Friday, 15 February 2013

Phnom Penh (1) - Our Introduction to Cambodia

The spirit house shrine at the
Cambodian border
The boat trip from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh took about 5 hours including border controls.  Before we reached the Vietnam border, not long after we left Chau Doc, our passports were collected and we paid the $20 visa fee.  We were checked out at the Vietnam border and a few minutes later, docked again, where we received our 30 day visas for Cambodia.  It was all very painless and soon we were travelling up the Mekong through Cambodia.

Once again, we were surprised by the lack of industry along the river.  The style of temples changed as soon as we crossed the border and, once again, we were amazed how the simple act of crossing an invisible line in the landscape changes in culture and custom so quickly.

Travelling by boat is definitely the way to go in this neck of the woods and the journey time passes really quickly.  We arrived at Phnom Penh in the mid afternoon and took our first tuk tuk ride to the guesthouse we had booked.  We have to confess we had booked into an Irish Pub.  Not exactly authentic but it was hot in Phnom Penh and priorities were (a) cold beer (b) a balcony and (c) cold beer.  We are pleased to report that Rory’s provided everything we needed: cold beer on tap served in frozen glasses and a balcony overlooking the Royal Palace and museum.

The riverside architecture changes as soon
as you cross the border
We headed out to the riverside early on our first evening where there are bars and restaurants galore catering to the tourist market.  We chose one place at random and sat outside with a couple of beers.  As we sat there watching the streets of Phnom Penh come alive after dark, it became painfully obvious to us just how much more poverty there was in Cambodia compared to Vietnam. 

To begin with there were a lot more beggars, mostly amputees (presumably victims of landmines which still litter the Cambodian countryside).  Paul is the keeper of the wallet and will always give a token to a beggar.  We were struck by the ready smiles we received from these people.  

There was one young guy who was a particularly tragic case – his arms and legs had all been amputated to one degree or another.  He was being helped about by a friend, although he was able to propel himself along with one of his arm stumps using a large tray with wheels.  He was a good looking guy, probably in his late 20s, and had a lovely smile.  We saw him a few times and he always acknowledged us, never asking us again for money after Paul gave to him the first time.

Kids waving from the shore
Arriving in Cambodia, it struck us that we had not really come across that much begging on the streets so far on our trip and Paul calculated he gave to more people on the street in two days Phnom Penh than he had the whole time in China and Vietnam.  Compared to Vietnam, poverty in Cambodia was much more prevalent.

There were also many children on the streets, mainly selling cheap souvenirs, postcards and books.  We never buy from children or give to children begging.   We were pleased to note that other people rarely do too but there are still lots of them working, and some look as young as 6 or 7 years old. 

Our balcony at Rory's Pub
Sitting on the pavement outside the riverside bar under the cooling fan there was a constant stream of beggars or children and cripples mainly trying to sell you something.  We bought a book from one seller written by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime (First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung – I highly recommend it).  He was a middle aged guy and as we negotiated a price and conducted our transaction he was very serious and business-like, but when we saw him later on as we were heading back to Rory’s, he tried to stop us to buy something but after a split second recognised us and gave us a huge smile, nodded and went on his way. 

Paul in particular was interested to see how other westerners dealt with this side of Cambodia and observed carefully (sometimes not very surreptitiously because he’s not always exactly subtle which can be bit unnerving for some people!).  However, his not so discreet survey ascertained that there are many people who give, but there are many, many more that don’t.  We don’t give a lot, it really is just a token in real terms by our standards, but we hope that what we give will make a small difference to that person.

A bit sobered by the contrast between Vietnam and Cambodia and, to be honest, tempted by the thought of ice cold beer in frozen glasses, we returned to Rory’s Pub.  Rory’s is more of an ex-pat’s pub than a travellers’ guesthouse.  It was opened by an Irishman (surprise surprise) 2004 but (as Rory himself informed us on the first evening when he popped in for a drink) he made a few dodgy financial investments and eventually sold up to an American called Chad.  Chad is married to a Cambodian lady which we believe accounts for the fact that the food is remarkably good, particularly the Khmer food. 

Peek-a-boo with Tokay gecko
Whilst staying in an Irish Pub run by an American is hardly the authentic Cambodian experience, we loved it and as I say, it had cold beer (did I mention it is served in frozen glasses?) and a balcony overlooking the Royal Palace was good enough for us.  And they were really helpful with bus tickets and any other information we needed, such as visa stuff.

We also had our very own Tokay gecko that lived outside on the balcony in the crevice between Rory’s and the building next door.  A Tokay gecko is a very large gecko (by gecko standards) growing to about 20 inches long which is bloody big for a gecko.  They are a grayish colour with orange or pink spots.  And they have a really distinct call.  And they are mainly nocturnal so they make this call at night.  All night and every night.  And apparently they have a bit of a ferocious bite and once they latch on, they will hang on for a while (45 minutes is not uncommon).  We gave our Tokay gecko a wide berth.

Inside the Royal Palace grounds
Our Tokay gecko shyly popped his head out of his crevice every evening to stare at us (staring at him) but apart from that he was annoyingly elusive.   That is, until one day when I nipped up to the room to fetch something and just stepped out onto the balcony to see if he was up yet, and the bugger was completely out of his hidey hole.  He was about 10 inches long with quite a fat body and a huge head.  Obviously I didn’t have the camera with me so I dashed downstairs to get it and ran back upstairs again but by this time it was really dark and he had poked his head back in so I only got a rather blurry picture his rear end! 

