Monday, January 31, 2011

Cambodia – Off to Phnom Penh & beyond

"Public Transport"
Phnom Penh style
Finally we managed to leave Siem Reap, not an easy thing to do, we really liked it there. Our countdown is ticking and we want to see a lot more of Cambodia before our 30 day Visa runs out, so off we go on a bus to the capitol of almost 1.5 million - Phnom Penh. We weren’t quite sure what to expect there. The contrasts between Poipet, Battambang, and Siem Reap had been vast, so had been the stark difference between urban and rural lifestyle. Would Phnom Penh - with its 3million inhabitants - be again a major contrast or more like Battambang? (with a population of 160000, which is the second largest city after Phnom Penh)
Arriving somewhere in the outskirts of the Phnom Penh, our first introduction to the city was the usual army of Tuk Tuk touts, but here they were even more persistent and annoying than anywhere else in Cambodia (even the ones in Poipet when we first stepped foot into Cambodia were less of a nuisance). This time we noticed something new. The touts all wore shirts with the logo “Paramount”, the bus company that brought us here. The Tuk Tuk drivers snatched the bags out of the luggage compartment, brought them to a table to verify the luggage tag number (so far so good, right?) but then they would not want to let go of the bag until the traveler agreed to take their Tuk Tuk, at an inflated price, I assume.

We simply took our bags out of the bus luggage compartment ourselves, and walked off… not to the liking of the touts. The Tuk Tuk driver that must have been “assigned” to us was not about to give up easily on his fare. He followed us for at least 30 minutes, often blocking our way when we wanted to cross the street, and even was waiting outside whenever I went into a shop to ask directions.. At one point Patrick made it clear to him that we would not use a Tuk Tuk from the bus company… 5 minutes later he turned up again driving his tuk tuk, this time wearing a different shirt that did not have the bus company logo stitched on the front. Too bad that his face has not changed, he must either think were stupid or that we are so ignorant that we can’t recognize his face after over a dozen encounters. After we turned him down again he finally got the message and we could walk around freely… Why go through this trouble? Julane wrote earlier in “the ethical traveler” that the Tuk Tuk touts would often use all possible excuses not to bring travelers to the requested hotel: “flooded, burnt down, closed for renovation, dirty, out of business” are the usual excuses. Of course they would always know a nice place that they like to recommend to a traveler, and bag a fat commission on the usually overpriced rooms.

We ended up settling in a guest house right next to Capitol Bus station, another company that offers trips from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we wish we would have taken them to Phnom Penh, that would have saved us the effort of wandering (ironically in a circle!) through town. Oh well, at least we are now in a good location to fetch a Capitol bus leaving the city.
The next day was dedicated to explore the capitol of Cambodia, just like the rest of the country; Phnom Penh is full of tragic history, especially during the Khmer Rouge periods when a local school was converted into S-21, which is the Cambodian equivalent to Auschwitz. We opted not to visit the museum, still having a chilling feeling in our bones from the visit to Auschwitz some 12 years ago.
As usual we strapped on our walking shoes and took of for a full day of exploration “al la pied”, soon discovering that this city of millions of motorbikes and thousands of SUV’s (for some reason mostly Lexus models) has only a handful of traffic lights. The rest of the intersections were ruled by “might is right” and the “brave win the fight”.

We will write in another Blog entry about the traffic patterns and road transport in Cambodia, but a little preview is well earned to be credited to Phnom Penh: Imagine an intersection where, 4 traffic lanes meet – now 4 lanes for cars actually provides sufficient space for 30+ motorbikes for each of the four sides. Nobody is following any rules, and nobody wants to give way to the other.

Normal street scene in Phnom Penh
The official traffic rule is that everything moving must be on the right hand side of the road, like in Europe and the US. This rule however, does not seem to apply to intersections. Wherever there are a few centimeters to squeeze through, this space will immediately be filled with a motorbike trying to cross the intersection faster than anybody else; left, right, or in the middle of the road… who cares!
The result looks like the commotion in a beehive when the bee-keeper blows puffs of smoke inside: It looks like total chaos, but somehow it works. Except if you happen to be a pedestrian, the species homo pestestrianius is rarely seen in Phnom Penh, has no place in the hierarchy of the local traffic flow, which is based on the Spaghetti principal. There are zebra stripes, but we wonder if they were leftover trophies from the French colonialist bringing them back after a hunting trip to Africa.

