Welcome to Khmerland
Siem Reap>>> Phnom Penh

Saturday 27th November 2004

We were up long before our 5am alarm, speed packing! Something we neglected to do properly last night. Bang on six o'clock, just as they opened the doors for business, we were down for breakfast. Unfortunately we were a bit too early for the delicious fried potatoes, which was a disappointment. Also the egg chef wasn't standing at his post. There was still plenty to eat however, and I proved this by piling my plate high including two dried up 'prepared' eggs. Then from out of nowhere the egg chef materialised from behind the fryers and cracked two fresh eggs for my 'usual' order. Out of politeness I ate four fried eggs this morning.

When we checked out we were staggered at the size of our bill. The biggest shock was the $55 in telephone charges! At $5 a minute it was ridiculously extortionate. Checking down the itemised bill we noticed that a phone call lasting one minute and one second cost us $10! Unbelievable!

Veasna was there to pick us up at 6:30am. He looked shattered and admitted that he had been out partying until 2am. Julie was right! We put some cash in envelopes as a tip for Chet for driving safely and for Veasna for being such a likeable guide. We suggested that he open a bank account and started saving for his Madrid dream!

Yesterday he had mentioned that the key to being a good guide was to be adaptable. Some clients want a master/servant relationship and he's willing to comply, whilst with others he can relax and have more fun.

Veasna's Calling Card

We'd like to think that he enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed his. We certainly had plenty of laughs!

After delivering us to the airport he was going back to his home to catch up on his sleep. His next clients weren't due until 4pm this afternoon and they were Mexican so he needed to dream in Spanish to practice! We said our "Adios" and entered the departures building.

As we stepped in a security officer informed us that someone had "forgotten the key" to switch on the X-ray machine, so they would have to do a manual search of our luggage. That didn't exactly instil confidence with the airport's organisation! Whatever next? Air traffic controller has left the radar machine at home?

Anyway, we duly opened our luggage for the security staff to rummage through. The one who did the suitcases just tentatively prodded and lifted a few things; then he was quite happy to let us through. Perhaps the dirty laundry put him off digging any further! We're just glad that it went without any embarrassing incident. We had nothing to declare but just imagine if we did have something bizarre or kinky in our bags!

The female officer who ransacked my rucksack was far more diligent examining every item. She then paid a great deal of attention to my camera bag. She asked me to operate the camera to show her that it worked. I assume to prove that it was not a ticking time-bomb? I switched it on but was so shit scared of taking a photo of her sour face that I pretended by making the clicking noise with my mouth! I smiled the sincerest of smiles but it transferred none of its good will over to her sour face. She then opened every little roll of film canister, all twenty seven of them. I suppose it must be a popular hiding place for drugs.

The long haired 'n bearded look probably did fit their profile of a prime suspect but I felt increasingly persecuted when this older clean shaven gentleman with dyed black hair and cream chinos rolled up with three large suitcases and they just waved him through. Don't judge a book by its cover is all I've got to say.

We were finally given the all clear to progress. We paid our $6 internal airport tax, and also a $3 insurance surcharge (no idea why?) and we sat down in the departures room for only the briefest of moments; just enough time for Julie to take her 3rd diazepam of the morning and a visit to the toilets. We've realised that Julie doesn't suffer from Travel Sickness but from Travel Shitness!

Waiting for us on the tarmac was the same style little twin prop plane that brought us into Cambodia. Julie was completely silent as we walked towards it. We had been allocated seats 5 A/B which were directly over the propellers and it was far noisier sitting here than on our previous flight. It seemed as if the plane was struggling to get up in the air.

The pitch of the engines certainly made you think it was stuck in first gear but it was the shaking and shuddering that was the most unnerving aspect of take off. God only knows what was going through Julie's mind!

Thankfully it was only a 35 minute flight so it wasn't too long for her to suffer. It didn't seem long enough though for the staff to serve us food but they did!

The landing was also quite eventful as we touched down with a bump and a skid but it was nowhere near as bad the Siem Reap landing. As we were near the front, and with Julie's temporary paralysis we were one of the last to step off the plane.

Following the crowd over the tarmac towards a large billboard we saw the smiling face of the newly crowned King Sihamoni. All the text was in Khmer but we assumed it said "Welcome to Phnom Penh". It was probably because we were on a domestic flight they hadn't bothered about an international language.

We collected our luggage and met our capital guide just outside arrivals. His name was Heng. He was much older than Veasna and was certainly of Chinese descent.

