Hi Mum, I’m in Phnom Penh

Southeast Asia is obviously not the wealthiest part of the world. After spending time in the affluence of Singapore and KL, and the relative affluence of Thailand, both Laos and what we’d seen so far in Cambodia were marked by poverty – small, scrappy villages with a single communal water source, not much sign of kids being in school and plenty of touting and begging (especially by particularly persistent kids). Arriving in Phnom Penh was then a pleasant surprise.

I had no real image in mind for Phnom Penh, so it was a happy discovery to find a pleasant city, bordered by the river and full of parks, gardens, elegant boulevards and other open spaces. On our first evening in Phnom Penh we wandered down Sisowath Quay by the river and found … people enjoying themselves. There were some food vendors but they didn’t seem desperate to close a deal, and all the children we saw were just playing – chasing each other, falling over us when we got in their way, squabbling over their nifty pedal cars and snacking on fruit and popcorn. It was refreshing to see. We also saw a new development – public dance groups. A big speaker and some kind of sound system were set up, and a group of people would spontaneously form in front of it. A ‘leader’ would then demonstrate some choreography and the crowd would soon follow. Rival groups of 30-40 people would spring up, trying to drown out each others’ music. All very festive. (Choreography was a bit lame, though.)

This feeling of joy and abandon made more sense after our visit the following day to Tuol Sleng, or S (Security) 21. This used to be a high school in suburban Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge used it for the detention and torture of high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials fallen from favour and other members of the population who came to the attention of the regime as potential dissidents.

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Only a handful of people ever survived S21 (most inmates were taken to the Killing Fields about 20km from the city and murdered, if they managed to survive the torture and starvation).

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The school is kept much as it was, with some horrific exhibits (photos of inmates, even deceased, and some skulls) and very informative ones. Part of the reason why photos of victims are displayed so openly is to show visitors the incontrovertible evidence of the genocide that occurred, because while some Khmer Rouge officials are in custody (including the head of S21), trials have not yet commenced.

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Given our short time in Cambodia it would be inappropriate to think we understood the effect of the genocide on Cambodians, but we did wonder whether the carefree vibe we noticed in PP had something to do with the survival of these amazing people. Tuol Sleng is well worth a visit – it’s one of the most horrific places I’ve ever been, and it was a difficult place to be, but I’m very glad we went.

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After a gut-wrenching day, we decided we needed some levity – colour and movement. Where better than the nearest market?

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We ended up going to three of the main markets in PP – the Central Market (amazing architecture, but undergoing renovation, and not that interesting as markets go), the Russian market (so named because they used to be the only people in town with any money; this one was pretty cramped and crowded, but good fun) and finally O’Russey market, our favourite.

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We enjoyed watching the inventive ways they could pack vehicles.

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And of course sat down for a snack. This place was great – little fried bundles of vegetables and tofu. The vendor also gave us some nuts, similar to chestnuts, to try. Delicious.

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While we were there, we also spent a couple of hours at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, or FCC. It’s in a beautiful old building on the Quay, great views over the town, and with a very decent Happy Hour.

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(This photo is just for show. We mostly stuck to martinis at AUD3 each).

And so that was Phnom Penh – an unexpectedly great place.

From here we had planned to head south and stay on a remote little island off the tourist beach hub of Sihanoukville. However, after poking around on the internet we found reports that the area had become pretty inundated by rubbish on the beach, and was no longer the idyllic beach paradise we’d hoped for. So, enjoying our flexibility, we ditched that idea and headed straight for Saigon…

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Hi Mum, I’m in Siem Reap

We arrived in Siem Reap hot, smelly, grumpy and sick of travelling. Things quickly improved, however, once we arrived at our guesthouse. We were greeted with smiles, cold drinks and directed straight toward the pool by the staff (maybe they were being nice, or maybe we really smelled). My opinion of Siem Reap had just improved significantly. A quick jaunt to Pub Street for some fine Cambodian fare and a few 50 cent pots and we were fully returned to good spirits, but oh so ready for a decent night’s sleep.

The only apparent reason for going to Siem Reap for is the temples that lie in its surrounds, but we weren’t quite feeling up to that after our very long days of travelling. Instead we paid a visit to the excellent Angkor National Museum, which was the perfect primer on the religious, historical and architectural significance of the Angkor temples. We spent several hours taking in the immense collection of artefacts and slightly twee multimedia displays and by the time we reached the gift shop that marks the end of any self-respecting museum, were feeling very satisfied with ourselves for having done some learning. To reward ourselves, we decided to celebrate with a swim and some beers…

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Unwisely having overindulged the night before, we headed out before dawn to the Angkor Wat complex to watch the sun rise over the temple itself. Despite the hangovers and the hundreds of tourists swarming over the best vantage points, it was still a breathtaking experience and if you ever get the opportunity to visit Angkor, you shouldn’t miss out on seeing it at sunrise.

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We followed this up with an exploration of the main temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Angkor Thom and, as newly minted experts on Angkorean art and architecture, were able to better appreciate these monuments and the impressively intact carvings they contained. By the halfway point of our tour, I was a bit confused as to why the museum hadn’t mentioned Tomb Raider at all, as our guide had already been able to point out at least 75 locations where it had been filmed and Angelina Jolie was starting to take on as much significance as Shiva or Buddha…

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Having started our sightseeing at 5.30, and the mercury having topped about 195 degrees, we called it a day by mid afternoon and took refuge in (yes, you guessed it) beer and our guesthouse’s pool.

During our second day of temple tourism we ventured a bit further afield to Banteay Srei, which is a less heavily touristed temple about 45 minutes outside of Siem Reap. It turned out to be well worth the visit as the carvings are just as impressive as those at Angkor and, with its smaller scale, was much more accessible. That said, we couldn’t resist going back to Angkor Wat to see it at sunset.

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Forgoing our traditional celebration of beer and swimming that evening, we put on our dress thongs in order to dine at Meric, located at the very swanky Hotel de la Paix. We were there to sample Meric’s modern Khmer tasting menu which would hold up well against anything in Melbourne and put to rest much of what I’d heard and read in relation to Khmer food being rubbish.

All in all, we really enjoyed Siem Reap itself. It’s a bit out of the way to visit if you’re not going to do some temple-hopping, but turned out to be a surprisingly relaxing place to spend a few days.