Monday, December 21, 2009

Taken for a ride (to Phnom Penh)

To catch everyone up, we've been in Cambodia since December 9th. We felt relatively confident in our ability to cross the border from southern Thailand without too much trouble having gotten visas in advance to avoid the extra fee the Cambodian border officials reputedly try to collect. We did have to pay our "helpers,"" who got the arrival forms and filled them out for us and the doctor who took our temperatures (to make sure we weren't going to infect the nation with H1N1), and then went off in search of the bus to Phnom Penh. We arrived at the bus station (after being told we needed to hurry because the last bus was at 9:00am by the taxi driver) to be told that the last bus to Phnom Penh (P-P hereafter) for the day had already left, and we would either need to stay overnight in town or hire a taxi (mind you, it was 8:30am, the town of Krong Koh Khong looked like the set from a spaghetti western and has a reputation for smuggling and prostitution, and P-P was about 180 miles away). Two bus tickets the following day would cost the equivalent of $30, and the taxi drivers told us they could take us to P-P for $70 (way more than our entire daily budget for this whole trip). We opted for the private taxi ride ("very comfortable, air conditioned, whole backseat to yourself," said the driver). So off we headed in a mid-90s Toyota Camry with the a/c blowing and the stereo blasting music that sounded like go go music from a Flint movie soundtrack with Khmer lyrics. Roughly halfway into the ride, we pulled off to the side of the road and were ushered out of the car and into another Camry, this one with three people across the front seat and one already in the rear. The driver made the woman in the back seat get up front also (FOUR adults in two bucket seats) since we paid to have the back to ourselves. I kept saying, "it's okay, sit back here," and patting the seat next to me, but no one would move (I did bathe with soap that morning). We arrived in P-P safely and got ourselves situated for the night and had dinner (having already totally blown the daily budget anyway, we figured we deserved at least one meal for the day). Later, after some further reading online, we learned that the buses don't actually leave from the bus station, the last one each day leaves at 8:30am from the bus company terminal in Krong Ko Khong, oops... and we thought the taxi driver was being helpful...
The next morning, we went out for a walk to orient ourselves and figure out what we wanted to see and do here. Unfortunately though, Colin wasn't over whatever he had in Ko Samet, so he stayed in the room and I went sightseeing for a couple of days. The Royal Palace is on many people's must see list, so I started there one morning. It was the king's residence and is actually where he was held, basically under house arrest, by the Khmer Rouge. Much of the grounds is off limits because he still spends time at the palace. The manicured gardens are just gorgeous, as are the buildings themselves. The Silver Pagoda, which is floored with pure silver tiles (the ones where you walk are covered with rugs, but you can still see many of them), has a solid gold Buddha statue that's about three feet tall (if the floor wasn't decadent enough on its own, but as Colin says, it must be good to be king).
The next afternoon, I went to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, a school that the Khmer Rouge took over to use for interrogation and torture. Only 7 people were found alive at Tuol Sleng when the regime was toppled. I can't adequately describe the feelings I had standing in the buildings looking at row upon row of "mugshot"photos of prisoners of all ages. To see a classroom with only a metal bedframe, leg shackles, a munitions box (used as a toilet by the prisoners), and a solitary photograph of a torture victim, knowing that was just one of many who died horribly, makes me wonder if people are inherently good or if most of us just try REALLY hard to overcome our evil tendencies. Anyway, it was a saddening and sickening experience. After that, I needed to see pretty things, so I went to Psar I Russei, one of several markets in the city. It's a dark, cramped, rabbit warren of stands selling foodstuffs, electronics, and housewares on the first floor and new clothes on the second. They save the best for last though, because the third floor is a drag queen and beauty pageant HEAVEN of silk, satin, lace, beads, sequins, push-up panties and shapers, shoes, and hair salons. I was obviously in the very wrong place to be shopping for myself, but it was really fun to see.
Once Colin felt better, we took the bus to Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat. The first day we did a walking tour of the town and plotted our 3-day visit to the temples. Siem Reap itself is built around the temple tourism industry, so there are lots of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops, but not much of substance. We did manage to find a guesthouse with a pool (yay), which was a welcome respite after tromping through the temples each day playing Lara Croft. Angkor Wat was one of the big highlights of our whole journey, and to see it in person was truly amazing. Every wall is decorated with carvings, inside and out. The craftspeople did some fine work a thousand years ago! We walked around tripping over stones because we were looking up at every surface around us saying, "Wow." We took a bazillion photos there, but they don't do it justice, Angkor needs to be seen in person.
We are back in P-P (it seems that all roads in Cambodia lead here!) and will be heading to Sihanoukville, which is on the coast, for a few days before going back to Thailand (Bangkok specifically). I can't believe it's almost Christmas. We have seen fake trees and Santas around here, but no snow (HA!). I hope you all have a very happy holiday, stay safe and warm, and be thankful for all that's good in life! Rebekah

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