Welcome to Khmerland
Phnom Penh...

Sunday 28th November 2004

My God, my guts are rotting! They've finally surrendered to the onslaught of stir fried veg and are releasing toxic gases at a relentless pace! Julie woke up after starring in a full episode of Coronation Street, in her dreams. It must have been how last night's celebrity status had manifested itself in her sub-consciousness!

We noticed on the laundry price list that they had 'Safari Suit' listed as an item of clothing? Who the hell still wears a safari suit? Dr. Livingstone I presume?!

Breakfast at this hotel was excellent. I even had baked beans for the first time on this journey, although with the wind I'm brewing I'm not too sure if it was a good idea. "Baked Beans are good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you fart!"

Heng met us at the lobby at 8:30am and took us to the National Museum. It was built around 1920 to house the significant pieces of Khmer history. It's a very attractive looking building with the terra-cotta roof in the traditional Khmer style.

A gaggle of guides sat near the entrance as we walked in. It was like a taxi rank. We hired the guide who was sitting nearest the front and then they all shuffled along to wait their turn.

Heng wasn't allowed to escort us within the museum as we had to have an official National Museum guide. It was a blessing in disguise as she had quite good English and was very informative.

She led us through the four galleries; Pre Angkor, Early Angkor, Late Angkor, and Post Angkor. The Golden Age of the Khmer Empire certainly dominates this country!

Whilst all her facts about the artefacts were detailed and interesting what we found fascinating was her personal views on several topics.

We again touched on the tension between Cambodia and Thailand when she repeated Heng's feelings that the Thai's lookdown on their Khmer neighbours, and how they have claimed Angkor Wat to be theirs.

You could tell that there's no love lost between the nations.

She was explaining also how the Khmer Empire during the Angkor period ruled over the entire South East Asia that included Burma, Laos, Vietnam and especially Thailand.

She was then reflecting on how the power diminished, leaving Cambodia as a shadow of its former glory. She was concerned about the country's future and cited Vietnamese immigration as a major problem. Her words were heartfelt and you could sense her sorrow.

Another insight was when she joked how men and women date and it is all romantic sweetheart stuff, then after marriage it all suddenly changes and the man will get a mistress. She made it sound like it was uncommon for a husband not to have a mistress!

I had paid $1 to be allowed to take photographs inside but the small print on the ticket said that I could only use my camera in the garden! At least there was an important statue in the centre.

It was the original Leper King from the terraces of Angkor Thom.

 

Next stop was the Royal Palace.

We could have walked; it was only around the corner but today was a stunning clear blue sky day which made it the hottest day by far. We were glad our driver was at hand to take us in the comfort of the air conditioned car.

We were taken to the public gates, driving past the central gates that only open for the King. It directly leads out, across the park, to the riverside pavilion, where he gave out the prizes to the boat race champions yesterday.
 

It cost me an extra $2 to be allowed to take photographs within the Palace complex, and unlike the museum, this was worth every cent. The Throne Hall, The Hall of Moonlight, The Royal Residence, The French Pavilion and the Silver Pagoda were all beautiful in the glorious sunshine.

A month before our visit Prince Sihamoni, old King Sihanouk's youngest son, and up until then a dance instructor from Paris, was crowned the new King of Cambodia right here in this Throne Room.

The pageantry and tradition must have been amazing to have witnessed. Inside the hall was so ornate as if Midas had run amok. Gold leaf covered almost everything!

Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the hall.

To the side of the Throne Hall was the Royal Residence and the blue flag hoisted indicated that the King was at home today. Despite our best efforts we couldn't catch a glimpse of him nor did we wangle an invite for a cup of tea.

We walked past the out-of-character French Pavilion on our way to the Silver Pagoda. I'm sure our guide said that it was a gift form Napoleon?

Once again Heng was not allowed to show us around the temple, and we were allocated an official Royal Palace guide.

He had excellent English, almost Oxford Educated!

Well, almost.

The Silver Pagoda is also called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, similar to that in Bangkok, but has adopted the name 'Silver Pagoda' because the entire floor is paved with five thousand silver tiles melted from donated coins.

Unlike Bangkok's Emerald Buddha we could walk up much closer and around the back of the altar. It was such a rich green colour, made from baccarat crystal and it was also much larger that it's Thai counterpart.

So there's one up for Cambodia!

