Lacy: Tuesday night we ate our last meal in Indonesia as we enjoyed dinner and 2 towers of Bintang in Kuta before walking ourselves to the airport. It felt a bit odd to walk right into the airport as opposed to driving, but then again this wasn’t the first time we have done that in Indonesia and odd is our new normal. Arriving in Malaysia at 2am we stretched out on some terminal chairs and slept for a few hours before passengers began to pile in around 6am eager for their upcoming journeys. As our flight didn’t leave until 10am we enjoyed a breakfast of rice and chicken in the Malaysian airport. We are both so used to eating rice all the time now that it doesn’t really phase us to consume it at 8am. By 1pm we were getting our Cambodian visas, new SIM cards for our phones and grinning ear to ear as we embarked on our first tuk tuk ride together! Before even leaving Indonesia we decided that a tuk tuk ride seemed the most appropriate way to begin our travels in Cambodia. Oozing excitement, we began to soak in our new surroundings and come to a few early conclusions.
Another noted contrast is the shanty river town that sits on the banks of the Mekong directly in front of a swanky high rise hotel and residence:
I don’t think we realized how good we had it in Indonesia with the language using the same alphabet as English. Being able to read the local language and recognize words as we traveled, even if we weren’t sure how to pronounce them correctly, really helped us navigate through the country. Our ride through the Phnom Penh made it pretty clear that our deciding to come to Cambodia with a days notice didn’t give us much time to prepare a few phrases, key words or knowledge of the language. I say “we” but the language part of traveling usually falls to me while Rob handles other parts he excels at. We actually find ourselves starting to speak Indonesian to Cambodians and having to stop ourselves. We continue to use between each other though! Speaking English, and not having some of the local language to throw in every once in a while, at a minimum, in a foreign country takes away the experience so I’ll be brushing up on Khmer. The traffic here is still just as crazy and plentiful. The combination of older rickshaws, modern tuk tuks, motorcycles, scooters, buses, minibuses, cars, bicycles and pedestrians make for a wild and crazy scene. We already witnessed a car backing out of a spot on the sidewalk and barely missing a motorcycle. The guy on the bike dumped it to avoid an accident and flying off went the 2 girls on the back. Everyone seemed fine on the bike and not 1 person stopped to see if they were ok, including the driver of the car. That’s just what happens apparently. Not unlike Indonesia at all. Because the of the abundance of tuk tuks we immediately noticed that there are not motorcycles piled with chairs, chickens and bags of rice whizzing by. Don’t worry – families of 5 are still piled on the bikes. While there is still street food here it seems to have less of a presence than Indonesia and in our few days here we are still trying to get our bearings. The food here in the carts is different and without really understanding the language and what we are eating we have been a little apprehensive. We did dive into a street cart once and it was great, but we are still weary given sir of the Jen things normally served that we don’t want to find ourselves eating…insects, rats, eels, buffalo intensities (2 of the 4 I already willingly tried but don’t need a repeat performance of). Buddhist temples and statues are everywhere as well as monks clad in orange and red robes.
After our first 45 minute crash course as we cruised along in our tuk tuk we arrived at our hotel where we enjoyed a shower and rest before a sunset boat ride on the Mekong river nearby. The boat was a great way to get another view do the city and relax after traveling. $17 gets you a pretty decent place here. Hot shower, bottled water for drinking (no, you still can’t drink the water here), daily maid service and even a tv (I think there was a tv in maybe 1 place the entire time we were in Indonesia). After three months it was nice to find and scroll through the 3 English channels hoping to find something that seemed mildly interesting. The one thing we both miss is the included breakfast that was standard for every hotel or hostel in Indo. Wasn’t fancy – usually toast and eggs and coffee, but always so appreciated. I joked with Rob in Ubud as we laid in bed one morning and I was just beginning to wake up that sometimes the most “stressful” part of my morning is making sure I don’t oversleep and miss our free meal! The people here are so friendly and kind. On our first day we already had 4 new local friends whom we shared dinner, drinks and laughs with for 4 hours.
