Crazy flight Kathmandu – Kuala Lumpur – Phnom Penh. The only bright side to the day is the pleasantly hassle-free immigration upon arrival to Cambodia. I hand over my passport and visa application to the fist clerk, it changes about 10 hands (for reasons unknown), I pay 30 USD to the last at the end in exchange for my passport with a nice sticker in it.
Phnom Penh is hot. And humid. I negotiate the tuk tuk ride down to the acceptable 8 dollars and get to my hotel. It’s in a quiet part of town, newly built and clean, and it advertises a price for 3 hours as well as for the entire night. They did not mention this on booking.com. The access to the hotel leads through a private car park, where every booth can be closed off by a curtain and is connected with the room directly through a private staircase. Ingenuous. One can treat himself to a little illicit rendezvous without leaving his or her car parked in a dodgy neighbourhood where wrong eyes could spot it. Well, to be quite fair, I have seen local young couples using this service, apparently pre-marriage sex is still a big taboo around here, so best be discreet about it. The hotel caters for young love as well as filthy white men who come to Cambodia to spend some quality time with local teenagers (of both sexes, apparently). Have a look around any supermarket, it’s quite shocking. You can buy most medicines restricted in the West over-the-counter here. (Un)Surprisingly wide range of erectile dysfunction pills, antibiotics, ketamine. I mean, ketamine. For something like 10 USD.
A little note on the currency: the local currency, the riel, exists. That is about it. Everything runs in US dollars, which is quite ironic, given the Kingdom of Cambodia is a “unitary one-party parliamentary elective constitutional monarchy” (Read: communist party occasionally runs mock elections, and every now and then the one-party parliament names a puppet-king). ATMs give out US dollars, all shops, restaurants, museums, transport companies accept (expect) dollars, just be careful if you end up with any old or damaged notes. They may be perfectly valid in the States, but you will encounter trouble getting rid of them (it is quite common that the ATMs dispatch notes that merchants will not accept).
Phnom Penh used to be nicknamed the Pearl of Asia. If this is the case, I wonder what does the rest of the jewels in the crown look like. It’s a total dump. What was one a leafy french-style colonial capital, with tree-lined wide boulevards, is now a mix of two realities that exist within each other: luxurious residences hidden beyond high walls topped with barbed wire alternate with dirty shacks where people coexist with rats and mountains of garbage. Yes, the boulevards are there alright. But what once may have been pleasant promenade in the shade nowadays serves as parking or extension of shops. You will hear horror stories about how dodgy Phnom Penh is. They are true. More than elsewhere in Asia, be extremely careful. Motorcycle muggings are on daily order (aided by the fact that pedestrians are forced to walk on the busy roads, as there are no pavements), it’s very easy to be robbed of your money, cards, passport, cellphone, and no wonder, given the policemen are the lowest-paid state employees.
If the previous day was hot and humid, this day is extremely hot and humid. I attempt a walk to the city centre to do a little sightseeing, engage in a bargaining exercise with a tuk tuk driver who eventually takes me across the Mekong to see a few (ultimately) unimpressive temples, but the ride itself is a great way to see the town. The main purpose of the day is to kill enough time before I meet again my Austrian friends Olga and Robin that I had previously spent some time with in China.
As I said above, Phnom Penh is a dump, but there is a sad reason to it, and everyone should spend at least one day here. One depressive day to pay a visit to the former S21 security centre and the killing fields on the outskirts of the capital. Most people will have heard about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s delirious regime, but I believe no one can imagine the extent of suffering this country has been subjected to before walking through the gates of the former school-cum-prison, nowadays the museum of the genocide. One third of the population wiped out. Anyone who had had the misfortune to receive any kind of education, spoke or understood a foreign language, happened to be even feebly linked to former establishment, had soft hands or wore glasses (the latter two a clear sign of an intellectual). Plus all members of their families, including infants and newborns (thus no one was left to claim revenge). The capital emptied in 3 days, the population forcibly relocated to the countryside to work in the fields. Before the communist coup rural parts of Cambodia had been tortured for many years with preventive US airstrikes, which made the countryside population somewhat favourable to the Khmer Rouge uprising, but whichever guilt may be attributed to the USA – the “Secret war” was certainly no secret to the Cambodians – there is no excuse, no way any country could be blamed for the delirium of one man who thought it was a marvellous idea to kill every doctor, engineer, technician, teacher and artist in the country. However, the West can and should be blamed for turning a blind eye. Yet again. There were reports, there where witnesses, photographs, as early as 1979. No one in the west took them seriously, because a group of swedish university kids who were taken on a tour around “Democratic Kampuchea”, wined and dined by Pol Pot and senior Khmer Rouge, were somehow more believable than survivors and refugees. For 12 more years after having been driven out of Phnom Penh to Thai border, this man continued to enjoy international credibility, funding and even represented the country at the United Nations. (But when I was writing this entry to my diary, the World Health Organization briefly entertained the idea to name Mugabe its goodwill ambassador, so I should not really be surprised).
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