Next to the pagoda were several chedis and one in paticular had the sorrowful tale that it contained the ashes of a young princess.

We walked through a few exhibitions, the royal regalia, the elephant stables, and the obligatory souvenir shop, which were all about a 5 out of 10 on the interesting scale.

 
 

What I did find interesting were the fruit trees near the exit. The fruit were huge like basketballs and inside they contained a sweet yellow flesh amongst the pith. It was convinced it was the fruit I had tasted on the Thai Air flight over.

Our guide called it "Jack Fruit".

 

Heng was waiting for us at outside ready to whisk us away to Wat Phnom. This is the fabled birthplace of the city.

Apparently Madame Penh was rowing merrily down river when she suddenly came across caskets containing four Buddhas. She took this as a truly auspicious sign and decided to personally oversee the building of a temple on the nearby hill. Phnom means 'hill' in Khmer.

Over time a community built around the temple then during the death throws of the Angkorian period the King abandoned the cities of Angkor and moved firstly to Oudong, then settled at Phnom Penh as his new capital.

It's geographic location at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers made it strategically perfect.

When we arrived at Wat Phnom a small child, no older than five years old, came towards us carrying a baby and an empty milk bottle, with a hand outstretched. We felt guilty for ignoring his pleas as Heng brushed him to one side.

All the way up the steps land mine victims couldn't even hold out a begging hand because they didn't have one. We felt extremely guilty for not donating but Heng was not in a charitable mood as he ushered us up as quickly as possible.

You kind of got the feeling that he was ashamed of them.

We reached the top of the Phnom where the smell of incense was overpowering. (Isn't it peculiar how the word incense means something completely different when it's verbalised; i.e. to be incensed!!)

As hundreds of sticks were releasing their potent smell into the atmosphere a troop of incensed monkeys seemed to be attracted to the sweet smoke and they were loitering with intent. They were very intimidating and we gave them a wide berth especially the one that was coughing and spluttering as if it had tuberculosis.

We didn't want to catch monkey flu!

Heng certainly was a man after Mao Tse Tung's heart and had no religious inclinations whatsoever.

He disagreed with the idea that there was any merit to lighting incense sticks for worship or good luck.

When we entered the temple he didn't even take his shoes off until he saw Julie and I showing our due respect. Whilst inside I asked him if it would be alright to take some photos but I knew that he'd say "Yes, Yes".

I'm sure if I'd asked him if I could dance naked around the Buddha he would have said "Yes, Yes".

As we left we walked past Mrs. Penh. She was a very colourful porcelain statue.

There was a bright wheel of fortune above her head and money changing hands. She looked more like a fairground fortune teller.

Roll up, roll up!

We left Wat Phnom for lunch and drove out of the centre to a restaurant called Tonle Basac for a hot buffet that only offered the vegetarian some fried green cabbage. Honestly! My bowels may as well throw in the towel right now! At least Julie had plenty of delicious choices for herself.

Back into the city we returned and noticed along the way many other restaurants which made us thankful for what we had received. One was called 'Kow Fok', the mind boggles! I would avoid the beef dish! Eugh!! Another appeared to be a fast food place called "Burger and Bakery World". It had a yellow 'W' sign like an upside down McDonalds.

We sang "There's nothing quite like a WackDonalds" all the way to our next stop.

We were taken to have a look around the Central Market known in Khmer as Phsar Thmei.

Architecturally it was a wonderful art deco structure and apparently the dome is something like the 6th largest in the world?

Despite being built during the 1930's the Cambodian architect was still kicking around. How ancient must he be now?

 

The dome was built as a central hub with four spokes stretching outwards, each filled with tonne. We quite literally scooted around the centre and were bored inside five minutes.

 

Heng seemed slightly disappointed by our total lack of interest but we didn't care. We were in such a rush to leave that I nearly knocked over a one legged postcard seller off his crutches!

Then whilst we were waiting to be picked up a dirty bedraggled beggar with two young kids stood right in my face and moaned at me.

I gave her 1000 riel and she seemed ever so grateful. All of a sudden I came over all Mother Theresa and I felt like giving her a big hug!

Actually I didn't. Common sense probably stopped me. But I wanted to.

By 1pm we were back at the hotel having finished our itinerary for the day so we decided to relax by the pool for a while. We had a good hour to ourselves before it became busy.