He was pleasant enough, if a little unsure of his English, but when he likened me to David Beckham he instantly leapt in my estimation! (not really!)

 

His English was definitely not as fluent as Veasna's but we understood him most of the time. One thing he said on the way in was "People say Phnom Penh is 'Heart of Cambodia' and Angkor is 'Soul'" It was quite funny when he repeated the sentence in a quieter voice as if he were talking to himself. His face brimmed with pride as he nodded "Yes, Yes". I'm not too sure if it was national pride or his personal pride in how well he delivered the line!

As we travelled into the city Heng informed us that today was the climax of the Bon Om Tuk festival. What fantastic news! I hadn't miscalculated my dates after all. It seems the festival up in Siem Reap finishes a day early so the winners can travel down to compete in the capital? Anyway, I was so excited about seeing the boat races, the illuminated flotillas and fireworks of the celebrations tonight. Heng also mentioned the new King Sihamoni and how he's a 51 year old bachelor. He certainly amused himself as he was having a jolly good chuckle about something!

We drove down Norodom Boulevard to the Independence Monument and turned down towards the Mekong. We were staying at the Imperial Garden, a new resort in an excellent location. It overlooks the point where the Tonle Sap blends into the mighty Mekong river. The whole Bon Om Tuk festival revolves around this phenomenon where the flow of the Tonle Sap river reverses! It sounds more like a myth but it actually does happen. Towards the end of the monsoon rains there is such a build up of water in the Mekong that the level is higher and the excess flows back upstream into the Tonle Sap Lake. Incredible!

Our hotel was in the shadow of the well-established Cambodiana Hotel, and according to Heng the hotel beyond the Cambodiana was where Jackie Chang stayed once. We asked about Angelina Jolie but his face just went blank! After checking-in we went up to our room to find out we had a river view. Excellent! Perfect for the fireworks later!

We didn't hang around for too long as Heng was waiting to take us for our lunch. We got in the car to drive to the restaurant which was on the riverfront. No matter which way we tried to get to the riverfront we kept on coming up against roadblocks. With the festival in full swing, and with the King in attendance, all the roads leading to Sisowath Quay had been closed. Heng finally resorted to the handing over of some cash for the turning of an eye.

He was well chuffed with himself when we were allowed through.

The restaurant was in a great spot. We sat upstairs on the balcony overlooking the street. We could see the boats racing down the Tonle Sap river and the crowds cheering them on.

The boats were unbelievably long! They must have seated over 25 rowers!

My food was once again stir fried veg. It tasted fine but I could no longer get excited over it. There's only so much of the same dish that a man can take!

Heng had said that he'd wait to drive us back to our hotel but we released him from our service. We had nothing organised for today so we wanted to just stroll around and take in the festival.

He seemed a little confused that we didn't want him to follow our every step but he went along with our wishes.

After a great relaxing lunch we left the restaurant and walked down the riverfront briefly until we reached the Foreign Correspondence Club.

This is one of those famous establishments of the world. You simply can not come to Phnom Penh and not walk into the FCC. It's on a corner, up on the second floor of a beautiful, if a little run down, French colonial building and it was exactly as I had anticipated.

Open air balcony, whirring fans, customers relaxing on luxurious easy chairs, reading, writing and drinking coffee. It felt great just sitting here reading the menu!

 

Oh what I'd give for a ciabatta, some pasta, a pizza, and a glass of red wine! That's the only complaint we have on this tour is that we are tied into this Full Board deal and whilst we could refuse to eat where taken we feel that we would offend our guide quite profusely. He'd worry that it was a personal reflection of his service. But I was rapidly sinking into desperation, nearing cracking point. We promised ourselves that we'd rebel tomorrow night and come here to the sanctuary of the FCC!

We left the Correspondence Club without eating a morsel and with our saliva glands drooling painfully. We walked along Sisowath Quay against the crowd heading down to the riverfront. Whilst we certainly weren't the only foreigners in town we were still proving to be quite an attraction as we walked down the riverfront. We were turning the heads of all the teenage boys and girls as they unashamedly stared at us.

"They might think your David Beckham but it's only because I look like Posh Spice!" joked Julie.

Opposite the Royal Palace we noticed a covered area, a lot of red carpet and some guards. It was quite a buzz to know that the King was seated just over there. We didn't loiter though.

Those bayonets looked pretty sharp!

It was oppressively hot and by the time we got back to the hotel we were totally knackered. We had sweat buckets with our effort and all we could do was to flake out on the loungers by the pool.

