Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Phnom Penh - cloudy past, hope for the future

Monday, April 11, 2011
Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

We assessed several options for three people to travel from SR to PP: Boat (low water level, time consuming, safety concerns), Private taxi (around US$ 70) and Bus (US$ 10 to 12 per head). 

Our hotel in SR helped us with the bus tickets. The staff showed us a laminated menu card type offering of bus services. We chose the early morning bus. "No need, pay later", they said. The hotel arranged for the tickets, which we paid for just before departure. Pickup was punctual, at 7AM. The staff came out to wave us good bye. We were on our way. 

We departed SR town at 07:20AM after a brief stop at the bus office. A 15-min stop midway, and off we went again. 

The road was good throughout, except for a road construction patch of 4 to 5 km about 30 km before PP (as of April 2011). 

Phnom Penh 

We reached the bus stop in PP on Street 108, opposite the Night Market at 12:15PM. Swarms of tuk-tuk drivers greeted us, making for a very warm welcome. 

The highlight of our visit to PP was the opportunity to spend some time with and be shown around the city by a family of Tour Assistants. They reached the bus stop at about the same time that the bus arrived. 

Davy Keo is an extremely talented lady, skilled at handicrafts, she now holds a position with the Women's Association of Small and Medium Business, heads the Phnom Penh Poverty Reduction Unit and is the President of the Handcrafts Federation of Cambodia. Her tragic story represents the horrors that Cambodia went through not too long ago during most of our life times. Her ability to survive the past, come out stronger and now tirelessly and selflessly work towards making the world a better place is an inspiring story that is incredibly hard to believe. 

Davy Keo belonged to a well educated family with family members holding good positions, consequently prime targets of the Khmer Rouge regime. She quietly told us, without displaying much emotion, about her childhood. She was forcibly separated from her family, made to walk for months to the rural areas with strange groups of people, made to dig ditches and work in farms. The starvation level food typically consisted of rice boiled in water with whatever creatures could be found in the fields. She tried to escape, was captured by soldiers, taken back to the communes and made to work harder.  She lost most members of her family. Her story has been documented, which you can find by searching the Internet for "The Story of Davy Keo". 

A five minute tuk-tuk ride from Street 108 brought us to Eureka Villas, Street 184, behind the Palace and Museum, a wonderful little hotel in a convenient location. Being located just behind the Palace, the Street 184 area is very safe, with a posse of policemen present 24x7. 

After lunch at Street 178 accompanied by our Tour Assistants, we strolled over to the Royal Palace. The area around the Palace is well maintained, with a broad boulevard lined with large hotels, convention centres and Government department buildings along the Mekong River. 

The Royal Palace is a beautifully maintained complex of several buildings. The Royal Family has lived there since the 1860's or so, except for a few years during the late 1970's. Gardens are well manicured. The Residence Hall is closed to the public. The half-Lion and Naga figures guard the way up to the Throne Hall.

The Moonlight Pavilion is used for large, royal gatherings.

Another Pavilion used for Royal Dancers. 

The Silver Pagoda and surrounding buildings is a second complex within the large compound. The Silver Pagoda houses incredible riches, has a floor made of thousands Silver tiles, and contains over a thousand Buddha statues studded with diamonds and other gems.  

Ramayana frescoes are found in what was the classroom area. 

Stupas like this contain the ashes of former Kings.

Stupa of a Princess.

The National Museum next door turned out to be an impressive place to refresh and continue our education that began in the Angkor Region. Relics in stone, bronze and other materials go back to pre-historic times, housed in several galleries tracing the history of the entire region and its broad influence over several eras. Certainly a bookmark for a future visit. 

By then it was evening. We decided to take it easy the rest of the day. The Quay along the river is an extremely pleasant area to sit down or stroll for a couple of hours. You find walkers, joggers and kids playing soccer. 

Several restaurants and bars are found along the water front.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The morning was dedicated to visiting two remnants of Cambodia's gory past of the second half of the 1970's. My family decided not to go, since the gruesome experience was not suitable for 13 y/o children.  The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) was a school and looks like a typical school building from the outside. 

Prisoners were brutallly tortured before being taken to the Killing Fields. The regulations inside the prison were strict.

Curiously, like their WWII predecessors, the Khmer Rouge seemed to  follow segregation and extensive documentation. 

Rooms on the ground floor were meant for well educated prisoners and those holding high positions in government and industry. 

Classrooms on the third floor were converted to tiny cells for the common man.

Several instruments of torture are on display, along with shelves full of skulls and walls lined with photographs of prisoners. The atmosphere is quiet, very quiet. Visitors hardly speak, as if unable to believe their eyes. 

It is equally hard to believe that our Tour Assistants have been directly impacted. Their lost family members may have experienced all this, one would never know.

Starved, battered and barely alive prisoners were carried in trucks to the Killing Fields. Maybe hundreds or thousands existed at one time. The most well known one is the Cheouk Ek memorial. 

A memorial in the form of a stupa contains the remains of hundreds of prisoners.

The pits, the infamous tree and other sad memories are there for all to see. 

A banner poignantly reveals the hope that all of us live with.  

Acting positively, however small, would invariably result in a brighter future that the banner at Cheouk Ek appears to be praying for. There is no better instance than that of Davy Keo and her family. She has set up a handicrafts business in PP, painstakingly making artificial flowers and selling them in her Store and in a stall the Night Market. Davy's older daughter supports the business operations. 

The Store is:
Phnom Penh Rose Flower & Souvenier Shop
House 7A, Street Level, Street Number 106.

