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Winnipeg Check-in

YWG is a nuthouse this morning!  Everyone in Winnipeg must be catching a charter flight to Varadero.

We checked in on-line and pre-printed our boarding cards before coming to the airport and we have carry-on luggage only.  At security, we flash our NEXUS cards and slide through the short line.

Exactly twelve minutes after walking in the door, we are through security and sitting at the boarding  gate.

These are some of the secrets of stress-free air travel!


Settled in Phnom Penh

Well, that is a gruelling flight!  The 11 1/2 hours from YVR to Seoul--Incheon is not too unpleasant and the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is very comfortable -- even in Cattle Class.  The three-hour wait in Seoul is tiresome.  The 5 1/2 hour flight to Phnom Penh lands at 11:00 pm (We aren't sure which day).  We get our Cambodian visas with no problem and then, with unerring accuracy, pick the line at immigration that has a trainee official.  Through customs, out into the teeming mass of humanity in Arrivals and to the taxi rank.  We climb into a late-model Kia with AIR CONDITIONING, leave the terminal and the driver pulls over to the curb: 

       "Please excuse me -- I just have to quickly change a tire!"

Soon we are sailing down the boulevards of Phnom Penh, and then, through dark and narrow streets to arrive at our AirBnB.  Ruwan, our host, is a bit groggy after we wake him, but welcomes us warmly, shows us to our very comfortable room -- and we finally hit the pillows!


Getting Accustomed to Phnom Penh

I finally learn how to pronounce Phnom Penh.  The "Ph" isn't pronounced "f" like I thought.  The "P" and the "h" are pronounced separately, so it sounds like:  p-h-nom.  The "h" is just a very small hesitation.  Penh sounds almost like "ping" or "peng" with a musical note that I despair of ever pronouncing correctly.


Traffic is a never-ceasing source of amazement!  By far the most common means of transportation is the familiar 125 cc Honda motorcycle or a variety of similar sized Chinese and Japanese scooters.  There are hundreds of thousands of them on the streets at any time day or night.  It is common to see a family of five riding through the traffic.  We saw:  a scooter with five bags of feed piled up on the seat behind the driver -- no tie-downs.  We saw a scooter nonchalantly wending its way through dense traffic with an acetylene cylinder balanced across the seat behind the driver -- no tie-downs!



If you want to go anywhere in the city further than comfortable walking distance, the preferred mode of transportation is the tuk tuk. I am familiar with tuk tuks from Latin America, where they are a three-wheeled contraption with a seat for two behind and the front half of a small motorcycle providing the motive power.  Cambodia has an innovative configuration called a moto-remork.  At the front is a typical small motorcycle, with a fifth-wheel hitch mounted just behind the driver.  Attached to that, is a trailer with seats for up to four people.  They are actually quite comfortable and a very pleasant way to get around the city.  A short ride of a couple of miles cost $2.00 to $3.00.

A typical tuk tuk, or moto-remork

Navigating the traffic is a mind-blowing experience.  First, we had to learn how to cross a busy street -- imagine three lanes in either direction with literally thousands of scooters, tuk tuks, taxis, trucks, all racing by in a never-ending stream.  There is NEVER a break to allow you to dash across. The accepted technique is to just step out into the street, move steadily forward.  Don't  stop and don't make any sudden changes in direction.  The traffic WILL flow around you and you WILL arrive at the other curb, trembling in terror, but intact.  It requires nerves of steel!

Watching our tuk tuk driver use the same technique is, if anything, even more terrifying.  Need to make a U-turn across four lanes of speeding vehicles?  No problem!  Just turn slowly and steadily into the middle of the stream and the traffic WILL flow around you.  Against all odds, it seems to work -- we haven't seen a collision or even a close call so far.


Getting Our Visas For Vietnam

One needs a visa to enter Vietnam.  You would think the proper way to obtain a visa would be to send your passport to the nearest Vietnamese embassy (which for us would be Washington, DC) and put your trust in Canada Post to return it.  Failing that, you might assume that presenting yourself in person at the Embassy of Vietnam in Phnom Penh would be a logical alternative.  Well, no, actually!  There is a much faster, easier and even cheaper way:  take a tuk tuk to the Lucky! Lucky! Motorcycle Shop on Monivong Blvd.  Make your way through the motorcycles in various stages of repair out front, to a small room in the back.  There you will find some very helpful ladies, who record your information, relieve you of your passport (and $65.00) and ask you to please return at 5:30 on Monday to collect your visa.  BTW, the Vietnamese Embassy allegedly charges $95.00 for the same service!

