Thought Provoking Phnom Penh

From designing high precision engineering parts for Formula 1 cars to fixing a broken truck tail-light, baking hot beside the road, using a soldering iron, sellotape, 2 plastic bottles and a red-felt pen. Not too much of a leap is it? Thankfully our fellow Overlander Will is brilliant at both ends of the automotive engineering spectrum. After our lovely night out at the beach in the rain with Will and his girlfriend, Amy, they came to our hotel the next morning to see if they could do anything with our completely smashed light. Will worked his magic and showed his full “Blue Peter” set of skills, so that the light was back working. It might not pass an MOT test but hopefully it will get us safely back to Thailand, where we can get a replacement. We were so grateful for both their help and skills as it was a really tricky job. The girls finished off by colouring in the red part of the light with their markers.


Feeling far more relaxed and rejuvenated after our week at the beach, we ventured back out onto Cambodia’s roads. After the previous week’s crash we were still a little wary but Steve soon got back into the swing of things. Thankfully the road to Kampot was quite quiet but it still had the diverse collection of vehicles and cargo that we have come to expect from Cambodia.

Kampot is a pretty little town on the banks of the Kampong Bay River, it’s known for its relaxed nature and pepper, grown in the surrounding area. The drive there was full of lusciously green rice paddies. The rain was falling steadily again and we could see the waterfalls falling from Phnom Bokor, a kilometre high escarpment, from miles away. Crossing the bridge into town we had planned to park at the far end of the riverfront promenade. However when we got there I didn’t feel happy leaving the truck there by itself while we went out for dinner that night. I then noticed the 2 karaoke nightclubs just opposite and vetoed it for our night spot too, especially as it was Saturday night. I’d seen a restaurant just over the bridge that had parking big enough for our truck, so suggested we go back there to ask. We parked up with much interest from the 10 or so waitresses, lounging around waiting for the last few lunch diners to finish. Eventually we found one of the ladies who could speak English and asked if we could park for the night, we offered to pay but they refused and were quite happy for us to park right on the riverfront. We’d already had lunch but stopped for cold drinks, as a gesture of good will. It looked like they were about to close for the day with table cloths hanging up and piles of dirty dishes everywhere.


We set off to explore town, our main aim was to find a good restaurant for that night to try the famed Kampot pepper crab. It was a relaxed sort of place with quite a few backpackers. There were lots of nice looking restaurants but many of them seemed to be run by westerners or with western menus with a bit of Khmer food thrown in. We found a couple that might be contenders and retreated to the truck for a couple of hours to get out of the rain. It was still chucking it down, as we got ready to go out for the night. Emerging from the truck we found that our restaurant hadn’t closed but had a new lease of life. It was starting to fill up with middle class Khmer families all looking very serious about their food. Maybe we had accidentally stumbled across the place for the crab? Running inside to avoid getting wet, we saw big platters of crab, fish and a whole host of other goodies all with the distinctive rows of green peppercorns. We had found our crab heaven, all on our “doorstep”. When our plate arrived it looked mouth-watering and delicious. Now the only issue was: how to eat whole crabs with chops sticks and a Chinese soup spoon? Let’s just say it wasn’t very pretty, much to the amusement of the waitresses who all gathered at the next table, between waiting tables, to watch how we would manage the challenge. The whole thing tasted wonderful, despite the mess.

Our aim was to arrive in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, at Sunday lunchtime, in the hope that the traffic would be light. Unfortunately for us, there was also some sort of big Buddhist festival at one of the Wats we passed on the road about 100km from the city. The cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes coming the other way were absolutely jam-packed full of people, in most of the trucks there seemed to be standing room only with 30 plus people squashed in the back.
Finding a place to park the truck in central Phnom Penh was always going to be a challenge, Steve had been scouring Google satellite maps the week before trying to find accommodation with a big parking lot. Thank goodness his search paid off and the first place we tried, were very welcoming and could fit the truck in. He did have to reverse the truck 50m down the road to their service entrance, not an easy task with cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes and everything else screeching around the corner at top speed weaving everywhere around him. The building’s 3 security guards had it in hand: blowing loud whistles; and waving at the vehicles to stop – which most of them completely ignored. We were very pleased not to be crossing town to find somewhere else to park and stay, we settled into our apartment. It turned out to be a great spot, in the embassy area; centrally located but quiet inside; with lots of restaurants nearby.
That evening we headed down to riverfront where the end of the Tonlé Sap lake meets the Mekong River to join those enjoying an early evening promenade in the lovely cooling breeze.


On Monday morning we were all bright eyed and bushy-tailed at 8am ready outside the Indian Embassy clutching our paperwork, waiting for it to open at 9. There are only a few Indian embassies that accept applications from non-residents, so we were very keen to get the process underway, even though we are still several months away from arriving there from Myanmar. The visa actually starts from when you receive it, rather than when you arrive, so we were hoping for a 6 or 7 month visa. First in the queue, it took them quite a while with quite a few questions to check out the forms we had filled in, we just had to wait till Thursday afternoon to find out if we had got them.
With the visas submitted we headed out to do some sightseeing. The Royal Palace was modelled on the Palace in Bangkok. While impressive it didn’t quite reach the heights of the counterpart in Thailand but it made for an interesting afternoon. 