Located across the street from the Night Market (keeping the river on your right), the flower store houses an incredible variety of hand made, artificial flowers.

The material that goes into making every flower and leaf is carefully prepared and cured, with preservatives and colours.  

Each part is then carefully fashioned by hand, resulting in a bright variety of artificial flowers and leaves of various shapes, sizes and colours. 

Real dog. Their two dogs welcome you into the store, accompanied by friendly, excited, barking and yelping. 

We learnt rather incredulously that over 30 families are supported by the business, which is highly labour intensive in nature and not too lucrative. 

Contributions from visitors who use the Tour Assistant services help supplement the thin income levels of the flower business.

We looked around the Wat Phnom area and toured several areas of PP by tuk-tuk, including the newly developed Diamond Island convention centre by the river. 

Later that evening, we went back to the Night Market to spend some time there and in Davy Keo's flower stall.

The Night Market is quite busy with stalls and entertainment.

Dinner was at an outdoor restaurant by the Quay. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We have a few more hours remaining in Cambodia. It's our day to leave PP, after breakfast at Eureka Villas hotel.

The staff at the hotel posed for a group photo, and then waved us off to the airport. 

We have a short wait at PP airport, after a few minutes to buy souvenirs. 

Many hours transit time at KL airport were spent reading, and over coffee and dinner.

The last leg of our travel back to Bangalore marked the ending of a wonderful week in Cambodia: an incredible Angkor region of past wealth, a current capital city rising from the ashes of a horrific past and the Khmer people, perhaps the most gentle of all.  


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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Angkor region - Day 4

The alarm was set for 4:00AM, like on the previous day when rain had spoilt our proposed sunrise trip to Angkor Wat. I drew the curtains and peered outside apprehensively. Dry road. No rain. Yipee..!! Tula Kut turned up punctually to pick us up at 5:00AM. It was relatively cool outside compared to the day temperatures. We reached Angkor Wat by around 05:20AM. We wished we had brought a torch, since it was dark. However, we followed a couple of people who were carrying torches and walked in over the causeway and into the temple complex. It was still very dark and quiet, and we had about an hour before sunrise. We found a good spot by the pool of water in front of the temple complex and settled in.

The sky started lightening up a few minutes before sunrise.

And then suddenly, it was the 'Aha' moment. The orange ball suddenly appeared over the temple, causing a flutter among the crowd which by now had swelled to about a hundred people standing and sitting around the pool.

Zoomed out view of sunrise.

A few minutes later the sun is well on its way up and it is getting brighter in the temple complex.

We wander around a bit, admiring the library, the Naga balustrades and the peaceful atmosphere in the gardens.

An armless Vishnu statue stands near the western exit. It was strange to learn during our trip about ancient Cambodia having suffered from the impact of religious destruction. The Khmers are such gentle people.

One can't but help but feel good while in Angkor Wat. 

Huge 7-headed Naga figures line the outer part of the  complex. 

We head out through the western door and back over the causeway.

The ride back to Siem Reap was comfortable in the morning sun and gentle breeze.

The breakfast at Golden Temple Hotel was large, and colourful, as usual. 

It was time to take it easy for a while and head back into town. We refuelled, drove around pretty Siem Reap, and visited the Govt handicraft store.

A few minutes at the memorial in Siem Reap reminded us of the horrors of the past. 

The adjoining monastery  was, in contrast, peaceful and provides hope for the present and the future. 

The large golden Buddha statue inside the quiet prayer hall.

Paintings depicting the 'Jataka' stories of the life of Buddha.

Parked in the shade, talking about the past and the present. 

After a bit of shopping at the Old Market, we headed to Khmer Kitchen Restaurant for lunch. Pub Street is relatively quiet during the afternoon. Khmer Kitchen is under the same management as Golden Temple Hotel.

The streets around Pub Street and the river leading to the Visitor Centre and on to the temple sites beyond have been maintained very well. These areas are particularly pleasant, well preserved to attract tourists.

It's very tempting to walk around or cycle around. Maybe next time.

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing in the hotel. 

We watched the Angkor civilization DVD that the hotel had thoughtfully provided in the room. 

Chairs are laid out on the balcony from where you can watch the city around you. 

Dinner was at the Soup Dragon at the entrance of Pub Street. The location is very good, the service was rather indifferent. 

Food was served in bowls made of banana leaves, reminded me of South Indian traditions.

The staff at Golden Temple Hotel wanted a photo with us. We would be off the next morning, to PP.

The pool area and the gardens are subtly lit up.  

Extremely peaceful air about the property.

View of the reception area at night.

Among the restaurants, Khmer Kitchen Restaurant on Pub Street was our top pick and Khmer Family Restaurant on the alley was also very good. 

Tula Kut, our tuk-tuk driver (introduced by a regular visitor to Cambodia), was an amazingly gentle and cheerful gentleman, always on time. He can be reached at +855 972 487 022 and +855 922 255 64.

We found Mr Sovann Koth to be a knowledgeable tour guide who knew the mythological connections very well. He can be reached at

There are many more sites to visit, and the sites we visited could be studied in greater detail. We only need an excuse to get back to the enigmatic Angkor region and the wonderful Khmer people.

Our hotel had helped us reserve bus tickets to PP the next morning.  PP would surely be different from SR and the Angkor region, another facet of life in Cambodia. We were due to meet our tour assistants on arrival at the bus stop. Our two days in PP would provide us a glimpse into the harsh realities of Cambodia over the past forty years.


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