We became rather fond of our gecko during our stay at Rory’s, and irritated by him in equal measure.  We read that if he calls out 7 times or more in a row that is considered good luck by Cambodians.  We found ourselves spending the whole night listening to him calling and counting how many times he called (on average 6 times if anyone’s interested).

Inside the Royal Palace grounds
Apart from gecko watching, we didn’t get up to much in Phnom Penh.  It was baking hot, bearable only in the early morning for about an hour before sunrise.

We did manage visit the Royal Palace on one day and spent a couple of hours wandering about the various temples and pagodas.  Cambodian temples and pagodas are built in a distinctly different style to any we saw in Vietnam, with ornate roof and finial decorations, and the main imperial colours used are red and gold but green and gold are common with other temples. 

The Silver Pagoda is the most impressive within the Royal Palace (but you can’t take pictures inside and although many people pretend they can’t read or understand the signs, I prefer to respect the wishes of the country I’m visiting, particularly inside religious buildings).  The floor of the pagoda is covered with silver tiles (hence the name) and the space inside is crammed full of treasures including lots of gold and diamond encrusted Buddhas. 

Inside the Elephant Pagoda
After about 2 hours wandering about the Palace grounds the heat got the better of us in the end and we decided to head back to Rory’s.

As we left the Royal Palace there were a lot of booksellers and beggars hanging about.  We bought another couple of books from one seller and then were approached another one.  Paul explained that we had already bought 2 books, but he ended up buying another one all the same.  Then predictably, another bookseller approached us and it was then that he said despairingly “I can’t buy a book from everyone”.  His voice cracked as he said it and it was clear that the scale of the poverty of the place was getting to him.  He gave the bookseller something and we headed off quickly back to the guesthouse.  You do what you can, but of course, it’s never enough and he right, you can’t give to everyone.

Our last day was spent visiting Tuol Sleng Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields site which made for a quite harrowing day. I wrote a separate post about that day when it was fresh in my mind.  We were both incredibly moved by what we saw and what we learned, and for me personally it made me look into the eyes of the Cambodian people and try to understand them a little better. 

We both believe that it helps if you know a little about the history of a country and what its people have gone through. The Khmer Rouge regime brought the country to its knees and one quarter of the population perished.  Yet, it is true what they say about Cambodians, that a smile is never far from their lips

The view from the balcony
at sunrise
Another tragic side to Cambodia is the sex tourism is much more blindingly obvious here than in Vietnam.  There are what seems to be huge numbers of western men approaching or beyond retirement, wandering about with a young Cambodian girl on their arm.  Paul likes to refer to them as “sexpats” with as much disdain as he can muster.  Whilst we both accept that there are many genuine relationships where there is an age difference, we both believe that this kind of set up is the exception and it is of epidemic proportions in Vietnam and Cambodia.

We have seen lots of mixed couples, many with children, but when the couple are closer in age you don't give them a second glance.  Indeed, if you didn't come across so many couples where the age difference was so big you wouldn't give it a second thought either.  .

Some of these men could not make it more obvious that the reason they are in south east Asia is because of the women – either the prostitutes or the ease with which they can strike up a relationship with an accommodating local girl with much less hassle than it would be to maintain a relationship with a woman from their own culture.  

One guy openly spoke about south east Asian women being much better than western women – he didn’t go into too much detail in my presence but I suspect having an opinion is not one of the qualities he looks for in a partner.  Obviously this person was directing his conversation towards Paul the whole time but I was sat right next to him and wondered whether I had become invisible all of a sudden.. 

Paul is incredulous that they wear their disrespect and shallowness like a badge with pride.  For my part, it’s no bloody wonder men like him have to move half way across the world for a bit of attention.  They have such a high opinion of themselves and such a lack of respect for the opposite sex, no woman in her right mind would give them a second glance. 

The view from the bar at Rory's pub
We have no doubt they have money to some extent but you do not need much to be seen as wealthy in south east Asia.  What we cannot understand is how they do not realise how pathetic they look with a girl half their age on their arm, with a dead look in her eyes.  Paul is loath to make eye contact with any of these girls for fear they think he is one of these "sexpats” but I have caught the eye of one of two and I can’t say I see a glowing happiness; it is more a resigned acceptance tinged with a touch of boredom..

In a country where poverty is rife and education is an optional luxury, do these men not see that what they are doing is completely exploitative?  It makes us both very angry and very sad.

If anyone believes that these girls have a choice could they please explain to me what exactly that choice is?  Technically they may be exercising free will but if they really had the choice would they be shacked up with a fat, ugly bloke old enough to be their father or (in some cases) grandfather?  Don’t bullshit me and tell me that is every girl’s dream because I just don’t buy it.  Neither of us do.  Rant over.
The view from our balcony at night

Phnom Penh is a lovely city; it’s just too hot to do anything.  Apparently it cools down by a few degrees in the “cold” season but it’s understandable that the place grinds to a halt in the midday sun.  It’s almost impossible to move through the heat and humidity.  There is a definite “nap culture” in Cambodia too and something which we could get used to.

We were to return at least twice to Phnom Penh.  We enjoy the atmosphere because, despite everything, it is very relaxed.

And apart from being subjected to a few misogynist dinosaurs with an inflated sense of ego preying on the local girls so far we are loving Cambodia.

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