Tuesday was a thought provoking day for Steve and I, Cambodia’s recent past should not be ignored. We have discussed the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s history briefly with the girls but visiting the museum and Killing Fields with them isn’t suitable, so Steve went by himself. This is what he wrote about it:
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days from 1975 to 1979. During that time they killed, starved or worked to death somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million people or 1 in 4 Cambodians. It was one of the most barbaric genocidal regimes ever to be unleashed on our planet and that is saying something. It is a very dark period of Cambodian history but one that can not be avoided. While Gilly took the kids to see the dancing I went to two of the most symbolic monuments to that time. There are many more throughout Cambodia but these two are the most infamous. It was a thoughtful, sad day and one when it’s hard to grasp just how cruel humankind can be.
I first visited the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal crimes. This was a former high school that was turned into one of the worst security prisons. It’s in the middle of Phnom Penh in amongst the hustle and bustle and used to be just a normal high school. However between 1975 and 1979 it became a place of torture. Over 12,000 people went through the prison and only 7 survived. Two of whom were talking to visitors when I was there. It was a horrific place of torture. The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone of intellect; doctors, nurses, teachers even just wearing glasses could make you a victim. Then before the end they turned on themselves. The purpose of torture was to have the victim confess to his crimes against the revolution or to been CIA or KGB spies, organisations that most of the prisoners had never even heard of. Once a confession had been extracted the prisoners were trucked out to be killed nearby.
Walking around and listening to the stories through the excellent audio tour it was difficult to imagine the horrors that had been perpetrated here less than 40 years ago.

From there I headed about 15kms out of town to Choeung Ek also know as the Killing Fields. It’s all peaceful here now with a large monument honouring those killed here. But there is no escaping what a gruesome place this was. The monument contains many of the skulls of the more than 17,000 people killed here. Prisoners were trucked in at night and killed almost immediately before been buried in shallow graves. Bullets were expensive so shovels and knives were used. The Khmer Rouge had a slogan then when pulling out the weeds you need to also pull out the roots. What this meant was that whole families were executed so the children could not want revenge. It meant a tree was used to kill babies who were then thrown into a pit with their dead mothers. Whilst it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for the prison guards if they did not obey orders they were also killed and towards the end the Khmer Rouge killed many of their own number in a number of purges.
It was a sobering day. You would hope humanity would learn from these awful lessons from the past but I suspect it does not. All it takes is someone with a crazy ideology spouting hatred, backed up by propaganda and brain washing to support it and a disaffected section of society only too eager to lap it up. In this case the Khmer Rouge used the disillusioned uneducated country peasants. They killed anyone with any education even though the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were themselves highly educated. They also evacuated all the cities. It’s hard to imagine that Phnom Penh was emptied in 3 days, with everyone been sent to slave on the land where many died from starvation and over work. 

Meanwhile the girls and I went off to find out about the reemergence of Khmer arts, which was almost completely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge. We visited a small arts academy offering free tuition in music, painting and traditional dancing to local young people. To support itself, tourists are shown around to watch the lessons for a fee but we were the only foreigners there at mid morning. Cambodian children usually go to school in the morning or afternoon, so the dance class was filled with girls between the ages of about 6 and mid-teens. They were very skilled, we couldn’t believe how flexible their fingers were to make the delicate hand gestures that are so important in classical Khmer dancing. After their dancing, they showed Lucy and I how to put on a extra long sarong, which is part of their costume. They then showed us some of the steps causing lots of giggling fits from them, which then spread to us. The drawing and music class were more serious with older students, the level of skill in the classical Khmer style was astounding. I hope it leads to a productive career for the talented students.

The sad fact is that although parts of Cambodia’s economy are now starting to boom, it is still a very poor country with huge scars from the past. There is a big sex-industry here, mostly frequented by Cambodians but there are quite a few sex-tourists too. Girls, and even children, are sold into prostitution by their poor families, it is incredibly sad. There a number of NGOs working in the country to help the victims of sex-trafficking, others help land mine victims; street children; the disabled; and other disadvantaged people. Many NGOs set up businesses so their clients can learn skills to support themselves. We’ve been to several restaurants in Cambodia set up by NGOs and we’ve been impressed with all of them. After the arts school, we went to one of them, Daughters of Cambodia which have a shop selling clothes and homeware made by former prostitutes. It’s an amazing project supporting women who want to leave the sex industry providing medical and psychological help; daycare for children; and training and employment in one of their 8 projects. We did some shopping, had a delicious lunch in their cafe and got foot massages in their spa. It was a lovely relaxing afternoon for us but also good to support such a worthwhile cause.

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We had been blown away by Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, even in its partially ruined state the whole place was amazing. Especially when you think that it was built by a culture that ruled a big chunk of SE Asia a thousand years ago. However many of the statues and ornaments are missing from the site, some of them are now displayed in the National Museum. The delicately carved, intricate statues are breathtakingly beautiful, many with that elusive “Angkor smile”.

At last it was Thursday afternoon, time to find out if we had got our Indian Visas. We trooped back to the embassy and found our passports waiting with a 6 month multiple entry visa – hooray! We will have to work around the extra month we wanted. It was a cushion, as we don’t know yet our planned exit route from India as there are many different factors in play, all out of our control.

With the visas in our passports, it was time to leave Phnom Penh and explore more of the country around the Mekong River.

3 thoughts on “Thought Provoking Phnom Penh

  1. Hi
    Sobering tales indeed.
    But looks like you’r of to India which is a total different kettle of fish.
    Look very much forward to your entries – new highlight will be Burma (Myanmar)

    Christmas in Goa is possibly not on the cards – ?

    Have all the fun guys

    • India will be a challenge but hopefully rewarding. We don’t get there until mid December so Christmas will come a bit early for Goa.

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