I love the style of this local bamboo bicycle and helmet:
The weather is noticeably warm here. Stepping out of the Phnom Penh airport reminded me of walking out of the Jakarta airport for our very first impression of Indonesia over 3 months ago. Hot and sticky! Nothing we haven’t encountered already, but it’s still warm and we have both found ourselves getting a little overheated the past couple days and needing to sit down and cool off. Currently I am sitting on the pier behind our hotel in Kep, a sleepy little beach town 4 hours from Phnom Penh that we took a bus to this morning. The sun is setting, the waves lapping and breeze blowing and it feels refreshing after a hot day. It’s quiet here in the off season as the rain is beginning for monsoon season. We have experienced very little so far, but the one day we got a glimpse was like seeing a flash flood. Just solidified our decision not to rent a motorcycle for 3 weeks here, but rather on an as needed basis. When we arrived in town this afternoon we picked one up for $5 and I LOVED being on the back again with Rob. Having our freedom to cruise and explore around is great. I’m intrigued by Cambodia’s recent tragic history with the genocide in the 70s which is actually why I rallied to come here when we were uncertain as to what country to explore next. Having a quarter of your population gruesomely disappear only 40 years is not that long ago and seeing a country recover from that and how it has it impacted the development and morality is something I want to experience. We both do and are right now.
Rob’s first impressions and highlights:
The French influences in Phnom Penh are about equal to the Dutch influences we saw in Indonesia. Bread, real bread, being one of the best and welcoming to me. Classic French cooking techniques make some of the local dishes a lot more than just street food. Amok is already my favorite by far. It is a light coconut curry with lemon grass and banana leaf infusions that features fresh white fish poached in the hot creamy broth or, here in Kep Province on the coast, lump crabmeat is the center of attention. All it needs is white rice and a cold beer to be my new death row meal.
The S21 – Genocide Museum is located right in Phnom Penh proper. In the 4 year reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979, 25% of all Cambodians were killed by the Pol Pot regime. Outside of the main city, the Killing Fields were where much of this was carried out away from outsider scrutiny, but within the heart of the city a secret location housed the torture rooms for so many of the country’s intellectuals, artists, scientists and politicians. A small High School was converted to house up to 1000 prisoners at a time while they were “processed” methodically with unrelenting torture through their confessions and to their deaths. Lacy and I spent about 3 somber hours listening to the history, recordings, looking through 100s of photographs and walking through the buildings of the atrocities that occurred only 40 years ago. Much of it was still kept exactly as it was found. It definitely gives you pause and helps you understand how the country has struggled to recover ever since. Since this happened in SE Asia, which is much more physically and mentally removed from America and Europe, it has only been in the last 15 or so years that investment in education, infrastructure and commerce has begun to be felt by the people. Children and young adults are forming the future of the country and still only go to school 1/2 days because they are needed to work in the family businesses. It’s the one place in the world that I’ve come to understand why someone cooking at a lunch cart or working in a small shop can often be a very young teenager. The population gap here is obvious with the very old and very young citizenry. As we have traveled south out of P. P. I’ve also had a hard time driving by any High School without seeing S-21 in the shadows of the buildings. These schools all fundamentally look the same down to the type of cement blocks used to build them in the exact same size, shape and formation of 3, Four-story buildings laid out in a C shape creating a central courtyard. I truly hope that my traveler’s dollars help the recovery in the right way so we will try to spend them correctly and generously without harm.
While in P. P. we also checked out the Cambodian National History Museum. It was mainly filled with sculpture from several Buddhist Renaissance periods around 500, 700 and 1000 AD that corresponded with strong Kings and Buddhist leaders that inspired / ordered massive Temple building projects. I’m hoping it was a good primer for our Temple treks and explorations to come in the next several weeks.
Escaping a flash afternoon monsoon wasn’t really on our to-do list when we arrived in P. P. We weren’t too far from our hotel when we stopped under a big leafy tree for a quick rain shower to pass. It decided not to pass and we ducked for cover in a very small local restaurant. The type of place that uses much more sidewalk than interior space for everything from seating to the charcoal grill. After standing under the awning for a moment or two, we joined a table and were asked if we would like to share a beer. The guys there were on a 1 Day leave from their Military Academy. The rain grew stronger and began to move everyone further and further under cover. The beers were good and cold. The conversation was spirited and warm. We were offered to share in their dinner as well but we just participated in a few tastes. Lacy was the braver of our duo and learned to peel off the wings of a giant cricket before eating the Twix sized fried bug in 2 bites. We both used large amounts of beverage to wash down the whole grilled baby frogs but declined the Snicker bar sized cockroaches that the rest of the guys expertly de-winged and downed. The rain at this point had been pouring for 2 hours and the street was quickly becoming a river. Even more of the restaurant and patrons retracted into a cozier space as we watched brave motorbike drivers try to use the highest point in the center of the road to barely swim past. The water at the edges was at least a foot deep and churning right to left toward the larger streets and into the Mekong river. The deluge didn’t seem to slow the beers, conversation or laughs at all. After about 3 hours, the rain stopped as quickly as it started, the street cleared, tables moved back onto the sidewalk and we hugged our new friends goodbye for now.