One interesting sight along the river front are the aerobic dance groups that form every night, we have seen at least 10 of these groups when we were there, and that is on a weekday night. Check out our video below:

We happened to stay in one of the busiest areas, near Orussey Market, giving us an unfiltered, concentrated experience of everyday Phnom Penh city life… a crazy place indeed. We imagine that Singapore may have been similar some 40 years ago (bicycles instead of motorbikes though) before Lee Kuan Yew took initiative to impose some order - and the infamous fines.

The sidewalk is used for anything,
except for people to walk on
Phnom Penh has very much the character of a diamond in the rough, but a diamond that had been cut and polished a long time ago by the French, then roughened up again by the power changes in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge giving the final grind down. Now she’s ready again for polishing, building on the often beautiful forms and shapes that are in need of some serious upkeep. The touristy riverside has been nicely polished up with the help of Japanese aid, also the ritzy area where most embassies are located look quite nice, but in most of the other parts the past shine has somewhat been covered by the dust of the still numerous unpaved dirt roads and the pollution from the endless flow of motorbikes and Tuk Tuks.

Many of the larger streets have extremely wide sidewalks, as often seen in France. This is where the similarity stops though. Instead of being used to walk on or have bistro tables of a corner café, they are used here mostly as parking space for anything that has wheels.
A smaller sidewalk, no walking here
it is a "Coiffeur" shop
Especially the large SUV’s and pickup trucks love to park on these sidewalks. Most of them have perfected the art to park in a way that there is absolutely no space left to walk on the sidewalk.
If there are a few centimeter of space without a car parked, then it’s squeezed full of motorbikes or a shop that has its goods stacked out to the very edge of the road, sometimes even hanging out into the road.
And if a vendor can't afford to rent some floorspace in a building, they just use the sidewalk as their shop floor.
As a consequence, homo pestestrianius is frequently forced to walk on the road itself, remember that’s the road where motorbikes race down 30 beside each other at a time… no wonder that homo pestestrianius appears threatened to extinction in Phnom Penh.
The good news is, both of us survived without any lasting scars, but probably lost a few months in our remaining lifespan, compliments of close encounters with crazy motorbike drivers.

Free range chickens for sale
Some of the smaller streets near our guest house turned into a market in the morning hours, a bit like the farmer’s markets back in the western world, but instead of fancy stalls with tables and neatly presented goods, the road is simply covered with masses of tarp and everything is piled on top.
Food hygiene freaks and animal rights activist are strongly advised not to walk within a 100 meter perimeter of this area… Hmm, I wonder if the chef of the Juliana Hotel where we had our splurge, pig-out dinner buffet last night) also shops here? The beef was tough as leather, it was probably baking in the sun for a few hours, collecting exhaust fumes and roadside dust. As far as I remember from cooking shows on the food channel, exhaust fumes and dust may add flavor to meat, but do not necessarily help to tenderize it. The chicken was also tough, no wonder since we’ve seen how they are carted around tightly bound together before being relieved of their suffering. Note: they are alive still.
Cambodian chicken coop
They also offer delivery service

In the Bus on the way to Kampot
A couple of days of Phnom Penh was enough for us… let’s go back to the quieter country side. How about the beaches or some hill stations?
Julane was not too thrilled with the idea to head to Shianoukville; the up and coming beach town that is often compared to have the same character as Koh Samui or Koh Tao did 15 years ago. Since neither of us are really beach types (unless you add a scuba tank into the equation) we opted for the hill station of Bokor and the nearby base town of Kampot.

What Patrick thought would be an easy 2 hour bus trip turned into a 5 hour journey over bumpy roads and a breakdown of the bus… luckily the engine trouble only lasted about 20-30 minutes. The direct road NH3 has apparently some bridges that are not suitable for big buses, we had to take the long way around on more remote roads. That’s the official explanation at least; seems strange that remote roads are more suitable for buses than the National Highways.

