Date: Sun, 21 Nov 2004
Subject: Alive and well in Phnom Penh...
...allegedly one of the most deprived, depraved, corrupt and violent cities on the planet, but we seem to have managed to avoid straying into any such areas in the last couple of days. Anyway...
First, for any old 'Clangers' fans, our last lunch in Siem Reap was at the Soup Dragon.
The boat trip to Battambang (actually, it is pronouced like that, but as if you're French), which we thought was going to be three hours, turned out to be six. And although it was indeed about three hours too long it was still fascinating, past more floating communities and semi-submerged trees. The latter part of the journey - in the course of which the boat had some, er, technical problems leaving us thinking we might be left marooned - was through some incredibly narrow passages in the trees. At times, branches were whipping past the open sides of the boat, potentially lashing passengers across the face and leaving the seats littered with bits of twig and leaves.
Anyway, we got there, and lovely it was. Battambang is less on the tourist route (which basically consists of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) and has a very pleasant atmosphere. We spent an absolutely fantastic day with a couple of moto drivers, Han Houn and Sambath (for our reference and for anyone coming this way who might like to contact him, Sambath's email address is ). A moto is a small Honda motorbike that appears to run on some kind of vegetable oil. Not a crash helmet in sight and the traffic's fairly chaotic, but they don't drive fast and they're pretty considerate. We felt totally safe and confident and had a marvellous time with them.
They were particularly knowledgeable about local flora and fauna, taking us to where a colony of fruit bats live in a Buddhist compound because they know they won't be killed there by the farmers. We visited one of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields with them (Han Houn, the older of the two, lost all his family at their hands, but perhaps here isn't the place to go deeply into that subject). They also showed us some real Cambodian rural life in the villages, and we ended the day with a very silly experience indeed - if we do anything sillier on this trip we'll do well.
The single-track railway line between Battambang and Phnom Penh is, to say the least, basic. There's a train that goes up the line one day and down the next. The rest of the time it's unused, so the resourceful locals make use of it with their 'bamboo train', which isn't a train at all but a simple platform about three meters by two, with a simple metal frame and bamboo slats across. There are two axles and a small diesel (?) motor (not unlike an outboard for a boat) - and that's it. You get on, put your moto on, or your pigs, chickens and so on, and off you go. It's very noisy, very uncomfortable and absolutely hilarious. If you meet one coming the other way you come to an agreement as to who lifts theirs off the tracks to let the other pass. To turn round, you lift the platform off, shift one of the axles round to the other end (in our case this was done by a small boy who looked as if he was doing weights), turn the platform round and put it back on the axles... bingo!
After a 5-hour bus journey, during which we were "entertained" by a succession of Cambodian karaoke songs on Video-CD - a bit "Bollywood" - we arrived in Phnom Penh to a scrum of prospective tuk-tuk drivers, grabbing at our luggage as we descended from the bus. However, we managed to find a new hotel by the Tonlé Sap river, National Museum and Royal Palace (both of which we visited). We pursued our attempt to understand the Pol Pot period with visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng was originally a school, but the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and interrogation centre. A sombre experience.
We've discovered some great restaurants, in particular Friends, where the waiters and cooks are former street kids, who give excellent meals with superb service (all proceeds to continuing this major project); also le Rit's, where proceeds assist disadvantaged women - and the Garden Center café, which is near another "Seeing Hands" massage place - so we're keeping fit and lithe!
Last night we went to an evening staged by the Mekong Project, bringing contemporary performing arts to the countries along the Mekong - Thailand, Laos, Burma, China, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was a typical result of workshop sessions, with plenty of good ideas and some terrible ones, but an interesting overall result and a great atmosphere.
We took a short boat trip this afternoon on a boat called "Charlie's Cup of Tea" - complete with illustrations on the side!
Tomorrow we're off on a 3-day boat and bus tour to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), exploring the Mekong Delta on the way. It's ridiculously cheap, so we're expecting to be taken to a few tourist traps. We'll let you know.