking as if we had a connection. He was showing us his fingernails that had been removed as a form of torture and it was hard to look at him without tearing up at all he had been through. Absolutely emotional.

While visiting Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng wasn’t the happiest or most fun part of our time in Phnom Penh, it was definitely the most important and made me feel connected to Cambodia in a way that no country to date has.

Crabs, pepper and new beginnings

For New Year’s we wanted to be somewhere totally relaxing and not be in a city so we took a bus to the Cambodian coast.  Quick highlights…
THE BAD: BEACHES The beaches at Kep are bad. Well, the beach at Kep is bad. It’s just one sad lonely strip of sand that is dark yellow and off a major (though still quiet) road, with no chairs, nowhere to change, and no cozy palm trees to sit under. The water was dark blue, and not that inviting looking, in spite of how ridiculously hot it was. There were a few locals playing around and wading in the water but it hardly was what you would call a tourist draw.


Here’s the thing about beaches: you never know whose opinion to trust about them. Throughout our travels we’ve had lots of people telling us that beach X or beach Y was so gorgeous and we’d get there and it would be mediocre at best. I’m a beach snob.  A beach isn’t a good beach until it has turquoise crystal clear water and white sand. We have had people tell us about a number of beaches on this trip and many of them have been just okay. Ko Lanta in Thailand, Mui Ne in Vietnam, Palolem in Goa…we went to all three of those with high expectations and were disappointed by the beach and the water and (in some cases) the atmosphere.  So we were skeptical about going to Kep and in some ways, rightly so.

THE GOOD: CRABS Apart from the beach, everything at Kep was awesome. The focal point of the town (for us anyway) was the Crab Market, where  every day at the pier you can find women hoisting crab traps out of the water and a market area where locals are buying and selling crabs, grilled squid or sting ray on sticks, different fruits, sauces/spices, and tons of other fishy-smelling but unrecognizable stuff.  Next to the pier is a row of rustic restaurant shacks that hang over the water and sell DELCIOUS food at bargain prices. Nothing better than sitting at a little wooden table staring at the sea, ignoring the stray dog sniffing at your legs and digging into a huge pile of meaty, perfect little crabs with kampot pepper (a local specialty) for $5.


THE FUN: NEW YEARS It was a strange New Year’s Eve but a good one. We wanted to kick off the night by going to the Crab Market for happy hour sunset watching but our timing was off and by the time we left our guesthouse we realized we were not going to have time to walk. Luckily, a passing motorcycle offered us a ride and we awkwardly squeezed all 3 of us on and zoomed off. Try and picture it if you will: This was a standard small motorbike and  we had a smallish man driver, then me literally with my breasts pressed up super tight against him, and then Brandyn (who is a giant in comparison to most people in Cambodia), trying to stay on the back and not have his feet drag on the ground. Definitely got a few looks from people on our way to the Market but for $1 it was a bargain ride.
We luckily caught the sunset and enjoyed a few beers and rounds of cards, and then moved on to another restaurant on the water and ordered what else but CRABS. We were planning to head back to our hotel to rest before heading out to some party closer to midnight but then loud booming music caught our attention and changed our plans. Next to the restaurants on the pier there were huge speakers set up playing terrible music at a deafening level, but there were a bunch of locals (mainly kids) dancing to it so it was a fun people watching moment. We decided (read: I insisted and Brandyn acquiesced) to stay and watch for a while so we bought a bottle of Jim Beam ($10!) and a few cans of Coca-Cola and made some classy budget drinks. It wasn’t long before a dancing woman approached us and pulled us to our feet, so we asked a nearby couple (travelers) to babysit our bottle of Jim Beam and we were led to the dance floor where we let loose to a random mix of super loud songs. Once the initial bout of self-consciousness was brushed aside, it was liberating to be swirling around among kids, adults, locals, and a few travelers. The mood was upbeat, everyone was laughing and having fun and I have to say it is probably the most fun I’ve had on New Years.
Later that night we went to a nearby hotel that was having a New Year’s party. While there wasn’t really an official countdown, there were fireworks, or rather, there were loud firecrackers that gave off some light being set off all around the pool so that the air was super smoky and the local dogs were freaking out and barking and running in circles around the fireworks. Not really our scene, but we did the requisite midnight kiss and then retreated to our guesthouse to sleep, lulled by the beat of the music which didn’t stop until 6am. A memorable way to bring in 2012!


THE BEST: RELAXATION Our final days in Cambodia before we crossed over into Vietnam were spent relaxing, which was nice after a lot of touristy activities in Phnom Penh and Battambang. Kep is a small, sleepy town with not too much going on  – there are no museums to visit and few sites to see so it’s a great place just to be. We spent most of our days reading or writing or researching Vietnam on one of the decks of our awesome hotel (The Boat House – which is not on the water and has nothing to do with boats but is a beautiful and airy guesthouse with fantastic staff). Every day the staff would ask what our plans were that day and while we felt a little dumb saying “um, just sitting here” that was the truth! Since we weren’t really on a tight timeline we didn’t feel like we had to rush out and see or do a million things – just soaking up the atmosphere was all we needed. We did take a nice walk through the National Park to get our blood pumping one hot morning, and we also rented a motorbike and zoomed around town a bit, but aside from that and daily walks to the Crab Market we kept things pretty low key.


The good thing about all that relaxation is that it made us itchy for a new adventure, so leaving Cambodia to head to Vietnam wasn’t as sad as I thought it would be. We left filled with great memories and a certainty that we would be back. Thank you (Or khun) for an amazing experience Cambodia!

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