Phnom Penh

After Nha Trang we spent a couple days in Saigon (or Ho Chih Minh City, as the government calls it), but didn’t really do much there. It’s a huge, busy city with crazy traffic reminiscent of Hanoi, except without much of the charm. We went to the War Remnants Museum, which was okay, if disturbing and predictably not very kind to us awesome Americans.

Saigon was mostly significant to me as the city Jessica flew home from:

Jessy Going Home :(

That was sad. I’d gotten pretty used to having someone to travel with, and from now on I’d be on my own. Big change, and a totally different traveling style (I can get a lot smellier now!). Her leaving made me want to get out of Vietnam, put it behind me, and go someplace new. So the morning after I put Jessica on her plane, I got on a bus bound for Cambodia. Colonial Kampuchea! The Khmer Empire! Ancient Funan! The adventure!

There is definitely a noticible difference when you cross the border from Vietnam to Cambodia. All of a sudden there are casinos everywhere. The type of palm trees change to fan palms, Cambodia’s national tree. The writing goes all squiggly. And the architecture changes. Whereas in Vietnam temples and pagodas have gently curving roofs that slope up a bit at the corners, in Cambodia the roof corners go completely crazy, shooting up to the sky like they’re on fire or something:

Cambodian National Museum

And there are Angkorian symbols everywhere, on everything. Angkor is very obviously the main source of Cambodian national pride. Every bridge and entryway seems to have lions and naga (awesome multi-headed snakes) on it:

Bridge in Phnom Penh

But more on Angkorian art when I get to my massive Angkor post…. (coming soon!)

Plus the normal buildings are different too. I forget if I mentioned this already, but in Vietnam, the buildings are really weird. They’re extremely tall and extremely thin with a ton of decoration on the front, like someone stretched out a San Francisco victorian. And the sides are always just plain, unpainted concrete. Its like they were designed to be lined up flush with each other, but they use the same style even when a building is freestanding, like out in the middle of a field or something. They sorta look like this:


That’s not a great example, but you get the idea maybe. I thought vietnamese architecture was really weird. Anyway in Cambodia it’s a lot less weird, and buildings kinda just look like normal buildings again. The two countrys must have different zoning laws or something. I’m sure you’re fascinated. I was.

Another (fairly obvious) difference with Vietnam is that Cambodia uses different money. But the weird thing is that US Dollars are valid legal tender here. The national currency is the riel, but it’s fine to use dollars for any transaction. And not only tourists do that.. the locals all use dollars too. But they don’t use all US currency. Only bills. I tried to pay for a meal using some quarters I had in my bag and the waiter looked at me like I was trying to pay with shells or sticks or something equally barbaric. He’d never seen a quarter before. Because in Cambodia, dollars are used for all big transactions, and change is given in riel. It’s so devalued, it’s the equivalent of our coins.
You also cant use anything bigger than a $20 bill. I tried to pay for something with a $50 and the cashier dude thought it was counterfeit.

So anyway, Phnom Penh was okay I guess. Not Phnomenal (hee hee!), but okay for a day. The first thing I noticed upon arriving in the middle of the night was that there are no street lamps or street signs, so finding my guesthouse ($4 a night!) was a bit of a challenge.

Like in Vietnam the city is dominated by motorbikes, but the motorbike drivers are a lot more aggressive in Cambodia. They dont take no for an answer very easily. You can barely walk down the street as a westerner without getting “Hello Moto? Moto! Hello Moto!” yelled at you by twenty people. It’s like a constant friggin Motorola ad here. Plus in addition to the motorbikes there are Tuk-Tuks, which wernt nearly as prevalent in Vietnam, but are all over Phnom Penh. A tuk-tuk is a wagony thing pulled by a motorbike:

My Tuk-Tuk Driver

They go tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk. That guy was my driver one day. I’ve taken a couple motorbikes here and there but generally I prefer to pay more for the tuk-tuks because I’m a wuss. Motorbikes just freak me out. So if a tuk-tuk is available, I take the tuk-tuk.

So there are some nice-ish sights in Phnom Penh, like the central market:

Phnom Penh Central Market

and the royal palace:

Cambodian Royal Palace

and Wat Phnom, which had monkeys in the forest around it:

Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh

But in general the city seems dirty and depressed and poor. Not too surprising I suppose given that it was completely emptied of people during the Khmer Rouge years, and has been slowly rebuilding and righting itself ever since then. Reminders of the genocide are unescapable in Phnom Penh. The main tourist attractions are the Killing Fields with it seven-story tower of skulls:

Killing Field Skulls

And the Genocide Museum with its rows and rows of victim photos:

Genocide Museum Photos

What is the deal with genocial regimes always documenting every person they kill? There are the same thousands of photos at Auschwitz. I guess making it seem like a scientific, logical, orderly operation must dehumanize it in some way.

But yeah, its a very sobering place. The cambodian genocide is pretty much unbelievable, but in scale and brutality. And the various monuments to it dont pull any punches. The Genocide museum is an old Khmer Rouge prison that’s basically been left the way it was found when the Vietnamese pulled into Phnom Penh in 1979. The killing fields have hundreds of unearthed mass graves, but the vast majority of the area has been left untouched–they only disturbed enough graves to provde evidence for a genocide. They still get bones washing up every time it rains. Terrible place. It’s no wonder the country seems sort of run-down and economically (and emotionally) depressed.
Not to mention the current governmet is also corrupt and oppressive and authoritarian.

But it is a beautiful country. So whee fun! Cambodia yay!

Here’s my whole Phnom Penh flickr set:

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