Visa office in the back -- behind the motorcycles


The Genocide Museum

No visit to Cambodia could ever be complete without a visit to the memorials of the genocide.

The Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot seized power in 1975.  The country was devastated by years of civil war and eight years of relentless bombing by the U.S.  At first, the people welcomed the Khmer Rouge troops, but within a day of their arrival in Phnom Penh, the atrocities began.  Millions of people, intellectual, students, educated people, anyone who wore glasses, anyone with soft hands, were sent into the countryside and forced to grow rice, dig ditches.  They were starved, beaten and killed.

In Phnom Penh, a high school was taken over and converted into an interrogation facility, called Tuol Sleng, or S21.  Prisoners were tortured until they "confessed" and then put to death.  Many made up crimes to confess to, so that the interrogators would be satisfied.  When they could no longer think of any new crimes to confess to, they were put to death.  16,000 prisoners were killed with only seven known survivors.

It is difficult place to visit!

The former high school converted into an interrogation and torture facility.


A bed with leg irons to which the prisoner was shackled.


The regulations

The balconies were covered with barbed wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide by hurling themselves over the railing.


Former classrooms were divided into tiny cells with crude brick walls.

Other classrooms were divided up with crude wooden partitions.

The Killing Fields

Eventually, so many prisoners were executed at Toul Sleng, or S21, that there was no longer room to bury them on the grounds of the prison.  Choeung Ek, about 15 km away on the outskirts of the city, became a site of mass executions and burial.  Trucks brought the blindfolded prisoners after dark,  they were taken to the edge of hastily-dug burial pits and executed.  They were not shot, because bullets were too expensive and people living nearby might have heard the noise.  Instead, they were killed with bamboo clubs, hoes, hammers and other tools.  Babies were killed by smashing their heads on a handy tree.  After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered.

A guided tour of the site includes dozens of shallow pits in the ground where the mass graves were excavated.  Fragments of bone, bits of clothing still litter the site.




 Shallow pits where mass graves were exhumed



 The detention room, in case there wasn't time to execute all victims in one night



 Bone fragments that have been collected from the site over the years 

The Killing Tree.  Babies' heads were smashed against this tree.

Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial marked by an imposing Buddhist stupa.  The stupa is a huge structure containing more than five thousand skulls and other bone fragments.  Each has been catalogued and recorded.  Many in the lower levels are on display behind glass.  Most display the damage to the skull that was the cause of death.

The memorial stupa

 Some of the 5,000 skulls on display inside the stupa

Skulls on display in the stupa showing damage 

This is not a tour for the faint of heart!


The Royal Palace

The Royal Place is a complex of large and ornate buildings that has been the residence of the king of Cambodia since 1863.  A very knowledgeable young man was our official guide and conducted us on an interesting tour.


 The current king resides in part of  the palace complex, which is closed to the public.  Even our guide, an official government employee will never be allowed to enter the private area.

The private compound of the monarch.  Even our guide has never been in there.

The Throne Hall where the king's advisors once carried out their official duties, is now used only for religious and royal ceremonies, such as coronations and royal weddings and as a meeting place for guests of the king.



The Moonlight Pavillion  serves as a venue for the Royal Dancers and as a place to hold royal banquets.



Most impressive, is the Silver Pagoda, so-called because of the more than 5,000 silver floor tiles, each containing a kilogram of pure silver.  Inside are many national treasures, including the emerald Buddha, made of Baccarat crystal in the 17th century.  Also is a near-life-sized statue of Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds.  Because it is a religious site and contains statues of Buddha, we are not allowed to take photos inside.


The compound also contains five large and  impressive stupas, each of which is a memorial to a previous monarch.



Surrounding these structures there is a wall on four sides with a fresco 660 meters in length.  The fresco depicts the Cambodian epic poem Ramayana.  Unfortunately, parts of the fresco were damaged during the Khmer Rouge era, when the soldiers used it for target practice.


Concerning Tuk Tuks

I learned some new things about tuk tuks in the last day or so.

To my surprise, the two-gallon plastic jug tied to the side of every tuk tuk is NOT filled with gasoline as I first assumed and the little plastic tube does not lead to the carburetor.  In fact, the jug is filled with water and the little tube dribbles the water out onto the engine cylinder -- to cool it!  These little one-cylinder air-cooled motors spend most of their time pulling heavy loads and moving at slow speeds. This generates a lot of heat, without much cooling air flow.  The dribble of water helps to avoid engine damage through overheating. 

