Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Walking around the streets of Phnom Penh

Wednesday 16th February 2011

MP3 track of the day: Where the streets have no name - U2

Weather: Hot and humid, though not as much as I was expecting. As Phnom Penh lies along the bank of the 'Tonie Sap' river there seems to be a bit of a gentle breeze; which is very welcome indeed.

My Alarm went off at 6:15am. I turned it off and re-set it for 6:30am. Eventually I got up, showered, and headed straight into the city without stopping, at my guesthouse, for breakfast. My first port of call was the Vietnamese embassy however, along the way, I would try to find a place to eat. I was regretting my stubbornness; after about thirty minutes of walking I still hadn't found a restaurant that looked appealing. I had even popped my head into a few convenience stores however the items stocked weren't really what I was looking for. In the end I went to a petrol station that was only ten minutes away from the embassy. Attached to the petrol station was a coffee shop where I ordered a hot chocolate and two donuts. Not only was it cheap but, because I had ordered a hot drink, I got one of my donuts for free and the hot chocolate was really good. Strange for me to say this but I liked the hot chocolate because it wasn't that strong; instead the taste of the hot, whipped cream was allowed to come out without being over powered by the taste of chocolate.

The time was 8:00am and the Vietnamese embassy should be open. As I walked the remaining ten minutes I had a flash back to when I visited the Thai embassy within Kuala Lumpur. Big queues, no where to write the application form and general chaos wasn't something that I wanted to face again, however I had no choice. I went through the gate and into the Vietnamese embassy to find no one else there. A little stunned it took me a few seconds to realize the guy behind the counter was asking me 'what did I want?'. I got my form, and a passport sized photo, out of my bag and, along with my passport, passed it through the slit within the glass screen that was a barrier between me and the receptionist. I was told that it would cost me $45 to get my visa processed and that I could pop back at 4:30pm today. I was so overjoyed at the speed of the process that I paid the amount and headed back out onto the streets of Phnom Penh.

It took me a few minutes to wonder whether I had been charged for 'same day visa delivery' without having the option. I was sure that the Vietnamese visa should have cost me $35.00. Never mind I thought, the Cambodian and Laos officials had screwed me out of money so why not the Vietnamese. Also it meant that tomorrow I could visit the Chinese embassy and get that visa rolling, hopefully being allowed to collect it before my voluntary work started on Saturday. It also meant that I could visit the coffee shop again for tomorrows breakfast. Yum.

Again it felt weird not having my passport on me. Still it wouldn't be for too long. Currently I had a bigger query to answer and that was 'where was Toul Sleng Genocide Museum?' 'Toul Sleng' used to be a secondary school before the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. Soon after the school was turned into a place of mass murder – code named 'S21' – which saw the lives of 20,000 Cambodian's end within a three year period. However my problem was locating the place. As it was within the heart of the city it wasn't on any of the main roads; in fact it was located within an area where the streets had no name. Most of Phnom Penh's streets are numbered … which would be fine if there were any signs displaying the number. Having thought I had gone wrong I stopped and did something I don't do very often within South East Asia … I asked someone for help. I don't often ask for help as usually, somehow, money was always involved … and this time was no different. Unfortunately the guy I asked had no English skills to his name and so the map was useless to him; it was at his point that, from out of no where, three 'bike taxis' came, knew where I wanted to go, but wouldn't tell me unless I got a lift. I new I was within ten minutes walking distance so I said thank you, took back my map, and headed off in the direction I thought the museum was in. I stopped, halfway across a road, and looked left to see a big coach fight its way through some side streets. The coach looked very 'tourist like' and so that could only mean one thing, the museum was in that direction. As I walked to the museum I got more and more touts for 'tuk-tuk' and motorbike rides which were sending me crazy. In the end I switch on my MP3 player and just ignored them; this could have been a social taboo however, at this stage, I really didn't care.

I found myself at the gates to 'S21' and, to my surprise, I only had to pay $2 to enter the museum. Before entering I sat down and read the leaflet given to me when I paid for my ticket. The leaflets English wasn't the best however it did explain that there were four main blocks (A,B,C and D) each with three floors. Block 'A' was the first I encountered which, on the bottom floor, had individual rooms, with a metal bed, and instruments of torture. On one of the walls, within each room, was a photo of a person in a rather bad way. The theme of this room continued through most of block 'A' and, to be honest, I had got the picture after the first floor.

Block 'B' was a little more interesting. On the ground floor were thousands of mug shots of the people killed here at 'S21'. Again there were so many photos that I felt the exhibition had lost some of it's power and instead made it a little boring. Also, on the ground floor, there were a few cases of skulls, torture weapons and some maps … though the maps weren't translated into English. The floor above housed historical information about the rise of the Khmer Rouge however a lot of the information was lost in the poor translation into English. On the top floor of block 'B' there was a small art exhibition, which was okay.

Going around the corner block 'C', visually, was the most disturbing out of all the blocks. The Khmer Rouge had covered the front faces of all four blocks with barbwire to stop the prisoners committing suicide by jumping. Block 'C' was the only block left with said barbed wire still fixed into place. On the bottom floor the school class rooms had been divided into very small, brick based, cells. At least ten cells per class room. The second floor was similar but instead of brick, wood was used. The final floor had more mug shots – some of which I had seen before – and art work of the atrocity that occurred.

