Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Go East: Part 1 - Phnom Penh

It's amazing to think that Jen and I have been married for more than two years. And that it's nearly two years since our honeymoon proper, a whirlwind tour of some of South-East Asia. What's perhaps less surprising to regular readers of this blog, however, is that I'm only now getting around to writing about what was the most memorable holiday we've had together.

So fasten your seatbelts for tales of lost-in-translation menus, street-hawking children listing past British prime ministers, birds carved out of vegetables, the international language of football and the improbable things you can legitimately transport on the back of a motorbike...

Sunday 6th November

* We were due to kick off the trip with an exploration of Thailand but the devastating flooding has forced a change of plan, and, flying into Bangkok's Suvarnahbumi Airport, the waterworld visible below confirms the self-styled "Airport Of Smiles" as a dry island amid a temporary sea. Instead, our time in Thailand will be brief, bookending the holiday. We wait for our connecting flight to Phnom Penh trying desperately to stay awake, slumping from seat to seat, noting the apparent national obsession with mangos and the shrines to the king and Leicester City, and enjoying fiendishly spicy prawn tom yum soup to cry for.

* On the tuk-tuk ride from the airport to our hotel in Phnom Penh, Jen and I hardly speak, instead sitting wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the apparent chaos all around - victims of a classic case of culture shock. The journey is a sensory overload: the blur of the traffic, the incessant tooting, the heady fumes mingling with the smell of the chickens sizzling on the roadside rotisseries. We pass haunted-looking dogs on street corners, a scooter laden with five people including three under sevens, a shop called My Mum. It's the traffic that's the most extraordinary thing, an unbelievably complex game of Tetris that would have give anyone in the UK who's ever uttered the phrase "health and safety gone mad" kittens. Motorcyclists change lanes randomly, cut corners across garage forecourts, go against the flow of the traffic as long as they're tight to the kerb. And yet we don't witness any accidents - everyone, it seems, is hyperaware of other road users. And all the while the chorus for 'Holiday In Cambodia' is playing in my head.

* In the lobby of our hotel, I notice that Sonic Youth's split has made the second page of the Cambodia Daily. I LIKE this country.

* We go up the stairs to our bedroom, clutching an information leaflet headed "Hotel Facesheet". Must ... rein ... in ... urge ... to ... chortle ... at ... translation ... errors ... We're greeted by the sight of a four-poster bed in a large room with a mini-bar - but no tea and coffee-making facilities. Typical - the barbarians.

* Picking our way over apparently half-finished pavements to the Zeppelin Cafe, we enjoy $1.50 food to a hard rock soundtrack, the various members of Kiss looking over us like guardian angels from posters on the wall.

Monday 7th November

* Breakfast involves mysterious fruit and chicken sausages. Nothing is quite what it seems here.

* I don't suppose the waterfronts of many capital cities in the world can boast a coffin shop. I wonder how many people stroll in and, when asked if they want assistance, say they're looking for a little something for a friend.

* Ordering pizzas, we're careful to decline the offer of additional "happy herbs". That's the benefit of having several friends with prior experience of expecting a sprinkle of oregano and ending up stoned out of their minds. Pizza Hut this ain't.

* We've been in the city for much less than 24 hours and have already been asked the question "You want tuk-tuk?" more times than we've ever been asked our own names. One particularly persistent chap attempts to assign himself to us, eager to know all of our plans. Yes, we do want to go to the monkey temple. No, we're not fussed about shooting AK47s...

* When it comes to sightseeing in Phnom Penh, there's only one place to start: the Royal Palace, which actually proves to be a whole complex of fantastically ornate buildings rather than just a singular palace. The Throne Hall has arguably the most impressive exterior, but it's the Silver Pavilion that steals the show for us, one corner of the matting uncovered to reveal the pure silver tiles that have been squeaking beneath our unshod feet. I don't inflict my sweaty feet on anyone lightly, but them's the rules. Not that all visitors are so deferential, one Brit grumbling about having to cover up his Chelsea tattoo out of decency. At least the authorities can be fairly certain of respectful behaviour from the party of monks busy posing for holiday snaps.

* Would you just look at that: a bar showing yesterday's Newcastle victory over Everton in full, including Ryan Taylor's spectacular volleyed winner. I think refreshments are most definitely called for...

