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Phnom Penh: The Gauntlet of Tuk-Tuks

Tuk-Tuk?”  The hopeful cry had become common in Phnom Penh. Every time we emerged in public it would be uttered, if we ignored them it would be repeated, louder and with more insistence. Even once we’d hired a scooter, and stood next to it with helmet in hand, we’d hear “Tuk-tuk?” look over our shoulder to see a lone driver watching us inquiringly. We gave a practised, “No. Thanks.” and walked on only to be approached by another driver within nanoseconds. Cambodia’s pricing policy is a little skewed- using US dollars for most transactions makes life expensive. A Tuk-tuk ride of 5km was priced at $10 which we found a little steep considering one can hire a scooter for less than $5 per day.
Scooter in hand, including badly fitted helmets, we planned our stay in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is one of the only countries in SE Asia which issue Indian visas to foreigners. We’d had no luck in Malaysia so this was a fine excuse to visit the town. We also wanted to ride along the Mekong river, see some of the many Buddhist monasteries and also visit the Killing fields. We paired up on the scooter, with Simon riding as the traffic was mayhem in town with crossflow scooters and a free for all attitude to junctions and roundabouts. We stopped for a Khmer coffee (strong dark coffee, ice and by choice- a little condensed milk) as for 80cents it was a welcome break in the intense sunshine.
The Mekong river runs through from China to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and ended up being a constant theme throughout our South East Asia mini-adventure. In Phnom Penh, it runs wide across the city with Monasteries, cheap bars and hostels jostling on its banks for space, the tiny side streets filled with sandwich vendors and booksellers.

Chillied Cockles by the bag


We wandered the streets, enjoying our $1 baguette sandwiches and avoiding the deep fried spiders and freshly seared cockroaches which were glistening in the sun. Flags from all over the world line the promenade as people sit and watch the river flow lazily past. The streets are busy here- people are sitting everywhere or pushing tiny trolleys selling drinks or snacks. The poorest sit next to a pot, cooking anything they can sell.

$1 Baguette sandwiches











Central Market produce

Oodles of noodles in Phnom Penh

We scooted up to the Central Market which, from the street, looked like it sold homeware and clothes but once inside found an Aladdin’s cave of treasures- everything and anything could be bought. The centre of the market, once you’d found your way through the maze of trinkets and clothes, held a vast, cross-shaped hall, filled with identical glass stalls of precious stones and jewelry. Each display case had a generous collection of sapphires, rubies and jade but some had rocks the size of a fist and it was with a little scepticism that we wondered as to the purity of the stone.




Deciding that mega-rocks were not on the agenda, we stumbled back into the sunlight and found a food market selling tiny shrimp by the kilo, cockles spiced with chilli and piles of fresh fruit and veg. Further beyond the mounds of fresh food, there were little street food stalls which offered noodles, summer rolls, spring rolls, soups, rice, omelette, BBQ anything, skewers and baguette sandwiches.

We took time to visit the Killing Fields – one of which is found in the outskirts of Phnom Penh (they are many sites throughout Cambodia).  It was a sobering and difficult experience which has been sensitively presented for visitors to learn more about the atrocities which happened in very recent history in Cambodia.  The audio guide is excellent and contains many first-hand experiences shared by victims of the genocide. The brutal murder of Cambodians by the hand of Pol Pot in the late 70’s has marked the area terribly. We saw the depressed earth where the mass graves were found, we saw shards of human bone and skull poking from the ground. We could see the conditions thanks to the vivid descriptions on the audio guide, of the tiny, dark shacks people were chained in, waiting for death. The tree which babies and infants were smashed to death against before being tossed into a swampy hole on top of all the other decomposing dead. The tools used to kill because bullets were too expensive to “waste” on the executions. We saw the memorial they have raised in the name of the dead, lined with the skulls which have risen to the surface after time, lined with the femurs and the weapons and the shackles and the jawbones. It was too much when leaving the cool interior of the memorial to be in the hot sun. The coldness and ambiguity of the metered deaths was overwhelming. It was only a small respite to pass through the museum at the end and see that justice was finally starting to be served- decades late and with only one remorseful perpetrator of dozens. Pol Pot lived in quasi-luxury and safety until his death. Supported by the West and the UN- funded by those who agreed to oppose genocide.

Monastery on the banks of Mekong

A sunset walk for the monks of Phnom Penh

Feeling muted and in despair at the behaviour of humankind, we needed some spiritual solace. Luckily, Phnom Penh is rich with monasteries so we swiftly headed to one to absorb the tranquility of the space and have some time away from the mad traffic and its calculating pedestrians. Towards sunset, we left and saw monks hurrying back from their daily duties, a reminder that life goes on and that we should all learn from evil which has happened to make sure it never re-occurs.



Leaving Phnom Penh behind (we had 5 days until our visas would be ready for collection) we took a bus to Siem Reap wher ewe hoped to visit Angkor Wat, one of the more spiritually important sites in SE Asia and on the same energy line as Borobodur in Indonesia. A small minibus picked us up and the practised Cambodian driver pelted through narrow, congested roads to get us to Siem Reap in no time! We missed our bikes hugely as from the windows of the bus we spotted bamboo houses on stilts in marshland, rice paddies, food stalls selling increasingly bizarre delicacies and much happier looking people. We were looking forward to Siem Reap and to concentrating on its beautiful temples instead of human misbehaviour.

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