The sun was blaring down on us so we sensibly slapped on the sun cream. After over a week in South East Asia we were still as white as Snow White so we consciously started using a sun factor 10 cream in the hope of allowing some of those harsh rays through to get some colour at least!

Just as we finished smearing ourselves in the white stuff a dark cloud with perfect comic timing blocked away the sun and dumped us into shade.

"We'll get home paler than when we left!" cursed Julie. "Or a lighter shade of green if I continue to be forced fed stir fried veg!!" I sarcastically added.

We returned to our hotel room and sat on our balcony to people watch but it felt more like a royal box because we were being noticed by the festival goers.

They were all just walking around and when they saw we were in residence some would wave frantically at us.

I'd always return a wave much to their amusement and excited giggles. All this adulation was too much for Julie and she went for a lie down but I was lapping it up!

The open patch of land in front of the hotel was now filling up with people and the tent to the left was increasingly looking like a large stage! There was obviously going to be a loud concert keeping us awake later on tonight!

At about 5:30pm, when we were both lying on the bed, eating sugary peanuts, watching TV3 which had live pictures of the final races, and of King Sihamoni giving out the prizes to the victors, we heard an almighty boom boom, boom titty boom, screech 'n wail !!!

The rock and roll was starting early! The amplified bass drum shook the foundations; our glass door vibrated, and as I stepped out onto the balcony my ears were trampled by the wall of sound like it were a herd of buffaloes.

Jeez, it was loud!

I was glad that I was still outside waving to my adoring public when the entire competitive field of boats rowed past. There must have been over forty of these huge rowing boats cutting they're way into the Mekong as if they could still win something!

It was quite a spectacular view. I don't think a photo could capture the movement of a thousand rowers steaming into the sunset. It was one of those memorable moments when you step back and think "Oh my God"

A little later came the fireworks. Great! I stood there like a five year old gawping. I honestly can say that I'd never seen such an impressive firework display.
The sky was spectacularly splattered with allsorts of dazzling colours accompanied by thunder cracks that were so loud they drowned out the noise of the Khmer rock.

At home our local display could only afford a couple of Roman Candles, a Catherine Wheel and a feeble whiz-pop rocket!

The performance here however painted the night sky for ages. If it had continued any longer I would have been suffering from shell shock!

It did eventually come to an end which signalled time for us to venture out into the mayhem of the festival.

We met Heng in the lobby and sat around talking awkwardly for a while whilst a torrential downpour subsided.

It was difficult to get any conversation flowing with him, he had nowhere near the charm of Veasna and with his chunky gold watch, fancy mobile phone and his Teflon coated hair he was a completely different character; but he seemed cheerful enough.

As soon as the rain stopped we stepped out of the safety of our hotel and straight into a tide of people flowing towards the Royal Palace.

hotel postcard

Initially it was reasonably controlled as we all went with the gentle pace but then we hit some turbulent rapids when two tributaries met head on. It was chaos. We almost drowned in a whirlpool of bodies!

Earlier on Julie had phoned home and told her mother that we were going out for supper. She was concerned and said "I hope you're not mixing with them". If only she could see us now. Mixing? We were practically blended!

Every now and again we'd get a surge of kids doing the conga right through the crowd. It seemed to work as everyone got out of their way. I suggested that we should tag onto the end but the idea didn't exactly float Julie's boat. Another method of cutting through the crowd was to ride through on your motorbike! You were guaranteed that everyone moved out of your way! There was always a girl riding pillion trying hard to look really cool and the boy didn't care about looking cool, he was riding a motorbike! He was cool!

We also noticed that the vast majority of the crowd were teenage kids. Nobody seemed to be drinking. There was no agro; they were all just having a great time, high on life. Back home the kids would have been pissed or wasted and there would have been bottles thrown, normally filled with urine. It was so refreshing to see teenagers just having a good time.

I was really enjoying the experience, it was exciting and a great adrenalin rush. Here we were; the only white faces in the middle of a million Cambodians. It was so surreal to have everybody staring at you. It must be what celebrity feels like! They were extremely inquisitive. We were being touched up on a regular basis, "Aargh, I've just been pinched!" I yelped. "I know! My arms keep on getting nabbed" said Julie. For a moment I could have sworn she said 'arse'! We were mostly pinched on the arms, but I did feel hands delve deep into my pockets on two occasions. In search of valuables the only thing they found down there were my testicles!

Inch by slow inch we made our way towards our dinner. It was really intense, really hard work. We eventually reached a gridlock and were going nowhere fast. Heng's solution was to get out of the pot and into the kitchens! We managed to make it to the side of the street, and onto the pavement. This is where impromptu cafes had been set up busy cooking and serving food to the revellers.

