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Phnom Penh

August 13, 2012

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Phnom Penh gets a bad rap. It’s known for being shady, dangerous, and for being filled with addicts, pushers, whores, petty thieves, and, worst of all, tuk tuk drivers. While all of these things are technically true, Phnom Penh also has interesting sights, great food, and an exciting nightlife. I ended up staying six non-consecutive nights, which is more nights than I’ve spent anywhere else on this trip not named “Bangkok.”

I got into town from Kratie a few hours ahead of Martin and Kris, and I checked us into Me Mate’s Place, a hostel near Wat Phnom. We got a four-bed dorm room to ourselves for $8 a night each. Me Mate’s instantly struck me as a kind of strange hostel. The guy at the desk introduced himself as Tony Montana. The hostel offered overpriced drinks, spotty-at-best wifi, and “happy truffles.” Depending on what they had to gain, the staff ranged from pushy to helpful to apathetic. More on this later.

I rode out to the airport on a hostel-sanctioned tuk tuk and collected Martin and Kris. When we returned to the hostel, Kris immediately jammed the wrong key in our door, and it got stuck. We took turns trying to remove it, and it broke off on my try, locking my stuff in the room. No locksmith service was available, so they let us stay in the larger dorm on the 5th floor with some random people.

As it would turn out, we would never need the dorm beds, as breaking the key somehow helped to instigate a crazy all-nighter that put “The Hangover” to shame. Though I would love to recount the events of our Saturday night out in Phnom Penh, my team of lawyers has advised me not to at this point. My streak of boring Saturday nights ended in dramatic fashion as we returned to Me Mate’s Place at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Not surprisingly, the rest of the day was a wash.

We spent the next day visiting Khmer Rouge sights. S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields were the most heartbreaking places that I’ve been on this trip, and maybe ever. Three million of Cambodia’s eight million people were killed in less than four years under Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge jailed and killed intellectuals, even though basically all of the leadership in the regime had advanced degrees from European universities. They emptied the cities and sent everyone to the fields, the goal being a fully agrarian system. It boggles the mind.

We spent the next four days in Siem Reap and Angkor (and arranged for a pick-up from a mate of Me Mate’s, which was how we met our kookie driver in Siem Reap to begin with). We returned to Phnom Penh on Saturday and re-checked into Me Mate’s, if for no other reason than the fact that I’d left some stuff there while we were away. Tony Montana and the gang were excited to see us back. This time, we had to go to the larger dorm on the 5th floor since our old room was booked.

We hit the Street 51 bar scene again, though with a bit less gusto than last time. This time around, we only stayed out until four in the morning or so. Poor Kris had to get up at 5:30 for his flight back to Seoul, so he kind of got the worst of both worlds. You want either four + hours of sleep or none, not the 75 minutes or so that Kris got.

Martin and I got up close to check out time and packed up. Martin was flying out late, and I was moving to a new hotel since Me Mate’s charged an extortionate-for-Cambodia $15 for a single room. I also had no desire to spend eight bucks on a dorm room that was in a fifth-floor walkup that the wifi signal didn’t reach. I ended up checking into a place called Chi Cha, which was closer to the city center and the river and offered kicky in-room wifi, cable TV, and had an attached Indian restaurant, all for eight bucks.

Martin and I ended up walking around downtown quite a bit, to the museums and palaces. We split a quattro fromage pizza, likely the best pizza I’d had in Asia.

Phnom Penh is a sneaky-good food town. Cambodian food is fairly tasty (though I definitely liked Thai, Lao, and Malaysian much more on this trip), and the western food could be the best in Asia. Breakfasts were far superior to anywhere in Thailand or Laos. Beyond that pizza, I had an awesome bleu cheese salad one night, and we also ate solid Mexican, Indian, and Thai food.

We had to return to Me Mate’s Place one last time to get Martin’s tuk tuk to the airport. The lobby was its usual weird self. There was this white girl that hung out in the lobby, like, all the time. I think she was there every time we passed through it. The only thing I could figure is that she must be Tony Montana’s girlfriend since she cuddled up with him a lot. Most annoyingly, she was always on her computer, always, and using the internet even when it was “down” at the hostel. Obviously, she had the password to an adjacent business with better wifi, but when I asked Tony if he knew the password, he said no. Clearly this was a lie. I don’t know why this bothered me so much, but it did.

I decided to stay in Phnom Penh one more night after Martin left, mainly because I didn’t have any other particular plan. I had a cheap, nice room and I could hang out in cafes with fast wifi and drink cheap beer, so that’s what I did.

With Martin and Kris gone, I didn’t really have a compass anymore. I knew I was going to Vietnam and already had my visa, but I didn’t know when I would go, where I would start, and which route I would take. Up until this point, I always had some sort of control city on the horizon. When I started in Kuala Lumpur, I knew I was meeting up with Scotty in Melaka the next week. After I opted to go north from Melaka rather than to Sumatra, I was always moving toward Bangkok. By the time I got there, I’d already booked my flights to Burma and the Philippines. I went to Chiang Mai knowing I’d return to Bangkok to go to Ko Samet with Scott, and I knew I was flying to Burma from there. I knew I had 18 days in Myanmar before flying back to Bangkok to hang out with Jon and Dana, and I knew I was going to Dumaguete to meet up with Cores after that. When I got back to Bangkok from the Philippines, I knew that I had around 3 weeks to tour Chaing Rai and Laos before meeting Martin and Kris. Now I was alone in Phnom Penh. I could go to Sihanoukville to hang out with Chris, the dude I met in Luang Prabang. I could go to Kep and Rabbit island for a quieter beach. I could go straight to Saigon. Or, as I discovered after buying a Vietnam Lonely Planet, I could take a boat from Phnom Penh to Chou Doc, Vietnam in the Mekong Delta.

Ultimately, I chose option D. Cambodian beaches would have been cool, but I wanted to hurry up and get to Vietnam. My trip was now four months and two days old. I’d always said five months, but now it looks like it’s headed for overtime. Maybe I have a compass after all.

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The balcony at Me Mate’s. Monkeys walked along these power lines a lot. I’d never seen wild monkeys in such a big city before.

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S-21 Prison, which used to be a high school. Pol Pot’s prisoners generally came here to “confess” before being sent off to the Killing Fields.

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The rules at S-21.

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Pictures of a few of the victims. Khmer Rouge was in power from 1975-1979, so a lot of these people would probably still be alive today.

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A room full of individual cells.

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Martin in one of the cells to show how small they are.

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Another view of S-21 from an upper floor.

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The memorial pagoda at the Killing Fields.

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This type of tree has really sharp and course leaves, which Khmer Rouge used to slit the throats of the victims. Almost everyone was bludgeoned or stabbed to death, as Pol Pot didn’t want to spend extra money on bullets.

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Even now, bone fragments or clothing scraps will raise up from the shallow mass graves when it rains.

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Just a few of the many skulls in the pagoda.

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The uniforms all citizens were required to wear.

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This sculpture is near downtown Phnom Penh.

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A view of the river (not the Mekong, though this river merges with it about two miles south of here) from the 5th floor of Me Mate’s.

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A temple near the national palace.

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This statue is of a Hindu god, but I forget which. It had a really wispy hipster mustache. Martin’s joke – somebody should photoshop a PBR into its hand.

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A park right outside the palace.

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The royal section of town, taken from my boat to Vietnam on my way out of town.

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