Thursday, May 21, 2009

Phnom Penh: Dusty and Hot... and Awesome.

We left Saigon at around 3 PM, and were assured that we would be in Phnom Penh a mere six hours later- border crossing included! That sounded almost too good to be true since we spent about 2 or 3 hours at the Laos/Vietnam border, but still, we went with it.

From Saigon it takes about 2 hours to get to the border. While on the bus (12$ US) one of the attendants asked us for our passports. He took every passport on the bus, filled out our arrival and departure cards, took the 25$ US for our Cambodian Visa and did *absolutely everything* for us. All we had to do was pass through to show the border officials that we were the same person as in the passport. It was the easiest and fastest border crossing. Ever. I totally recommend the bus.

When you arrive in Cambodia you don't see any poverty. You see a lot of casinos. A lot. Right at the border.

Our bus stopped just outside the border and we had our first Khmer meal. It was pretty yummy, actually, considering I had heard mediocre things about Cambodian cooking (same as Thailand, only bland, apparently). Their curries (amok) are quite sweet with pineapple. I didn't like that so much. But they made a delicious pork and egg soup that I enjoyed pouring over my rice, and their meat and stir fries were great, too. I think a lot of the food catered to tourists is mediocre, but this backroads place was pretty great!

We arrived in Phnom Penh at about 9:30 PM. We're getting used to busses dropping us off in the middle of nowhere, outside of the cities or in front of a guesthouse that gives the bus company money, so while we were prepared we still lucked out since we met two Australian girls who were living in Phnom Penh for several weeks, volunteering at a hospital. I've noticed that expats here generally work for an NGO or have drug/sex addictions. And then there are the perfectly normals ones who just love the country and the people.

Anyway, the Australian girls offered to share a tuktuk with us, and we were relieved, because you never know how much it should cost to get somewhere, which means you never know if you're getting ripped off. It was much easier to just follow the girls to their guesthouse.

Most of the good guesthouses in Phnom Penh are located in a place called the "Lake District". It is full of backpackers, full of restaurants, and full of people trying to sell you stuff. It's a bit hard to find, so again we were lucky to have the girls show us around. The guesthouse we wanted to stay in was full, so we stayed at a very cheap and slightly sketchy guesthouse until the next morning, when we moved into the air conditioned, cable TV room that we've gotten so used to renting since Vietnam. We ate breakfast and then hired a tuktuk driver for the day.

The city was once known as the "Pearl of Asia" and since the Khmer Rouge days it has started to fall apart, piece by piece. The French colonial buildings still stand, and they are beautiful, but most are in desperate need of paint and plaster. I remembered from the books I read by Khmer Rouge survivors that some of the best memories the authors had as small children included sitting with their Dads in the evening on their apartment's balcony, watching the world go by.

Driving through the wide boulevards of Phnom Penh, I could almost see what the city was like in her glory days, which families out socializing, sitting out on their balconies and eating in the restaurants. Today the people still smile and they continue to make a living, but you can see the remnants of war sketched on everyone's face. I think it will still take a few generations to heal the wounds of the Khmer Rouge. Forget the current trials- most of the people involved are corrupt government officials and, many, former Khmer Rouge, but the people of Cambodia are so resiliant and I really love their country.

As someone recently told me, Cambodia's economy is growing thanks to the investments of other Asian countries- namely, Korea! You see Korean busses and businesses everywhere here, and plenty of signs are translated into Korean as well. Who knows what Korea's motive really is, but I like to think that they, more than most countries, understand what it's like to strengthen your economy after war, so I think it's cool that they've taken an interest in Cambodia.

Indeed, there are lots of ways to get involved in community projects here, moreso than anywhere else in Southeast Asia. NGO's, volunteer projects, orphanages, fair trade- the possibilities of doing some good are endless in this country, but you should do your homework before you think about volunteering. Lots of "projects"and "organizations"here are really just tourist traps- you spend money on something you think is worthwhile, but your money just goes into some businessman's pocket. We really lucked out when we volunteered at our orphanage... more on that later!

Of course, no visit to Phnom Penh is complete without witnessing the atrocities the Khmer Rouge commited during their regime of terror in the 1970's. It''s difficult to see, but I think it's one's duty as a human being to see what can happen when the wrong person comes into power and always remember. I often wonder where the governments of our great countries of the West were while the Khmer Rouge were killing millions of their own people. I mean, I know they were secretive about it, but wouldn't you start to wonder what was going on when an entire capital city is cleared of people, all foriegners are expelled and the currency is obliterated? I suppose there's a lot about this time that I don't understand, but walking down the streets of Phnom Penh and seeing seeing people in Cambodian villages you can tell that the war is still affecting them, and the form the war has taken today is poverty.

That being said, so far Cambodia has been a great country and everywhere you look there are new businesses, developments and wonderful people. Those living in rural or poverty stricken areas no longer want your charity; they want their children to have an education and have the same chance in life as other children. Giving in to children begging on the street or trying to sell you trinkets in frowned upon, and Cambodians now ask you not to support this kind of thing. There are other, better ways you can help.

I think everyone should come to Cambodia. This country is amazing! The kids are wonderful, the food is wonderful, the hospitality is top notch and the stories people have will melt your heart and bring tears to your eyes. You'll never forget this place once you visit.

Pictures coming soon!

1 comment:

  1. Usually when you think of busses you think of the bright yellow ones that you used to be forced to ride on the way to school but not anymore. Although busses are still primarily focused on bringing transportation to a large number of people at a time, they are now shifting their attention to building busses made for luxury and style. They are comfortable and fun to ride and drive.