After our fabulous week in Siem Reap Erik and I hopped on another bus to Phnom Penh (pronounced Nom Pen). Originally this capital city was only in our itinerary because it was the only place that we could apply for a 60 day Thai visa. We could fly back into Thailand and automatically have a 30 day visa or re-enter over land and receive an automatic 15 day visa, but something told us that we were really going to like it there and had heard of people staying there for months at a time with ease. For this reason we decided to shell out some extra cash and travel to Phnom Penh for the super 60 day visa.
Soon after arriving we price shopped at several travel agencies to get the best price on a quick turnaround time and their ability to ignore the fact that we had no ongoing travel arrangements for leaving Thailand, it’s amazing what a little extra money can get you. We soon found one that we were happy with, but were disappointed to learn that, just our luck, that Monday was a public holiday. That day being Friday, so we wouldn’t get our visas until the following Wednesday, which is about two days longer than we were hoping to spend in the city before we headed south. But such is life.
We set to work putting together a few free walking tours for ourselves chock-full of the main sights and several of the free attractions. Much like Siem Reap Phnom Penh has a booming “westerners” neighborhood full of bustling river front restaurants, bars and guesthouses, but at this point we felt that we had done that and gotten the t-shirt. Therefore we spent more of our time exploring the massive central market which sold everything you could possibly imagine and a lot of things you couldn’t.
Sadly, the king of Cambodia passed away in October and therefore the country was in a state of mourning for the three months following his death. This also meant that the spectacular royal palace and main temple were closed out of respect.
One of our favorite discoveries was a strange firm-shelled fruit that we had seen in Siem Reap called Mangosteen. Once you broke open the thick peal, several bulging white pieces shaped much like garlic cloves were exposed. But less like garlic, and more like a Gusher, once you bit into one it exploded into sweet. I think it could be described the best as a cross between a very sweet grape with an orange’s texture. Amazing.
We also discovered very cheap lunch food at the market which is served at small counters scattered among the food quadrant of the area. We randomly sat down at one for lunch and were rewarded with thick rice noodles mixed with vegetables, fried veggie spring rolls, fish sauce, crushed peanuts, something milky and something sweet. It sounds strange separate but together it was a unique symphony of tastes that either of us had yet to experience.
The following day we decided to dive into some important local history and visit the Security Prison 21 (S-21) which was once a school for learning but during the terror of Khmer Rouge it was used as a torture and holding center for “suspected spies and dissidents” or what sounded to us like entirely paranoid delusions of the regime, as they proceeded to murder entire families on a whim.
The many small cells and torture devices were difficult to visit especially as they were eerily left in the exact condition in which they were found after the regime fled. What was more gruesome were the large scale posters of the bodies found inside of the rooms, at some times completely unrecognizable due to the torture that they endured. I felt as if another veil of innocence had been lifted from my eyes as a I read the accounts of the few (8) survivors who witnessed many of the estimated 20,000 people who were “processed” at the prison or taken to the nearby killing fields and shot. I had a similar experience at Auschwitz where I came to grips with the unimaginable cruelty that humans possess and the stark realization at the recentness of the events of WWII which to some degree prevents one from attributing horrors to “another time and culture.” However, this time the events were even more recent, occurring between 1975-1979. In fact, the leader of the regime Pol Pot only died in 1998, with trials of his closest accomplices continuing (stalling) to today.
Although it was a very sobering experience, I did emerge from it with a new found respect for the bravery and resolve of the Cambodian people. In such a short time, how progressive and successful the country has become, doubtless in part due to the resilience and incredibly positive attitude of the population. I was astounded at in the thousands of images documenting prisoners who came in, none of them appear afraid, but rather proud despite the terror that they must knew awaited them at S-21.
We tried to keep the rest of our stay lighter with some great food, and even a cooking class! One of the funniest things we found were a slew of Happy Pizza restaurants where you could ask to have your pizza made “extra happy” which would cause your pizza to arrive with extra herb toppings to leave you relaxed and extra happy!
We also are still getting used to seeing Christmas decorations everywhere while we walk around in 90° heat. I’m not sure that I can get used to garland and tree lights strung around palm trees. With our Thai super visas in hand, it was time to head to the beaches and islands of Cambodia for a little quiet and relaxation, on yet another bus.