Beauty in white,
covered with a cloth
Anyway, this detour gave us the opportunity to have a short glimpse of the Cambodian coast while driving through Kep, where we’ve been amused by the sight of a clothed female statue gazing at the ocean. Is this a local custom, or are Cambodians prude and try to cover up the lack of modesty left over by the French - Julane has noticed in past trips to Africa that the women in former French colonies often still walk around topless, whereas the in the neighboring former Anglophone colonies the women are covered from neck to knee. We will not find out why this snow-white beauty is covered up.

Kampot was pretty much what the guidebook described, a sleepy little town with some colonial architecture leftover along the riverfront. Not much happening here, a good hangout place and the starting point for tours to the cooler Bokor hill station, which was the main reason why we came here in the first place.
The remains of Bokor Palace
Bokor hill station, with its 1080m elevation overlooking the coastline of southern Cambodia, used to be a buzzing place where the French colonialist flocked to escape the heat of the lowlands and hold lavish parties at the Bokor Palace Casino, built in 1925.
The Chinese apparently loved this place too, many are said to have gambled their fortunes away at Bokor, then leaving the Casino through the backdoor over the steep droping cliffs. Is this the reason the casino closed in the late 1940?
What a view!
Not many return customers because too many clients left through the backdoor with one way tickets?
History books say it was closed because of the independence movement back in 1940.

There isn’t anything left inside the Casino, even the copper pipes and wiring had been ripped out of the walls by the Khmer Rouge when they occupied this strategic overlook in the 1980-90’s. Some bullet holes in the main hall are witness of this period. The temperature was certainly cool and the winds were blowing full force.
Remains of the windows after
Khmer Rouge shooting practice?

I can just imagine how spooky this place must have been when it was first abandoned; the wind must have been howling through the windows (when there was still some glass left). The casino ruins have also been featured in a Hollywood flick called City of Gosts, though we didn’t see any of these fellows while we were there.

Getting up and down the hill station was also a small adventure in itself. The road up to Bokor is currently undergoing major upgrading and is closed to the public, unless you come with a tour bus, and hop on a park ranger vehicle at the base of the mountain (it is currently a National Reserve Park). Halfway up you get out of the pickup truck and follow the ranger through a forest trail.

Who is he trying to scare?
The ranger walked at a pace that was leaving us huffing and puffing, and also wondering why he had an AK-47 strapped to his back? Was he on the run? Before the hike started the Ranger made sure the gun was properly cocked, it’s up for debate whether he wanted to scare the tigers or us?.

One hour of high speed trekking up the steep mountainside later, we were still waiting for the ranger to actually give us a couple seconds to look at the forest or point out some wildlife - or some birds which could clearly been heard, but not be seen.
Climbing back on our "tour bus"
At the end of this mountain sprint, we were met again by the pickup truck, waiting on the perfectly paved road. Perhaps this whole jungle walk is just filling in time to cater to the tourists’ desire for some bit of trekking…after all, our tour package is supposed to last the entire day. So far the road up the mountain had been in excellent shape, better than many national highways in Cambodia.

Besides the ranger, we also had a local guide with us that showed us around Bokor, that’s all he did: show us where it was. There were no explanations, history, insights, or anything else that one would expect from a tour guide. Julane and I normally don’t take guides anyway; we rather read up on things before going and then do a self-guided tour. But since it was compulsory to have a guide to get up to Bokor, we had no choice. Thankfully, we still read up on the history before getting there, our guide was pretty much just tagging along in the back for the whole 2 hours while were up there. Only once did he mention that he has seen a tiger here some months ago. Ahh, that’s why the ranger has the AK-47… but where is he now, what if the tiger hides in the Casino ruins?

On the way down, we were dropped on the same spot again having to hike back down the forest trail, this time the Ranger had not carried his AK-47, maybe the tourists don’t need to be scared or impressed any longer or the tigers are on siesta break?
Strangely though, the ranger seemed to walk slower on the way down than on the way up, yet still not pointing out any wildlife. We were soon to find out why he walked slower down than up: At the end of the trail, we were told by the guide that the pickup truck was stuck: “road closed, must wait here”. Sitting beside the road we waited 30… 60…90 minutes. No sign of the truck, probably the road was being paved in the stretch in-between?

