|After a not-so-brilliant start, over our two days in Phnom Phen we quickly began to realise what Cambodia can offer.
Surprise number one was the food... breakfast on our first day changed our views on Cambodia's eating scene dramatically! We quickly realised that you can get just about any Western food here imaginable. Real cheese (as opposed to the Dairylea triangles and processed cheese slices of Vietnam), olives, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, chicken, meats, enormous pizzas.... We certainly indulged. A number of not-for-profit restaurants that raise funds for various children's and landmine's charities have been established, and we hunted them out where we could.
Day number one was very much a sort-out day. We booked flights from Siem Reap to Bangkok (having heard MANY reports of the hideous journey that was the 'scam bus' we decided to pass on the overland boarder crossing experience!), made arrangements to travel to Siem Reap and found a slightly more salubrious hotel room. We spent the evening in a NFP pizza restaurant, chatting with the street sellers walking by. Very friendly and very entrepreneurial, they sure do start them young! Children from the age of 5 wander with plastic trays around their neck, offering books, cigarettes and drinks for sale. A very different childhood from that back home, and we were concerned at first if, by chatting with them, we were encouraging and endorsing their being on the streets. At the same time, the kids seemed to enjoy talking and playing with the tourists and with each other. They tended to wander in groups, and we could see an adult waiting at the end of the road for them - to collect whatever they'd earned. We decided to lavish attention and games, but not cash.
On our second, and last, day in Phnom Phen we dashed around to see the sights. First stop was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda - a striking structure by the riverfront. The Royal Palace is a beautiful complex - all courtyards, amazing buildings and pagodas, and pink flowers. Very pretty and charming. The only area really open to the public is the Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor is covered with over 5,000 silver tiles weighing 1kg each. The Pagoda is full of objects embodying the brilliance and richness of the Khmer civilisation, it's one of the few places that wasn't destroyed by the Khmer Rouge (who decided to keep it to demonstrate to the outside world its concern for the conservation of Cambodia's cultural riches). Inside, we gazed at thousands of Buddha's, including the Emerald Buddha - said to be made of Baccarat crystal, and a life-size gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds, as well as bejeweled masks used in classical dance. All very glitzy!
Sculptures came next on our whistle-stop cultural tour, with a visit to the National Museum. Home to the world's finest collection of Khmer sculpture, the Museum is housed in a graceful traditional terracotta building with a courtyard garden.
In the afternoon we headed to the Tuci Sleng Museum. In 1975 Tuoi Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). It soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in Cambodia. Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the extermination camp at Choeuing Ek, where they were bludgeoned to death before having their throats cut. The museum shows the prison as it was - complete with barbed wire, cells and chains. Meticulous records were kept for each prisoner who passed through the gates - wall upon wall and room upon room of harrowing black and white photographs of faces stare up at you. Virtually all of the men, women and children were later killed. We watched a film that tells the true story of one young couple during the time of the Khmer Rouge - both ended up imprisoned in S-21 and were later murdered. The film also included interviews with a former prisoner and a former guard (who had himself taken people to the Killing Fields). As they walked through the Museum discussing whether painting depicting the torture were a true representation of what actually happened, they laughed and chatted, and the former guard showed no remorse for his previous actions. He spoke matter-of-factly: he did what he felt he had to do in order to stay alive.
After a sombre afternoon, we took a tuk tuk back to the riverside to enjoy a happy hour beer followed by Thai curries - a taste of what was to come...