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Southeast Asia

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia |

Traveling to Phnom Pehn

We departed Siem Reap on the third of December and traveled the 5.5 hours to Phnom Pehn in a big cushy air-con bus. Because we had purchased 2 ofthe last tickets, our assigned seats were 2 of the 5 seats across the very back row. The other three seats were occupied by three small, older Cambodian ladies who all took turns sitting in the seat that Brandon overflowed into. They took turns poking Brandon the whole trip. A little bizarre, but the women thought it was hilarious. They also shared some of their goodies, including these wee little barbequed bananas coated in a salty batter that we now purchase every time we can find.

With only 30 minutes remaining in our trip, our bus pulls off to a little road side stand. By now we are very accustomed to breaks either an hour into the trip, or just before arrival. Never is there a break halfway through. It appears that this particular trip actually has a bit of a purpose. The town of Skuon is famed for deep-frying fuzzy eight-legged spiders that are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not knowing this as I exited the bus, the small girl selling pineapples and bananas with a massive spider on the front of her shirt took me by surprise. At the food stands you are able to purchase a much less alive version of the critters. I bet if you’d ask they might even have barbeque sauce. Tangy. It appears the critters became a staple during the years of the Khmer Rouge rule, when food was in short supply.

Phnom Phen

Though French city planners imparted an organized grid style of streets and avenues about the city, after the Khmer Rouge rule when people started to repopulate the city they randomly picked a number for their house or business. This, I think suitably describes Phenom Pehn. It looks like what you or I may expect of a city, but a closer look reveals the dysfunction.

As a tourist, even with the modest budget that Brandon and I have, it is easy to live well. We are eating well and staying in a nice place, but the social issues plaguing the people of this city override any pleasures we might otherwise drive from such an experience. Our guesthouse has a display of artwork drawn by young women who took part in a rehabilitation program after having been sold as slaves, generally for sexual purposes. The back of our tour book has a full page ad to remind tourists that sex with children is illegal. The poverty is real and pervasive. When we walk home in the evening we always pass groups of kids rustling though garbage bags for recyclables to sell or perhaps even a bit to eat. Garbage is tossed about the city everywhere. Baskets and bags of garbage sit on the street for a garbage day that seems to never come. The smell of this garbage is omnipresent.

I don’t wish to impart a wholly negative view of the city, but for spoiled Canadians it is a difficult scene to swallow.

When you reflect on the history of Cambodia it is easy to understand how the present situation came to be. Just thirty years ago almost every educated citizen was slaughter or fled the country as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted to transform Cambodian society into a peasant dominated agrarian cooperative.

We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum that is an old high school that was transformed into a prison (S-21) during the KR regime. It was a very graphic, sad place. I can’t believe the main architects of such a brutal regime live long enough to die of old age. Pol Pot died recently in 1998.

Tourists also commonly visit the Killing Fields when in Phnom Pehn. As you can tell by the weight of this post, we fully understand the horrible things that have happened here with out needing to visiting a mass grave site. We decided to spend our allotted budget on something much more alive--a contemporary Khmer-Indian dance show put on by an Art Association. It was a really fun event

The great thing about this city is the children who yell “Hello!” from the inside of their homes when we pass them on the street. It is enough to melt your heart instantly. When you reply they giggle and get all worked up. Some kids like to come up and shake our hands. This is a novelty to them as a traditional Khmer greeting is a bow of the head with your hands in prayer position beneath your nose. We get to experience this many, many times a day and it will never get old.

Children’s Center for Happiness

We had made arrangements to volunteer at an orphanage (CCH) before we left home. When we arrived we were overwhelmed by the kids and their response to us. They were arguing over who got to hold our hands and show us around. The CCH is a really positive spot for a group of kids who have had a tough go of things. Unfortunately, we don’t really fit into the organization of things. They really need (and already have) volunteers to come two times a week for an hour, not people like us to can be there everyday for a month. We found that we disrupted the organization. Kids wanted to play with us and not study. They wanted to feed us meals and snack and would not accept our refusal. Most of all, it is very difficult for us to get around. Motorcycle drivers didn’t want to take us in to the area where the Orphanage was. There is no public transportation in the city so the CCH driver was driving us back and forth. Ultimately, we figured some financial support may be the best way to go about it. We went shopping for school supplies with one of the directors. It is a good thing we didn’t try to go shopping on our own. This lady haggled like you wouldn’t believe. We also would have bought the wrong supplies. I picked up a box of pencils and she shook her head no. She reached for a box that head the replaceable lead cartages so that the kids don’t all need to have pencil sharpeners too. We wanted to buy some pencil crayons because there is a lot of art drawn by the kids all around the center. 12 boxes of 12 pencil crayons was $5.00 USD and the director said they were too expensive to buy. Flat out ridicules she thought. Lady, If you only knew the foolish things I have spent 5 bucks on. We ended up getting them regardless.

CCH was a very positive experience and Brandon and I will contribute to their education fund. It will cost $250 USD to send one kid to university for a year. Nothing to you or I, but a huge sum in a country where a daily salary can range from $.50 to $3.00 USD.

It Was Only a Matter of Time

I had my first bout of food poisoning and was down for the count. Alas, this was not the result of some street vendor, but our nice guesthouse. I highly do not recommend food poisoning in a foreign country. The worst part of all is that our beautiful old guesthouse has thin walls. The staff and other guests were all concerned for me and I never told anyone I was ill.

On Monday the 12th we are going to head up North in Cambodia to Kratie and back south to the beach for Christmas. We are going to have a seafood picnic on the beach for Christmas dinner. We enter Vietnam on the 28th of December.

I have posted our pictures of the temples in my Siem Reap entry.

You can also search for Brandon Park on this site to read his postings.

Locations Visited: Phnom Penh

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