Two Spanish girls in our group got impatient and insisted that we start walking down the hill: a pointless move, it would take us at least 2-3 hours to walk down. But they got their way and we started pacing down the paved street. Patrick was not too excited by that idea, and was strolling down at a much slower speed - the truck would have to pick us up anyway sometime, someday; and so it did almost an hour later.

Catching the sunset in Kampot
Too bad that we lost so much time waiting for the truck, the timing for the upcoming sunset river cruise (also part of the tour package) was to be getting very tight now, the sun does not wait until we are ready. Patrick decided to skip the sunset cruise and head back to the guesthouse for a shower instead. Julane went for the sunset cruise, which after another delay now was definitely too late to get to the picturesque spot in time, but it was still a nice trip and probably the highlight of the day!

We had a full day, and definitely had tired legs from the hiking. Julane opted for a massage to pre-empt any possible muscle pain. There is an organization called “Seeing Hands” in Cambodia, which has trained the blind in the skill of Japanese massage: Shiatsu. She has wanted to go to a blind masseuse for a long time, so this was a great chance and well needed. When she arrived there were a few people already in the large open room getting massages. She was given a change of clothes and pointed to a proper massage table, usually they are just foam mattresses on the floor. Then the young blind man arrived and began the acupressure treatment which was very different from the Thai and Khmer style massages that she had been getting so far along the trip… Gentle pressure with a bit of rocking motion and was perfect ending of the day.

Our verdict of Bokor: nice place to cool down, but not worth the money for the tour. We suggest to wait a couple more months until the road is open to the public and then just rent a motorbike to get there. Kampot is worth a visit if you like to chill out and get away from the busy city.
Kampot riverside colonial architecture
Another special encounter that we had was at a bakery. We had seen some delicious cakes and intended to buy them on the way back to the hotel to have for breakfast. She was already closed, but the shop next door was open and called her by phone. We could see she still had some bakery items inside in the glass display. It turns out that she lived above and came down. She was very happy to open up again and very friendly. We asked her where she learned to bake such nice things. She explained that she was an orphan and lived in a Christian orphanage. There the sisters taught her to bake. Now she is married and has a daughter but is still involved helping the orphanage where she grew up. They decided a year ago to adopt a baby boy. For her, the orphanage was her home and her family and she was very thankful. It was nice to hear such a positive story and see directly how she learned and benefited.

Two nights in HOT Kampot and a day on the hill station, time to get back to Phnom Penh… That’s the life of a traveler, never stay put; especially after we stayed much longer in Siem Reap than we initially planned.
Patrick was ready to head right away northeast to the hills in the Rattanakiri province. Julane wanted to have another day in Phnom Penh, as she really liked the pulse of the city. It’s vibrant and chaotic and rich in the element of surprise. Yes expect the unexpected. And probably because she did not want to have to wake up at 6am again, as we did on six out of the last seven days. Traveling is tough!
Plus it’s the run-up to Chinese New Year and Phnom Penh has the largest Chinese population in the country living there. So it was actually quite fun to see how this group of Chinese celebrate. There were all the traditional elements that we are familiar with like the spring trees or twigs that bloom after you get them home, It was funny to watch them being carted home on motorbikes as the twisty branches are about 2.5 meters long and they often carried a bundle of them. There were also the cakes and red decoration overflowing from shops waiting to be bought. It was colorful and animated.

Special Happy Pizza
So we would stay again for two nights in Phom Penh, go to the “Russian Market” have some good French food and a Pizza at the riverfront.
Pizza? Yes, after 4 weeks of traveling we broke down and craved some western food. Had we been in Thailand we would probably still indulge on the local fair. The Khmer Food of Cambodia isn’t bad, but is lacking the explosions of flavors that make Thai food so heavenly. I don’t want to call Khmer food boring, but calling it exiting would be a major overstatement. We admit: the Calzone was a wonderful culinary treat. What else would you expect from the "Kings Court, Special Happy Pizza" Restaurant.

Tomorrow we are having an early start again, wake up at 6am, be ready for the 7am bus trip to Banlung in Ratanakiri Province.