07 October 2015

All Phnom Penhed In

Japan has given way in my travels to Cambodia, and I am on a bus to Siem Reap with my friend Rachel after spending two days in Phnom Penh. I'd heard mixed things about Phnom Penh, in particular that it's had a rise in crime in recent years (particularly theft from tourists), so I want sure what to expect. On our first afternoon, I was completely overwhelmed. The remorks (motorbikes with carts attached) driving in lanes for opposite traffic, the constant calling of drivers and the massive overcharging that we were too inexperienced to haggle down were all components of a completely different world than the ones I've experienced so far, particularly after staying in Tokyo for just under a week. 

However, yesterday we rose with the sun and went to the prison museum and the Killing Fields, both of which are just mind-blowing.  If you don't know, these are locations where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed the entire population of Phnom Penh in 1975-9.  I knew little about Cambodian history before coming, and looking around thinking that every resident of the city I saw would have been taken to these locations had it been 40 years ago was impossible to imagine. Our guide at the prison museum had been thirteen at the time and lost her father and brother. Of the thousands taken to the prison, only seven survived, and only two are alive now. We met them both in the courtyard. It's striking to think that very few of the perpetrators have been imprisoned, and some may still be living in the city. 

In the afternoon we ate lunch at a cafe that donates to a Cambodian children's fund, where I had delicious fish amok, a traditional Cambodian stew of lemongrass and coconut milk.  We hired a remork and explored the Russian market, where I had my first successful bargaining experience over a pair of elephant tank tops (2/$4). I'm sure an experienced bargainer could have paid far less, but the small victory buoyed my spirits for the rest of the day and helped me leave the city on a better note. 

Now we are on a lovely air-conditioned bus with wifi, heading to see the temples of Siem Reap for three days. I am hoping to rent bikes and to avoid rain as much as possible. Wish me luck!

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