We meandered our way through the back of temporary kitchens, beneath canopies, over tie ropes, in and out between diners at their table, bouncing along to the beat of Eminem blaring from a crackly radio. This was even more fun! Everybody we inconvenienced smiled at us and was gracious beyond the call. On one occasion a mother (busy cooking) actually lifted her sleeping child out of the way to allow us to squeeze through. Another instance, a young boy merrily eating away stopped shovelling his noodles to ask Julie "Are you OK lady?" which was incredibly sweet!

Eventually the torrent of the crowd on the main street had started to thin out slightly so we rejoined the road. We had now reached Sisowath Quay, opposite the Royal Palace, and could for the first time this evening stroll at our own pace. We were still receiving a lot of attention but at least now they couldn't get close enough to violate us! After passing a group of giggling girls Heng said that they were admiring how handsome I was! I found myself strutting like John Travolta with a fever!

Finally we found our restaurant and were happy for the sanctuary it offered us, plus the cold bottle of Tiger beer. That was probably the most rewarding bottle of beer I had in a long time. Heng sat outside to wait for us but Julie suggested we'd offer to buy him a cold beer for guiding us safely through that melee. "Would you like a drink, Heng?" I asked. "Oh, yes, yes," he nodded, and joined us at our table; then asked for a can of soya bean milk and a straw! Party on dude!

I think with him leading us through the great unwashed and into the land of plenty, we had now bonded and somehow the conversation was flowing much better than earlier. He graduated in History and then spent a few years as a High School teacher before switching careers two years ago to become a tour guide. He also talked about politics with questions like "Do you like Bush?" and "Is Tony Blair just a Bush puppet?" He even said "Thai people look down on Cambodians". I remembered reading about the anti-Thai riots they had in Phnom Penh in 2001 and steered him away from any heavier topics. Both Julie and I couldn't care less about politics but he certainly had an active political view point.

It was fascinating however to learn how the various phases of recent Cambodian history had an effect on which language was taught in the schools. The older generation of course still speak French after being part of the Indochina colony. Then during the Vietnamese occupation that lasted until 1989 they were all taught Vietnamese and Russian. Now with the UN peacekeepers of the Nineties and the tourist industry flourishing English is everybody's second language.

Looking at the menu we had asked if we could choose anything. The agreed deal was that we could have a 5 dish set menu or a choice of any 3 dishes. We decided to hold our own destiny in our hands and chose three dishes. The food arrived, and yes, you've guessed it, I had a plate of stir fried veg! I had no other choice! I had to laugh or else I would have cried! Julie had pork ribs which were fine. Mine didn't taste that good, there was a slight odd flavour as if it had started to fester or something? Heng wasn't eating but he did finish off the bowl of sweaty peanuts that came with our beers.

Sitting at a table to the side of us we noticed an unsavoury sight that continues to blight Cambodia's image. An extremely young looking Khmer girl was sitting in the company of a pasty sleazy western man who was old enough to be her grandfather. It was proving to be quite a distraction as I could feel myself getting wound up. I was thinking "I'm going to have to say something in a minute or else I'm going to hit him" Thankfully they left after a few minutes. Perhaps he could sense that he was in danger as I kept on looking over and scowling!

Whilst we sat in the restaurant the illuminated flotillas sailed by and damn, I hadn't brought a camera with me! (The image to the right is a postcard.)

Heng explained that they were representative of a particular government ministry, such as Defence or Agriculture. Julie saw a sign outside a government building today that said it was the Ministry of Ministries! The floats were so pretty as they floated slowly out of sight.

We left about 9pm and it was still unbelievably busy.

We walked across the grassy park in front of the illuminated Royal Palace. The reaction of the kids to us was fantastic. Everywhere we walked we were turning heads. They all smiled, said hello, waved or were interested in my tattoos or at Julie's breasts. It felt great to receive this much notice. I was loving it!

I've always known that I'm probably a couple of wrong steps away from being an egomaniac. Well tonight I was walking across the turf like a racehorse. I felt worshipped like a god king and it was all going to my head! My ego was rampant!

Then when we bumped into Heng's cousin (in the midst of all this?) he introduced me as David Beckham's little brother. Well, then I knew they were just taking the piss!

When we eventually walked behind the secure gates of our hotel's complex I was both disappointed that the experience had come to an end but also equally glad to finally escape the attention. It was certainly an evening to remember!

Sunday 28th Nov 04 >>  
ęCopyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk