Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 6: Phnom Penh Day 2

**updated with photos**

Being the rock star traveler that I am I did not use our entire free morning to sleep in late (or "have a lay in" as the Brits say, which is a new phrase I learned). I used our free time to go out and about by tuk tuk and see the sights of Phnom Penh.

We first stopped at the royal palace, but the entrance fee was $7 which is more than I'm willing to pay for a palace. We have palaces where I come from, and royalty doesn't tickle my fancy anyways.

After briefly checking out the palace grounds we tuk tuk'd it to the Russian Market, which is a market that ain't very Russian. They had the usual wares for sale; scarves by the millions, tourist t-shirts, traditional figurines and the like. I bought a little pouch, for the overinflated price of $1.50 since I just don't have haggling in my blood. The shop keeper needs the extra 50 cents (I know I could have gotten it down to a dollar had I tried) more than I do. I've needed a cute, practical receptacle to store foreign currency in for years now and I think $1.50 is perfectly reasonable for that purpose.

Near the market was a grocery store where we stopped to buy some sunscreen (for $9.50 - flat out extortion) and more water to keep us going. They don't seem to do shopping bags printed with the store logo here, so you get whatever bag fits your purchase size. And guess where our shopping bag came from? System Bolaget in Sweden (the government run liquor store)! How crazy is that? I knew the size and color of the bag looked oddly familiar as they handed it over, and the Swedish gibberish printed on the side confirmed my suspicion. How crazy is that?! I want to know how that bag got from Sweden to Cambodia.

US dollars are the only currency really used here. 4000 Cambodian riel is $1 USD so they are only used as change in the denominations of 25, 50 or 75 cents. When I was in the U.S. this summer I took out $300 (a third of which in $1 bills) but that money is all gone now and we had to take $100 out of the ATM to get us through our time in Cambodia. Even the ATM's dispense USD! I really wonder how it affects the US to have so much of their money not in domestic circulation.

For lunch we ate at a restaurant called Friends, which is staffed by former street children. The kids (by now young adults) are taught the skills needed to work in good restaurants, which is a pretty sweet gig when your other option is begging on the streets. It was by far the best service we've received in Cambodia so far, and the bathrooms the best and cleanest. Plus it's a charitable cause (with proceeds going to help more street children) so I can be smug about doing something good for the world. Everybody wins! Good food, too, if a little pricey for what you get.

In the afternoon we did a group tour of the S-21 prison and the killing fields. The prison is where thousands and thousands of Cambodians came to be interrogated and tortured before being shipped off to the killing fields to die. It used to be a high school but Pol Pot's maniacal ass converted it to a prison - in the late 1970's. I just cannot wrap my head around how recent this happened.

Then we went 15 km out of town to the killing fields, which we've all heard of because of that movie (which I need to see). I've got to say it looked really, really different than I was expecting. I was expecting a big, open field but it looks more like a park, though they have done a lot with the place since the killings happened. Many bodies have not yet been exhumed, and probably won't ever be, since the mass graves are now buried under swampy water.

The stuff that happened there, and at the prison, makes my stomach churn. I just can't wrap my head around indiscriminate killing of men, women and children. Half of the Cambodian population today is under 18, in large part because half (it could be more or less, I'm not sure) of the population was wiped out during the mid- to late- 70's. It was not that long ago! Absolutely astounding, not to mention horrific.

Our tour group went to dinner at Friends restaurant (Marv, being the online trip planner that he is found it all by himself) and we weren't about to eat at the same restaurant twice in one day so we, along with newly engaged Adam and Laura, struck it out on our own, to a bona fide restaurant for locals. We were the only Westerners (white people) there!

We had steak. A big 'ol plate of beef each, fresh from the whole cow carcass that was roasting outside on the sidewalk. We supplemented it with plain white rice but we ate as the locals did, with a big, steaming pile of beef. Just beef. And pitchers of beer for $1.75 each.

In case you were wondering, I loved Phnom Penh. It is what Bangkok used to be 20 years ago, a just-being-discovered tourist gem that will soon get ruined by tourists and their dollars. Go while the gettin' is good (and cheap)!

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