Thursday, 13 October 2011

More Phnom Penh

Like many cities PP needs to be eased into but its also a city that seems to fit some people like a glove & they never leave. So far I've met 8 people who arrived in Cambodia on a variety of pretexts & all decided to say & half of them now have Cambodian wives.

Its just as well I didn't bring any Cambodian riels from the UK because nobody in Cambodia wants them. Virtually all transactions are in US dollars although you might get some riels in change.

There seem to be fewer begger children around in the day, some are busy collecting stuff (no idea what) in sacks & others are hopefully at school. But there's no peace for bar-flys along the riverside - touts are busy selling sunglasses, books, maps & guides, trinkets, & wheeled carts hawk drinks, fruit, popcorn, candyfloss & much else.

Compared to Vietnam the streets are relatively easy to walk around, its a busy place, just not insanely frantic. All over the place there are street market stalls, mainly catering for the practical needs of local people but the Central Market is an amazing place, more reminiscent of a great domed mosque rather than a down to earth market place. At its centre all the stalls seem to be selling gem stones or maybe they're paste, I wouldn't know. The four arms radiating from the central area are full of more typical stalls selling everything a tourist might want to buy.
There is no city public transport system, proper taxis are rare, motorbike taxis (motodup) are ubiquious, cheap & hazardous; the humble rickshaw (cyclo) is common in tourist areas but the tuk-tuk (moto-romauks) is king of the road.
Cambodian tuk-tuks are not purpose built as elsewhere but are motorbikes with a towbar welded to the back & a passenger or cargo trailer attached. Tuk-tuk drivers are perennially optimistic folk - if 10 tuk-tuks are lined up next to each other then you'll be asked 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir, 'tuk-tuk sir - with no sense of irony - & if the tenth one ignores you - you think - yes, result, someone listened to me.

PP is a relatively new city & little existed before 1863. The Royal Palace is the grandest place in town, the grounds are peaceful, if its not too busy, its full of classic multi-tiered Khmer style buildings & lovely gardens that you're not allowed into. The entrance fee of $6.50 is a bit pricy by local standards but it would be foolish to miss it.
A far more important place to visit is Toul Sleng Genocide museum or S-21 as the Kymer Rouge called it or Toul Svay High School as it originally was. It became the Pol Pot regimes sadistic torture centre from 1975-78 & tortured & murdered more & more people every year of its existence. Like the Nazis the guards kept meticulous records of their victims including death counts roughly scratched on the wall.
Nothing is held back, the torture equipment is still there, photographic evidence & illustrations by one of the few survivors are on display. Its absolutely horrific but important to know about. The realisation that previously ordinary people (neighbours & friends) are capable of becoming monsters - is a chilling facet of human nature.

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