Monday, January 19, 2009

Vietnam and Cambodia and then Vietnam Again Part 4

Sihanoukville is a beach resort town located in the southern part of Cambodia. We spent two nights in this town and that was probably two too many. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it wasn't our cup of tea. The full day that we spent there, a small group of us took the bikes out and rode almost the whole way around the town. We went through the middle of town and visited the large market, then headed out to the outskirts and spent an hour at the beach before heading back to the hotel.

Some highlights from the bike ride and market.

Last stop at the beach.

The next morning we got up early and started riding right from the hotel. It included some grueling (David's word) uphill battles. David was partially hindered, because he began to have a morning stomach problem that lasted through the trip and got progressively worst. It wasn't too bad, but after 15km we hopped on the bus and drove out to some flatter locations so everyone got a chance to ride. It was another 15km and then back on the bus.

On the way into the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, we delved into darker waters on the outskirts stopping at Choeung Ek, one of the many Killing Fields. The location is now a memorial/museum with a Buddhist Stupa built over the sight. It is a heart-wrenching place to visit. The location was used solely as an execution center for political prisoners during the Pol Pot / Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Approximately 17,000 people were executed there between 1975-1979. The location is a series of unearthed mass graves that contained at least 8,000 people. The bones of that were discovered in the graves were placed inside the Stupa. There are a number of graves that have not been excavated. Visitors carefully make their way through the open pits. Clothing and bits of human bones still sit on the surface of the paths. Choeung Ek is a controversial site, some criticize it because they feel it dishonors those that died there by turning it into a tourist destination (some in the tour group expressed the same sentiment). Cambodia is still coming to terms with the last three decades that have included civil war, war, and genocide. A number of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still in power, having changed parties. And in most cases, those blamed for the genocide have not been brought to justice; Pol Pot himself dying in his own bed under house arrest in 1998. But, recently an international tribunal has been put in place to deal with this time period.

From there we silently made our way into the heart of Phnom Penh to our hotel. It was clear that the hotel catered mostly to Chinese businessmen (and other Asian nationalities). On the "karaoke" floor there was a display window set up, where young women were assembled in a bleacher like fashion. Each wore a simple bikini top and shorts with a number attached. The color of the bikini determined the nationality of the women. We were not too happy that the tour had booked us in what was essentially a brothel. While prostitution is said to be illegal, it was also clearly being ignored.

Jenni felt a bit tired after the long day of bike riding, bus riding, and draining tourist activities, and decided to stay in the room for the evening. David joined the rest of the group for dinner at the Foreign Correspondents Club along the Saigon river. To get there we took some tuk tuks; which are little three-wheeled motorcycle taxis with benches in the back. Typically about 6 or 7 hover around the front of the hotel yelling at you before you have even stepped through the door - "Tuk Tuk sir?" They didn't really reach a maximum speed with 3 giant Westerners in the back, though. The food was the most expensive we had to date, but was very tasty.

The next morning we were scheduled for a bus tour of Phnom Penh. The first stop was at the royal palace. It was built in the 19th century with cooperation from the French. It is a mixture of Buddhist pagodas, ornate pomp and circumstance buildings, and the living quarters of the King. The current king went to university in France where he later taught ballet, and is now 40, and unmarried "because of his devote Buddhism."

Model of Angkor Wat

After that we stopped at a Buddhist temple.

Offerings of raw meat and raw eggs.
This monkey is playing with a piece of mirror, absolutely fixated on it.
After the temple we made another visit into the tragic past at Tuol Sleng prison. This former high school was converted into a prison during the Khmer Rouge era. Prisoners were tortured in an effort to identify traitors to the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and then eventually sent to Choeung Ek. This was another tough place to visit, but worth seeing.

After Tuol Sleng prison we went to the Russian Markets, then were given a free afternoon. It was certainly a day of extreme contrasts; from the ornate royal palace to the tragedy of Tuol Sleng to shopping...For our free afternoon, we started off having a bit of lunch, but Jenni engrossed herself in her book so David headed off to the museum. The museum was very enjoyable, despite its lack of any apparent organizational system. It was really a mixture of museum and religious center. The Khmer (the name of the Cambodian people, from which Khmer Rouge [red] originated) were heavily influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, and while the country is officially Buddhist there is still a strong mixture of the two. Walking through the museum you could easily have a statue of Vishnu next to a statue of Buddha, but not necessarily from different time periods. Many of the Buddhist statues had flower offerings that could be placed in front. It wouldn't be surprising if people went there to worship at times. In fact, a number of monks were there when David was. One was friendly and started to chat with David, asking where he was from and such. Eventually he asked David to help him buy a book, when David responded truthfully that he didn't have any money on him, the monk left as soon as possible.

That night we went out to dinner at a restaurant called Friends. The restaurant is non-profit and worked with street youths, training them how to work in a restaurant, pretty much doing everything from cooking to management. It is tapas themed, so they (and we) got to experience different foods. It was all really excellent.

The next day we headed to Siem Reap and Angkor...

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