Against all the odds, I actually really like Phnom Penh. A short description would probably use the adjectives dirty, crowded and boring, but that would be unfair. While all three are true to a fair extent, its shortcomings were mitigated by amongst the friendliest people I’ve ever met.
None more so than our lovely hotelier Tepy. As the owner of the newly opened City Campus Guest House on Street 90, she embodies everything you would want in a host. Initially arriving and deciding to stay 3 nights so we didn’t feel too rushed, we were immediately made to feel welcome in a lovely, spotlessly clean room with the comfiest bed we’ve found in South East Asia. Discussing over breakfast our plans for the rest of our time in Cambodia, Tepy helped us plan an itinerary that took in the sights of the city in a short enough time that we could leave a day early. She all but insisted that we not stay the full 3 nights as there wasn’t enough to see and do to keep us entertained in Phnom Penh for that long. From the owner of a half-full guest house, struggling to make money in its early months, this was unexpected and positive. Naturally, I can’t recommend her establishment highly enough. Good hot water, spring mattresses, feather duvets and an internet connection faster than many places in Australia, it is probably the best place we’ve stayed in, even pipping Sawasdee in Chiang Mai. If you are in Phnom Penh, you should give Tepy a call on (+855) 16 888 000 and tell her Jamie and Emily sent you.
As a result of our compressed timeframe, we had an active day today, taking in Wat Phnom, Tuol Sleng and The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.
Wat Phnom is a small temple under reconstruction and to be honest, it is not spectacular. It would probably be wholly unremarkable in fact, were it not for a tribe of monkeys that make their home in the grounds and who can resist monkeys? Not this monkey, at least. After 30 minutes or so of watching them play about, we chose to walk the next leg to Tuol Sleng, and it ended up being a 6km trek in the hot sun. Clearly it’s not just Cambodians who can’t gauge distance correctly.
Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, was a secret prison where dissidents and political prisoners were kept and tortured under the Khmer Rouge regime. A former school, it has been in the news recently as the chief gaoler, known as Duch, has just been convicted of crimes against humanity for his role here, 30 years after the events took place and 11 years after he was arrested. He received a comparatively paltry 35 years for his part in around 20,000 tortures and deaths and even that was reduced to 19 years on appeal. Not exactly swift justice. People were kept here and tortured in a variety of creative and disgraceful ways, until they confessed to whatever imagined crimes had been dreamed up. Everyone confessed eventually. Tomorrow, we will head to the Killing Fields to see where they were taken when that happened. Nowadays, the prison cells display thousands of photos of captives as well as some of the instruments of torture. It hardly seems necessary, but there was a stern No Laughing warning at the entrance.
Tired from our earlier excursion, we took a tuk-tuk across town to the riverside where we had a bite to eat. We made the classic mistake and sat on the ground floor outside, ensuring that we were harassed from the moment we sat down, until we stood up again, with children and the elderly imploring us to buy books, bookmarks, newspapers and, somewhat incongruously, hammocks. We bought a book – never mind torture; there’s only so long you can hold out against a young boy pleading for you to fund his education.
We had earlier been approached by another friendly tuk-tuk driver, Tom, who was keen to take us wherever we wanted to go after we’d seen the Royal Palace, so as we finished up lunch, he caught sight of us and came over to confirm plans. As it was by now 2pm, we agreed that we would take about an hour to look around the palace and that he would meet us at three o’clock outside the exit. Off we trotted.
Even getting to the palace proved tricky. The road outside the main entrance was a particularly busy one for Phnom Penh, with a sea of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, vans and buses weaving haphazardly across the road in both directions. We’ve gotten used to just stepping out into oncoming traffic (a habit that will undoubtedly cause us issues outside of Asia), but this was a little too dense and uncompromising our taste. Just as we were contemplating making the long walk down the road to some semblance of a crossing, who should appear around the corner but Tom, in his pink Timberland T-Shirt. I’ll help you cross the road! he shouts, as he beckons us over and pulls out slowly into traffic. He proceeded to execute the world’s slowest, widest U-Turn in the middle of the road, keeping us safe from traffic as we crossed in his shadow, as all around us the beeping and flashing of frustrated drivers reached frenetic levels. No problems, he grins, and we were safely across.
Yet more fun was just on the horizon. Being the home of the King, like many other destinations in Asia, this one had a reasonably strict dress code, requiring clothes below the knees and covering the shoulders for women. Emily Benjamin was wearing a singlet and short shorts. No problem, we were told, you can buy T-shirts and rent fisherman pants over there, so over we went. $2 for a T-shirt and a $5 deposit for pants later and we were in business. Then we spotted the entrance fee – a comparatively steep $6 each. After a $10 lunch, the $5 book, the $2 T-shirt and the $5 deposit, we were in the somewhat embarrassing position of having only $10 between us. We had a chat with the people who had loaned the pants – Could we possibly leave a debit card, or driver’s license instead? No can doozeville baby dolls, cash was the only currency on the cards. (In retrospect, this was good – how stupid would I have been to leave my long awaited and hard earned driver’s license with them?)
Off I go to find an ATM, which I am promised is just around the corner. Well, it was certainly around a corner, though emphatically not the one they said. And as I’m standing outside the entrance looking around like a lemon, who should come to my rescue? Why Tom, of course. After a brief explanation of the situation, he nodded and told me to hop in, depositing me at an ATM 3 minutes later.
How many Riel do I need, I wondered. Probably best to get $100 worth, to avoid a repeat situation. $4 fee, sigh. Well, ok, lesson learned. Accept. … What the? Oh come on! The ATM had expelled a single solitary $100 bill. Well that’s no good, they’ll never be able to change that. And why’s it dispensing American money anyway?! Sigh. Insert card, enter PIN, fast cash, $20. Another $4 fee, sigh again. Hate banks. Accept. … And now it decides to give me 2 $10 notes?! Where were you 2 minutes ago $10 notes?!
Another 5 minutes later and Tom had deposited me back at the entrance and we had agreed an adjusted meeting time of 3:30pm. We paid for entrance. They broke the $100 bill without trouble. Of course. The Palace was … well, it was ok for an hour’s entertainment, but it wasn’t too dissimilar to the Thai King’s Palace in Bangkok. Less people though, which was a bonus.
Tom was waiting, as promised, and grinned as he saw us. We decided to skip the Russian Markets and Shooting Ranges, which are even more pure tourist destinations, and instead had him drop us back at the hotel. He had certainly earned the generous tip we gave him.