The second thing we discover is that the driver's sense of direction and knowledge of the city is directly proportional to his English language ability.

We give our driver the address we hope to arrive at, even write it down on a piece of paper.  We ask if he understands and does he know where we want to go.

     "Yes, yes!" he replies.

Our suspicions begin when we notice that he is trying to read the directions upside-down!  Off we go, on a ten-minute drive that turns into an hour-long impromptu tour of some of the less-appealing parts of the city and certainly nowhere near Lucky! Lucky! Motorcycle Shop, where our passports with brand-new Vietnam visas, await us. 

Tensions in the rear compartment of the tuk tuk mount as the 6:30 closing time of the shop approaches.  Some firm encouragement on our part inspires our driver to stop and ask for directions -- which he does several times.  At 6:29:30, he triumphantly pulls up in front of the shop!

We retrieve our passports.  He drives us back home.  He overcharges us by 50%!


Susan's Reflections of Phnom Penh

A busy, bustling city of calm, friendly congenial people, Phnom Penh is easy to get around once you get your bearings and become accustomed to the flow of traffic.  Centre lines and traffic directions are only mild suggestions and our first tuk tuk ride is fairly disconcerting.

Our accommodation is lovely.  Clean and casual, though not overly fancy, it is quite comfortable.  Ruwan, our host, and his staff are friendly and helpful and we are greeted happily as we come and go by Sally, the gentle friendly retriever.


In no time we identify a couple of favourite places to eat close by.   The Malis restaurant is a delightful oasis on a busy street.  The food is flavourful and foreign and we proceed with caution. We are delighted by some of our choices but the best was a small creme brulee made with cracked Kampot peppercorns.  Cambodia's answer to chocolate and chili...quite lovely. 


Bar 21, about halfway between Malis and our accommodation, is new and a bit more rustic.  The beer is cold and accompanied by little dishes of some of the best peanuts I have ever eaten.  They serve a mixture of Cambodian and Western fare and there is an eight week old puppy in residence to melt your heart. 


The food is good though I did not care for the Mango Salad...apparently they meant green Mango and it had chewy little salty chunks of dried fish in it.  I picked them out.  Blech!

While we visit many of the popular tourist destinations, we also manage to take in some other cultural events and locations..  Sunday night we enjoy a performance by Cambodia Living Culture.  This group is dedicated to the revival and the survival a Cambodian dance and art which was nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge regime.  It is a delightful performance, especially as the performers are so clearly enjoying themselves.


On our return from the Killing Fields our driver suggests we stop at the Russian market.  We are agreeable and spend about 20 minutes walking around and through it   Everything is available here and no space goes underutilized,  Goods are piled and packed in tightly and the alleys are very narrow.  The items for sale are repetitive and we wonder if some of the "Cambodian Silk" might actually come from China.  Nevertheless it is quite an experience though we agree that one market is enough. 

A day or two later I read about Wat Than, a co-operative that trains and supports polio and land mine victims to weave, sew, do carpentry and generally make a living.  We locate their shops and enjoy a tour and learn about the work they do and the goals and objectives of the organization.  They are doing good things and need my support so I now have an excuse to make a small purchase.  Bob rolls his eyes!



The sidewalks are not like ours.  They are used for parking and the shops and restaurants all set up goods and tables on them.  Pedestrians walk in the street.  Alleys and streets are also fair game for temporary shops and businesses You can find everything from barbers to freshly prepared food. 


We enjoy some bland little rice balls with soft centres in one dusty alley sitting at a tiny plastic table on tiny plastic stools.  The proprietors set up shop under a tree at the side of the alley and cook on little charcoal braziers.


There are signs of growth and development everywhere and while construction safety appears to be non-existent, there are renovations and new buildings going up in all directions.  There is a strong sense of optimism in the air.

The city has two major religions: Hindu and Buddhism.  Buddhism is the most practiced of the two and temples, monks and Buddhist statuary and religious items abound.  The smell of incense is encountered frequently. 

Buddhist monk

Our last evening in the city is spent on a Sunset Dinner Cruise on the mighty Mekong River.  The sky is smoky and the sunset undramatic, but the food is good, the breeze is a pleasant relief after the heat of the day, the beer and cocktails cold and the company, a young Belgian couple on their honeymoon, is excellent!


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