* Dinner at the Laughing Fatman (formerly Oh My Buddha) is enlivened by several $1.50 mojitos and witnessing the owner teaching essential English to his four-year-old - the alphabet, parts of the body, the phrase "Lovely jubbly"...

Tuesday 8th November

* Breakfast Cambodian style: French fries, fruit that looks like eyeballs, cagefighting on the TV.

* Fair dos - the Cardiff fashion for public pyjama-wearing appears to have caught on and gone global. Bang tidy.

* Feeling somewhat ropey and retaining the paranoia of the first-time tourist from the West, Jen claims she may have food poisoning. I venture the likelier alternative - namely, that she's got a hangover. Not Delhi belly, but rum tum...

* Directions to the Lazy Gecko, the morning meeting point for the Betelnut Tours trip to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, mention that the cafe bar is on the same street as somewhere called Okay Guesthouse. Either they really need to hire someone with a bit of marketing nous, or it's owned by the same people as the Standard Tandoori in Oxford.

* Our steed for the journey out of the city and into the sticks, an American jeep in leopard print, rattles past rubbish heaps, houses on stilts, children staring and waving, crowded lorry-taxis, "shops" selling what we learn is low-grade petrol from Thailand in Pepsi and Bacardi bottles. Today's prize for the most eccentric item on the back of a scooter goes to the chap transporting a huge shrine.

* Phnom Tamao is somewhat off the tourist track for a couple of reasons: it's a relatively long and bone-shaking drive from the city through dangerous country (only going as part of a tour is strongly encouraged), and the fact that in Phnom Penh it markets itself as a zoo is offputting to Westerners who hold animal rights dear. In truth, though, not only is the journey worth it but it's immediately apparent that it missells itself - it's actually what we would call a sanctuary, providing a home and rehabilitation for bears that have lost paws through trapping (bear paw soup being a delicacy) and an elephant with a prosthetic leg.

* At first, with muntjac deer and otters, it seems just like Cotswold Wildlife Park, though with more monks excitably feeding the animals. But before long it's gone to another level entirely, as we meet an incredibly sociable gibbon who is delighted to see us and who is somewhat forward in asking to have her head scratched, grabbing your hand and placing it on her head.

 * Over a freshly prepared lunch of traditional Khmer food enjoyed in raised open-sided huts, one of our party - a girl from the Netherlands - talks about her severe seafood allergy and how difficult it can be in South-East Asia, where allergies are unheard of. She recounts a tale of trying to explain her condition in one restaurant by saying she couldn't eat anything with a shell - upon which she was promptly handed her hard-boiled eggs sans shell by a smiling and pleased-with-himself waiter...

* Another member of our party later defies logic by being terrified of a massive spider but not a tiger that, after being tickled by our guide, paces back and forth sizing up a small child staring at it through the flimsy-looking fence. We get to stroke a python (that's not a euphemism, by the way) and then feed the elephants, which shove food into their mouths with their trunks in a manner not dissimilar to my friend Graham eating a kebab when drunk.

* Back in the city, Frizz serves up an amazing beef red curry, but service is with a pronounced scowl.

Wednesday 9th November

* I'm becoming convinced that welding is the national pastime. Meanwhile, a doff of the hat to the bloke transporting a enormous block of ice by moped. A Sisyphean labour in this heat, you'd imagine, but at least the meltwater flying off will be helping to keep his feet cool.
* Tuol Sleng is the Khmer Rouge's S-21 security prison, now a monument to the atrocities the regime committed against its own people. There's a horrible irony that Pol Pot and other senior Khmer Rouge members (some of whom are just about to stand trial, finally) were intellectuals educated in France but then returned to their Cambodia and, having seized power, set about pursuing an agrarian revolution by expelling foreigners, eradicating French colonial influence and mercilessly slaughtering intellectuals and those deemed to be dissidents. There's an even more horrible irony in the fact that it was a former high school that was used for purposes of "re-education" - the sinister and characteristically Orwellian term used by the organisation that simply called themselves "the Party". The museum is simply done, and all the more brutally effective for it: lots of rooms and cells that are empty except for bedsteads, bloodstains, instruments of torture and photos on the far walls of the horrific scenes in those rooms that greeted the liberating Vietnamese forces in 1979. A photo gallery of victims both underlines the scale of Tuol Sleng's programme of "re-education" and ensures that the numbers quoted aren't simply neutral statistics, while the space given to the words of their captors too indicate the terror, paranoia, shame and self-disgust of many of those who found themselves "just following orders".

