Phnomenal traffic

Phnomenal traffic
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

“Wannoo…put the lime in the coconut”

Yes! The barman really did just say exactly that, though he’s instructing and I think it was more along the lines of ‘put in the lime and then the coconut’, rather than a precursor to ‘and drink them both down’. Most excellent; I wonder if the line in the song comes from overhearing a similar bit of English-as-second-language.

View from the back of a rickshaw, traffic all around and a temple off to the left

The hostel had sent me a driver; I’d asked for him to come at 10, and not heard that was happening, but I was been hoist on my own petard, really, by her not replying to that request to say ‘yes, he’ll be there’ or similar. It worked in exactly what I’d argue is the right way – once you’ve written to say “can we pick you up”, had a “yes”, written to say “what time?” and had an answer, the rest is implicit.

He turned up at 10, in any case. The tuk tuk ride is part of the experience, even fun, here; turning is a case of sticking your bike/tuk tuk/car/body into a place from where you can head across the road, then edging into people’s way until enough have stopped that you can go. Liberal use of the horn, though in fairness it is also supposed to be used to warn people you are there in the UK, and that seems the standard thing here and in Korea. Roads are filled with motorbikes, fewer cars and bikes and the occasional lorry, all just about getting along in my experience, though not without the odd quick braking and of course accident rates here are greater. I’ve read some guidance. The tone always changes depending on how adventurous the writer is, and it has helped me to appreciate the job Lonely Planet and the other established guides do in making a fairly adventurous approach seem normal. Guidance suggests walking in Phnom Penh isn’t recommended, and certainly there are stretches with pavement, more often stretches where pavement is overtaken by markets and even more often stretches with nothing. Seoul often had no pavements, where in Tokyo an area was at least marked off at the side of the road, yellow paint marking off a walkway, Seoul didn’t always have that. I’m sure there are enough Asian cities in enough states of development that you could trace how they were first laid out and how that is then modernised; and by modernised, I mean updated in keeping with the original layout, so an area of no pavements becomes a group of swanky buildings and smooth tarmac. And no pavement. Cars at least seemed to reliably wait for pedestrians to walk past parked cars before they tried to fit through the road space left.

Motorcycles roll past the elaborate pagoda of the Royal Palace
Royal Palace.

I liked my driver, so I kept him. For the day, that is, after he’d made an extra trip to allow me to break a $100 note to pay ‘Mematesvilla’ and I’d then ripped myself off by giving the hostel too much money. I’ve just one day in Phnom Penh, bus booked to Siem Riep tomorrow at 7, so was in a hang the consequences mood.

First we headed for Choeung Ek, or ‘the killing fields’ which is just one of many such fields around the country, but the one with the monument to the dead, and 86 excavated graves. Theoretically it’s $3 to go in, $3 for the audio tour, but I’m not sure you can turn down the latter, and nor should you – without it you’re left to look at a few signs and pits without context. The buildings were torn down by the locals in 1979, belatedly realising what had been happening, hidden from them by DDT on the bodies (to cut down on the smell) and music played to cover any moans.

It’s all ever so slightly ramshackle, as is the separate genocide museum in town, but a disarmingly beautiful site. The lake walk is optional but not very long, and I’d urge anyone visiting to listen to all of the audio tracks. There’s a small museum, to introduce you to the first of many biographies of Khmer Rouge leaders, and a film. The voice over is English. Very english – it sounds like someone on a gap year completing a project, and as if it’s his first read through of the only reasonable-English script, giving him time to correct some basic bits, the tense of verbs etc, but forcing him to read sentences he certainly wouldn’t have written. Unfortunately, at least for me, he has that embarrassing tendency to put emphasis on the adjective in each sentence; fine when you’re taught it in school to prevent a monotone, but past 15 you ought to move on, lest you seem too much of a ((British) public school) numpty.

A large, busy, roundabout, with a tall monument in the middle
Phnom Penh.

After that I eschewed the offer of a trip to the shooting range nearby-sort of too close to what I’d just seen, though only sort of, because bullets were too expensive so people weren’t shot but died at the hands of farm implements, some of which are on display, looking undramatic. We headed back into town, with me glad for the face mask he’d picked up on the way and of the cushioning on the seat. He was obviously trying to avoid the worst bumps but it wasn’t always possible, and the road is not in the best shape.

I’d asked for the national museum but the rules of ‘if you liked x then you might also like y’ were in full effect and we went for the genocide museum, Tuol Sleng. It had an innocent past as a school, but then both Pol Pot and Duch (head of the school that was turned into a prison and detention centre) were former teachers themselves, which seems surreal. The prison itself has a lovely garden in the middle and for $2 you are free to wander the four buildings, discovering cells, mass detention rooms and, interspersed between them in no particular order, various exhibitions. Those on the leadership of the Khmer Rouge are very dry, almost certainly because they are currently being detained prior to trial. Embarrassingly, although the genocide took place over their four years in power, 75-79, it took much much longer for the Khmer Rouge to be arrested, with Pol Pot dying in exile in 1998, making it all much more recent history than it should be.

There’s also-all of a sudden, up on the third floor of one of the buildings-an exhibition on the peace museum in Okinawa, which is odd, but (so far as I could make out) is there because staff from here went there to learn better conservation and preservation techniques. There’s a nice ‘midterm report’ part way round, and then it’s back to stories of those arrested and the sins they were made to invent. Again the place feels ramshackle, though that does mean you can get very close to the bed and manacles that were used, and wonder why most rooms have ammo boxes in when they are so sparsely furnished. Getting closer to one I saw the sign – ‘container for excrement’.

A courtyard in an old school - the genocide museum
Genocide museum.

There are plenty of mugshots, and confessions from people. Essentially if you stopped confessing to crimes, of the nature of preventing work from happening mostly, you were dead. Even so, some seem easy to line-between-read, such as confessing to the rape of a local girl and to then blaming it on local soldiers. As if they would. Some of the mugshots have smiling faces in – either oblivious, still believing in the cover story that ‘you are being taken to a new home’ or hoping for better treatment, perhaps. Some of the exhibits show the same things, you’ll read biographical detail of the ruling few many times. But some of the repetition is effective, even if that effect is accidental. Early on I spotted some black and white reproductions of paintings showing torture and killing. The full colour ones I saw later are brutal. Finally, sat behind a desk of books by the snack bar is a survivor. An early inscription is keen to point out that the idea of seven survivors has been taken up by western media, when many more survived having been let go, but there were seven who survived the prison and were there at the end, and that number is used in other exhibits. Here is one of them, in the flesh, which is both perfectly ordinary in the fact of a man sitting at a table and quite incredible when you consider what he heard here.

It was late in the afternoon – if still over 30 degrees – so we did a last tour, of the lovely riverside, quick stop at the royal palace and national museum, before I headed back to book accommodation in Siem Riep for tomorrow. One of the other tuk tuk drivers was onto me straight away, knowing I was off tomorrow and offering to have me picked up by his mate; you’re never short of an offer of transport here.

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