Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
From the temple town of Siem Reap we organized a speed boat transport to take us down the Tonle Sap river to Phnom Penh. To reach the pier of the Tonle Sap from the city of Siem Reap we arranged a pickup, which everyone does, with our guest house. Thirty minutes late, which should be considered ahead of schedule, a mini-van came and scooped us up. We stopped off at various guest house and varying parts of the city, picking up other travellers who had also booked the same speed boat. The van, now full with dubious vagabonds, dropped us off on a street corner somewhere, where we were to catch another truck to the pier. Because the travel agents had over booked the mini-van transport we were now hearded into the back of a construction truck where we had to stand to make enough room for all us vagabounds.
There we stood like sardines in a sardine can rolling down the bumpy roads to the river. We arrived no worse for ware and boarded the powerful 16 cylinder ultra hydro foil. It took us along the Tonle Sap river where we saw floating villages, fishermen, river merchants and other river fairing vehicles.
While cruising along the Tonle Sap towards Cambodia capital we befriended, or were befriended by several Californians who were having a merry time and buying everybody on the top deck beers. When an american can get a can of beer for $1 flat expect them to be generous with their offerings.
We arrived in Phnom Pehn in the mid-afternoon. From the speed boat, the scene on the shore slowly changed from scattered rural houses perched above the river on stilts, to more dense residential and industrial buildings, including several oil or gas refineries. We disembarked in the main tourist area, along the riverfront, and were greeted by about a million tourists and tuk-tuk and moto drivers vying for their dollars. The architecture is a french colonial style and there are (as yet) virtually no high-rises in PP. The streets are a mix of wide boulevards, normal streets and side ally-ways.
The heat, tropical flora, architecture, provincial mentality and milling tourists brought to mind Casablanca. PP is becoming a modern city, but in many ways it retains a nostalgic atmosphere due to decades of isolation while the authoritarian government installed by Vietnam in 1979 was not recognized by the West. Cambodia’s experience of devastation through American bombing campaigns and highly self-destructive internal conflict, and islolation, has left marks on every person in the country, but it lies beneath the surface, or rather, coexists with the modern face of the country, changing rapidly, increasingly connected, social, joyful, wealthy, poor, corrupt, beautiful, culturally rich, plagued or facilitated by NGOs and tourists. Cambodia is enigmatic.
One of the weird things about the country is anyone who has money drives a Lexus. I have never seen so many Lexi in one place. Even more interesting is how much people must pay for them, because imported automobiles are taxed at 100%. Almost anyone who has enough money for a car, but not a Lexus, drives a Toyato Camry – all cabs appear to be unmarked Camries. There are Camries of every model and year. Or, for long distance local bus/taxi service, everyone has the same minivan model. Scooters and small motorcycles are everywhere, and people very rarely wear helmets, and very often have two or more children cradled in front of mom or dad, between them, or held in mom’s arms – or maybe all three spots depending on how many kids are in the family.
The Cambodian economy is growing at 7% – 9% a year, and there is construction all over, especially around Phnom Penh. The roads outside the city swirl with dust from construction, road work, and large trucks and machinery. Outside the city stand many large garmet factories, with more spaces being cleared and prepared for construction. Garmet workers in Cambodia still make very low wages. Shortly after we left Phnom Penh five people were killed by riot police while protesting for a increase in the minimum wage from $80 US a month to $160 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/cambodian-police-fire-on-striking-garment-workers-killing-4-1.2482724). Strikes and protests are only one way the largely female garmet workers are challenging their working conditions. Recently there has been a fascinating phenomenon of mass fainting and spirit possessions, where the woman/channelled entity demands recognition and appeasement from management (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/opinion/workers-of-the-world-faint.html?referrer=).
The Killing Fields (Chueng Ko)
Genocide is never an easy topic for discussion, nor should it be. However, it is important to understand that these “things” do happen and are happening at this very moment. From 1975 to 1979 the people of Cambodia went through a terrible period of genocide, war, and famine carried out by the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.