* From Tuol Sleng, the obvious destination is Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields. Located on the outskirts of the city, Choeung Ek is actually only one such site, albeit the most notorious - there were others, though the locations of some have been forgotten. If Tuol Sleng was tough to take in, then this is altogether more appalling. All of the original buildings have been demolished so much is left to the imagination (with the aid of brilliant audio commentary from a survivor), and it seems somehow more horrific that genocide should have been committed in what is now a peaceful, sunny orchard, albeit one containing a monument full of human skulls. We're shown the site of a store which contained DDT for disguising the stench and finishing off those who were buried alive, we pass a tree against which babies and young children were beaten before being flung into the pits, we note the scraps of clothing visible underfoot, we learn that excavations have only been partial and that, when it rains heavily, more teeth and bones come through to the surface. One fenced-off area has a sign reading: "Please don't walk through the mass grave!" It's hard to believe I'll ever come across a more inappropriate or unnecessary exclamation mark. Trying to square the present - and in particular the friendly, kind people we've encountered - with the evidence of the country's dark past is impossible.

* The recent flooding in the region may have put paid to events on the Mekong, but the annual Water Festival is in full swing anyway, the city centre and riverside area packed with people as street hawkers try to charm their way to sales and fireworks whizz-bang across the river.

* Chiang Mai proves to be much better quality and value than the overpriced Oxford restaurant of the same name. The fishcakes and the "lucky dish" are both very good, Jen and I are alarmed to be developing a real taste for a wilted vegetable dish known as "morning glory" (actually water spinach) and, in a twist on the usual, a dry curry turns out to be a wet one.

* Disappointingly there's no night market tonight, the area having been given over to a fashion show and music festival sponsored by Angkor Beer. We have no idea who the performers are, but, judging by those around us, neither do the locals and though they're unimpressed they're having a good time all the same. A nearby table offer us free drinks but we sheepishly turn them down for fear of having to down them.

Thursday 10th November

* Our final day in the capital, and a morning stroll takes us past the North Korean embassy. Outside is a glass cabinet featuring a few photos with the potential for featuring on the website Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things as well as a note in praise of his achievements on behalf of his people. Good to know he's available to dispense "on-site guidance to solve knotty problems", isn't it?

* Lunch at the Lazy Gecko in the form of a great burger. The salivating pug at our feet is Chook, the cafe's friendly, rotund mascot.

* The impressive dome of the Central Market is home to lots of bling jewellery, while elsewhere there are vast stacks of unidentifiable fruits, oozing octopi and squid on barbeques, and an incredible array of Angry Birds T-shirts. We haggle a couple of hats down in price from $12 to $8 and leave satisfied despite knowing we've still been ripped off.

* Wat Phnom, a temple perched atop its own hill, is in some ways more impressive inside than the Royal Palace - everywhere you look there's gold, ornate decoration, incense burning. Sambo the elephant, who transports people up and down the hill, has already finished for the day - he's reportedly ill and not well treated, though, so we're not upset to have missed him.

* A meal at Moka in a partially open-air shopping mall proves disappointingly average - particularly in view of a menu boasting such colourful delights as fried frog, fried red ant and (best of all) "roasted pig's breath". From our table near the pavement we watch as some kind of raffle or lottery takes place, followed by a mash-up of pop performance and traditional dance.

* Over the road is Heart Of Darkness, a late-night club-slash-drinking-den that's a notorious hangout for prostitutes but also where, a few years ago, our friend Rob enjoyed a drunken evening talking to the Cambodian finance minister. But it's back to the Zeppelin Cafe for us, though, where we started on our first night. Still hungry, we tuck into spring rolls and dumplings with chilli sauces and take each other on in a local version of Connect 4. It's quiet in terms of customers - undeservedly so - and I fear for its survival, as a bar that has a Western feel but doesn't pander to tourists. What's not to like about a place styled like a 1950s American diner in which a pony-tailed man plays his collection of rock and metal vinyl? He's a fairly stern-faced chap, but when yet another classic kicks in, I give a nod of approval to which he responds with a nod of his own. The international language of AC/DC - marvellous.

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