Block 'D' was more about the court case against four Khmer Rouge leaders still alive. Each room on the bottom level was devoted to one of the leaders and explained why they had been summoned to face charges of genocide. This part was all very current as the court proceedings are due to happen shortly. Moving up a level there were stories from people who worked at 'S21' and how they had been forced by the Khmer Rouge to act out these crimes. The top level was again full of mug shots.

It had taken me two hours to see all that there was to see here at 'Toul Sleng Genocide Museum' and, I have to be honest, I wasn't that emotionally stirred. Maybe it was the fact that there was just too much stuff to take in. Maybe it was because a lot of the information was the same. Maybe it could have been down to the fact that any information translated into English wasn't that well done. Either way I did feel a little a shamed that, with 20,000 people dead within three years, I didn't feel that sad. The only strong feeling I had about the place was that I could sense the terror in being taken here to 'S21'. The buildings were, in a way, quite terrifying and reminded me of the school within 'Silent Hill 1'. What I found ironic was that the Khmer Rouge had used a school for it's acts of terror; education I thought was something the Khmer Rouge was against. What's more, all the Khmer Rouge leaders had in fact been educated to degree level in other countries … bizarre.

I left the museum at around 11:00am and battled my way through the tuk-tuk drivers and headed north to the Independence monument. The monument was out of bounds and so I took a few photos before heading east to find a very nice 'Wat' (however, on closer inspection, it was closed and had barbed wire running around the fences) and the 'Liberation monument'. I took photos of the lot and was surprised to see that my watch read midday. Just behind me was a very nice looking sandwich shop. I went in and ordered a chicken sandwich, chips, a coke and an ice cream. I sat down within the air-conditioned restaurant watching the world go by. I thought about Phnom Penh as a city and decided that it was probably at the lower end of my 'like list'. In here it was okay; it was cool and the women working here were very pleasant. Outside it was hot, sticky, chaotic and everyone was trying to get your money … Phnom Penh is a very demanding city.

I ate my meal and headed north once more to the Silver Pagoda (okay, not really a lot to see but I took a few photos) and then to the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace is closed to tourists so I took a few photos from the outside and continued north. I found the National Museum however, as I had already done a museum today, I decided to leave it until tomorrow. I went into a local pharmacy to purchase some more anti-mosquito repellant, however the only thing I could find had '15% deet and 85% other things'. What these 'other things' were I did not know. I purchased the spray bottle anyway as I'm low on repellant and I have herd of the brand, 'Buzz Off', before.

My next port of call was 'Wat Qunalom' … which you could go around. I explored the outside of the 'Wat', not really that interested as I have seen enough 'Wats' to last me a life time. The most interesting thing about this area was that there were quite a few French designed buildings within the complex. This actually made the area quite a pleasant place to walk around and I think it's my favorite area, of Phnom Penh, so far. I eventually made it as far north as I wanted to go; I had made it to 'Wat Phom'. Located in the middle of a round-a-bout 'Wat Phom' costs $1 to go and have a look inside. Like I said before I was pretty fed up with 'Wats' and decided that my $1 could be put to better use … an ice cream perhaps. I therefore decided to walk around the perimeter taking photos of the 'Wat' from below. Once back where I had started I applied more suncream, to the confusion of an old man. This old man just stopped in front of me, smiling. I tried to point to my arm, and then the sun, to explain about preventing sunburn, however he wasn't having any of it. As soon as I had finished applying my sun cream I moved on.

It was now 2:30pm and I had seen more that I thought I was going to today. What's more I was at the extreme north of the city and the Vietnamese embassy was at the extreme south. I set to, marching down towards the embassy (stopping at my guesthouse to put my bag within my room) keeping within the shade. Crossing roads here is fun, especially if there are traffic lights. Even when the 'green man' is showing traffic still continues taking no notice what-so-ever. It was also funny to see that the 'green man' here is animated to look as though he's running … it's kind of like the green man is telling you to 'wait for it … wait for it … now GO, GO, GO before you get run over by some mad tuk-tuk driver!'.

After stopping for a few drinks I had made it to the embassy an hour early; I still had to wait until 4:30pm to get my visa (even though they had already processed it) and so I ready any magazine I find within the waiting room. It was quite nice to sit in an air-conditioned room for a while. At 4:30pm I got up, handed in my receipt, to which I was handed back my passport. I checked the details of my visa and all was correct. One down, two to go.

As it would be getting dark soon I headed back to my hostel to have a shower and then I went to a restaurant which had working Wifi. After this I got back to my room, in good time, to read more of my book before another early night. Tomorrow I shall be up the same time as today and off to the Chinese embassy (stopping at the petrol station cafe for another lovely hot chocolate). After this I shall visit the nation museum and then possibly start my English revision. I do want to visit the Killing Fields (this is where the Khmer Rouge did most of it's genocidal acts) however they are 12km (7.2 miles) out of town. It looks like I will have to hire a tuk-tuk to get there so maybe its better if I wait for my voluntary work to start; maybe there will be someone else who fancies going with me to share the cost. However I wasn't really thinking about that, I just hoped that my Chinese embassy visit tomorrow goes as well as my Vietnamese one did today.

Toodle Pip!

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