The landscape changed as soon as we crossed the border – the flat plateaus stretching as far as the eye can see with an odd palm tree sticking out of the horizon; the brewing storm reflecting in the water of the vast rice fields the narrow road was crossing towards the capital. Once I spotted the birds picking at the fields, it reminded me slightly of a moody Lithuanian summer’s day when I used to cycle through the flat farmlands covered with storks gathering their food. But this land carried so much more gloom.
Another immediate difference from Vietnam was the litter decorating the sides of the road. We’ve noticed through our travels that the poorer the country, the more rubbish is visible – for example, as the richest of the four South East Asian countries, Thailand was a welcome positive change when it comes to litter following India and Nepal, however that quickly changed as soon as we reached Laos, which reminded us of a warmer version of Nepal with its mountainous terrain, stilt houses and people squatting by the side of the road cooking food on the fire then and there. Needless to say, Singapore was the living example of how this world wide (but especially relevant for Asia) issue can be controlled but more on that later.
The situation got worse when we reached Phnom Penh – piles and piles of overflowing bin bags and rubbish lay in huge piles on almost each road as a collection for the truck that comes around once a day. The heavy heat starts the decay process and the stink steeps through into the air, the juice of it runs down the streets… No wonder Phnom Penh was where I saw the most rats in my life. They run around in gangs as soon as it’s dawn, the real heaven for them.
What I did not expect from Phnom Penh was the really artistic feel to it. We were lucky to be staying close to Street 13, where many niche coffee shops, restaurants and galleries have gathered around over the years but even outside the area, the vibe is felt throughout the city. Unlike many South East Asian cities that go for the mainstream western offering to attract tourists, Phnom Penh’s unique character is noticeable in its little craft beer bars and niche gay bars.
Whilst most people do not choose to spend more than a couple of days in the capital as it does not have a long list of museums and activities to offer, there is plenty to do once you look past the popular attraction list and have a chat with the younger Cambodians living in the city.
Set up by expats many years ago, the Kingdom Brewery sits a 10-minute drive away from the city centre and is one of the biggest craft beer brewery in South East Asia. They offer short tours around the facility followed by beer tasting in their spacious bar overlooking the riverside. It’s got a real colonial feel to it with extravagant wooden furniture and animal trophy decorations on the walls. The danger of the tour however, is that the 15 dollar fee does not only include the walk around and tasting of the different type of beer they produce, it also allows you to enjoy UNLIMITED draft beer at the bar until they close (the brewery is usually open 4-6 hours in the afternoon, but trust me it’s enough)! Needless to say, this really lets them to get to know their guests much better in a short space of time. One of the owners was hanging around the bar when we were there and told us a story of two Englishmen who, after enjoying the many pints of the fresh brew, decided to play with a crossbow that was hanging as a decoration on the wall. Not knowing it is in a fully working condition, one of them bent over across one side of the hall as a target, and his dear friend shot an arrow at his bum not expecting it to go as fast or be as sharp as it was. Luckily, the target friend shuffled at the last second and the arrow missed the highest scoring area by a couple of centimetres!
One of my favourite experiences in Phnom Penh was the drag queen show at a cool gay bar close to the artistic old town we were staying in. It’s not just the actual show that I was very much amazed by – we ended up going there with a few local friends and acquaintances we met over our stay in the city and it turned out to be a multi-national group of journalists who work in Phnom Penh. Their stories filled the evening and we were intrigued to hear about the modern Cambodia. Sadly, one of the main topics discussed was corruption and one of the guys we met almost got arrested once for digging too deep into the topic!
Nonetheless, the most memorable yet chilling experience was the visit to the Guol Sleng (S-21 prison) museum which is where the Khmer Rouge regime imprisoned and killed hundreds of Cambodians during the rule between 1975 and 1979. Previously a school, the three-storey building complex stands eerie in the middle of the bustling city and the audio tour takes you through the events as you walk through the haunted corridors unable to take your eyes off the scratchings on the walls, blood-stained floors and the many photos of the faces of people who came into these buildings less than 50 years ago and never left… As dreadful as it is, the visit to this museum is a must to get a deeper glimpse into the country and the perspective of the Cambodians now. For those wanting to know more about it, the famous book ‘First They Killed My Father’ tells a story of a middle-class Cambodian family who lived in Phnom Penh and what happened once the Khmer Rouge rebellion took power. The Angelina Jolie’s directed movie based on the same book also provides an insight into the events, even though Rhys and I did not necessarily agree on the quality of the film itself (I enjoyed the cinematography of it whereas Rhys thought the story line was poor…).
The consequences of the genocide are very much felt up until now – around of the quarter (1.25 million people) of the whole population was wiped out so even in the modern day Cambodians can name friends and family members that they lost during the war. We met a number of people whose parents fled Cambodia during the regime and up to this day refuse to come back to the country, whereas the children were travelling around the homeland seeking to learn more about its tragic history.
Learning about the genocide provided a different approach as we wandered through the streets of Phnom Penh. There is a number of walking tours offered by travel agencies but we followed a map found on the Internet and observed the city with fresh eyes. Some of the highlights include the riverside, the Royal Palace, the National Museum, Street 13, the Post Office square as well as the many markets around the city centre (the Russian market, the Central market, the Old market (Phsar Chas) and other).
2018 was drawing to an end and we craved some sun, beach and party, and Cambodia’s islands can offer just that so we headed south. The smaller of the Koh Rong islands, Koh Rong Samloem, can be reached by a 45-minute boat from Sihanoukville and brings you close to paradise. The hostel we were staying at had its own private little bay where we spent the days laying around on the white sand and the long afternoons sitting on the pier sipping beer whilst watching the deep orange sunsets.
We spent one of our lazy days on a boat going around the islands and stopping to snorkel at beautiful bays or to fish further out. The grilled fish we just caught was the freshest lunch I have ever had followed by regular dips into the blue sea.
We welcomed 2019 barefoot on the beach watching the locals play with fire-lit pois and once most guest have gone to sleep, we were lucky enough to witness the luminescent plankton riding the waves. It was the New Year’s morning I will never forget.
Before making our way back to Thailand, we spent a day just outside the Sihanoukville town in a small village called Otres Beach. It is where most backpackers stop by trying to avoid the business and smells of Sihanoukville. The area gained much attention from the Chinese in the recent years which has turned the whole town and the surrounding areas into a building site – dusty roads, half-built skyscrapers and convoys of trucks seemed out of place in what would have been a quiet idyllic fishing coast a few years back. Even Otres Beach, which was supposed to be an escape from it all, is starting to feel the change and so did we. This quickly brought us back to reality.
RHYS AND GABS’ CAMBODIA HIGHLIGHTS
|Food||Cambodian curry||Fish Amok|
|Drink||Angkor beer||In Cambodia we got introduced to Double D shots that we later found out are enjoyed by most countries in the area – it is the evil mix of vodka and caffeine powder!|
|People||Anyone crazy enough to work at Mad Monkey hostel||The Cambodian reporter who writes about government corruption|
|Place||Koh Rong Samloem||Koh Rong Samloem, Mad Monkey hostel pier|
|Experience||Fishing off the island||Guol Sleng museum|
|Culture shock||A country recovering from genocide||The rubbish in Phnom Penh|
|Any other||Surprised to find how dry their country is compared to other South East Asian nations||The artistic vibe of Phnom Penh really surprised me after what I expected from another South East Asian city – I loved wandering around its small streets|