Thankfully Ken and Barbie weren't here today; yesterday they made us both feel inadequate with their highly toned and tanned bodies! In contrast this afternoon was spent watching bathers who actually made us feel superior!

One guy was splashing around like a complete idiot.

 

 

We were caught in his spray as the water splashed over our legs. "It's only 4ft deep" piped up Julie. "Perhaps he's only 4ft tall" I replied "maybe he's drowning!" "Well, could you tell him to drown quietly?" He didn't last long before leaving.

Next in the water were a very odd couple we christened Gungha Din and Madam Butterfly. He was a short stocky Chinese guy and she was very slight and incredibly pale. Gungha made the earlier thrasher look like a good swimmer! We just couldn't work out what the hell he was doing? He stood in the water some 3 metres away from the end of the pool; he took a deep breath, stuck out his arms in front of him, hands together, and after focusing with ninja concentration he launched himself like an Olympic swimmer into a bizarre doggy paddle with his arse floating high above water and his face well beneath it, as his legs kicked wildly like a drowning Chow Chow! He would certainly register a 'nil point' for artistic impression but his diminutive girlfriend would give him perfect 6.0 as she watched him, brimming with pride. We came to the conclusion that he must have been mentally challenged and stinking rich! It took him a torturous 15 seconds to make those three metres. He must have been determined to beat his personal best as he repeated this ungraceful propulsion at least 20 times.

This wasn't the end of the aquatic entertainment. Another member of China's Ministry of Silly Swimming came bobbing past. This guy wasn't swimming at all but walked his way across the length of the pool, taking one step forward, inhaling deeply before squatting below the water, blowing bubbles until there was none left to blow, then frog leaping forward sub aqually, and then stood up. He repeated this for ages. It looked very hard work, and was probably great for building up stamina but he looked bloody ridiculous! We were pissing ourselves with laughter, only for them to save the best for last when one guy was swimming so much like a fish that he had actually shoved a polystyrene float up his arse and cut his way through the water with his "fin" showing! Shark man certainly scooped the gold medal! This was more fun that Sea World! "Can I throw them a fish now?"

We returned to our room to reluctantly get ready for force-feeding. We were stalling. I was even watching ping pong on the TV instead of getting changed. Heng was waiting for us in the lobby. We went down to meet him and we tried to explain that we wanted to eat elsewhere tonight, we even made up fictitious friends that we were meeting later, but when he said "Yes, yes, no, no" we knew we had lost. "It's already booked" he complained "and we can't cancel". So we gave in as to avoid a confrontation.

We arrived at the Khmer Surin restaurant just off Sihanoukville Boulevard. It was a lovely place, nicely candlelit and very popular with tour groups. We explained that I was veggie and would like to choose from the menu and Julie asked if she could not have any fish. Our waiter was very pleasant and seemed to understand all our requests. Our little hopes were raised as we looked forward to a pleasnt evening only for them to be cruelly crushed when I found myself staring at yet another bowl of veg soup and stir fried veg, and Julie was left asking "What part of "no fish" was lost in translation?" when she was proudly presented with a bowl of Shrimp soup. Inside we were screaming!

Our frustration finally bubbled over and we started ranting out loud, bouncing off each other, plotting to declare war against Cambodia's restaurateurs. But when our opportunity to strike presented itself we suffered from that most pathetic of diseases, British politeness. "Is everything OK?" the waiter asked quite concerned. "Yes, yes, fine" we nodded feebly.

Our spirits were lifted however, courtesy of the waiter, when we noticed him walking away with the obviously untouched Shrimp soup. He took a detour down the side balcony and popped behind a room divider. He must have thought he was well hidden but we could see him frantically shovelling down the soup. He emerged wiping his mouth and purring!

Either the poor lad was having his only decent meal of the day by scavenging scraps, or he was too scared to take a full bowl of soup back to into the kitchen! We soon stopped moaning. We felt a tad ungrateful!

We left just as a heavy downpour forced diners in from the balcony before they were soaked or frazzled by lightning. The sky gave us a dramatic show on the way back to the hotel. We ended the evening in the hotel bar sharing a bottle of dry white wine and a bowl of sweet sweaty nuts to pretend at least that we had some control over what we ate!

   
Monday 29th November 04 >>  
ęCopyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk