We originally budgeted about 3 weeks each for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. However, three weeks into Laos we decided to extend our time there, and because of unchangeable flight schedules, that meant one week less in Cambodia. It always sucks to shorten your stay in a country you haven't even stepped foot in yet (it could be paradise!!), but alas, this is a harsh reality of the backpacker lifestyle.
Anyway, our flight from Vientiane, the capital of Laos, arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, in about an hour. We had a cab drop us off a few blocks from the Mekong River and checked into the Lucky Ro Hotel for $11 per night. I silently hoped the name didn't imply a post-sunset brothel (it didn't as far as I know).
However, the brothel lifestyle is inescapable in Phnom Penh. You know all those older American/English/German men you hear about traveling to Southeast Asia to buy the company of very young women? They're all here, sitting at the table next to us, laughing loudly amongst themselves, drinking like fish, swapping girl stories, not an ounce of shame in their eyes. In fact, more than a few of the local pubs are really just hooker pick-up joints masquerading as eating/drinking establishments. It's so icky, and yet fascinating. No shame! One particular afternoon we came upon an Aussie joint called Walkabout, which featured soccer scoreboards and barstools and pool tables, you know, legitimate pub paraphernalia, so we decided to stop in for a couple beers. Five minutes into the place, we realized that all the patrons were single men and all the girls were working. Lots of weird eye contact. The whole group seemed baffled by my presence, trying to figure out why the hell I was there. Poor B was mortified and wouldn't let me take any pictures, for fear that we'd both be shot. It was probably a good call. Those chicks were scrappy, but they looked mean.
Travelers to Phnom Penh are practically obligated to visit the "Killing Fields", a site where much of the Khmer Rouge's genocidal events took place. It's the sort of thing you don't really want to do, but at the same time would feel wrong skipping altogether. We took an insanely bumpy tuk-tuk ride to get out there. The worst road I've ever been on. You have to drive so slowly over and around the muddy potholes that you'd be better off walking. The scenery along that road was pretty dismal, too. The outskirts of Phnom Penh are somehow grimmer than anything I saw in Laos.
The killing fields themselves are a series of very large holes in the ground that, unfortunately, used to contain thousands of bodies. A memorial tower stands near the entrance, filled with recovered human skulls. I felt dirty being there and a little confused. Why was I looking at a bunch of holes in the ground where tons of victims were once buried? Why was I taking pictures of dead people's skulls? It didn't make me understand the tragedy any better. Plus, we noticed (too late) that we were walking on articles of clothing and bones still partially hidden in the ground that nobody had bothered to dig up yet. It all felt a little wrong.
After the killing fields, we tuk-tuk'd back into the city to visit the Genocide Museum, a former school converted into a prison camp called S-21 by the Khmer Rouge back in the 1970s. Again, just overwhelmingly sad. I suppose it was also educational, if you can handle torture devices and makeshift cells the size of coffins.
What's interesting is how well the Khmer Rouge documented who came in and out of this place. Thousands of mug shots have been recovered and are now on display along walls in room after room after room. So many faces. A few of them are smiling. Why are they smiling? Were they forced to smile? A final act of defiance, perhaps? Nobody really knows. It's terrifying to think how recently this woman was murdered. Surviving family members or friends would only have to be a little older than me to remember the last time they saw her.
I'm making Phnom Penh sound like the worst place on Earth, aren't I? Honestly, it isn't. The city is rich with history and full of extraordinary architecture, good food, and nice people. I particularly loved the National Museum, an impressive building full of ancient relics. But the Royal Palace grounds were truly unreal! Grand and opulent. Takes your breath away.
I got myself into some trouble there, however, and I'll tell you why (for no better reason than to make myself look like an ass, you're welcome in advance). At certain tourist attractions, there's an entrance fee and then there's an extra fee for the right to take photos, which is insane. Yes, it's only a couple more bucks, but obviously every single tourist is going to want to take pictures of a huge palace made of gold . Even if you agree not to use your camera, you still have to leave it with some sketchy guy at the ticket booth. You can imagine the long, drawn-out decision-making mess of a single-file line that this creates. "Well, should we bring the camera in, honey? I'm not really comfortable leaving it here with.. Yes, ok, we'll pay the extra money.. Oh, I don't have the right change. Honey, do you have that money leftover from lunch? Oh, you're right, it's here in my other pocket...." Why not just make the entrance price higher to include cameras and quit making the process more complicated? Being the rebel that I am, as we bought our tickets I lied and said I didn't have a camera (it was hidden in my purse), figuring nobody would be checking inside the palace grounds. I was wrong. When I was asked to produce my "camera ticket" before entering the Silver Pagoda, I feigned ignorance, was asked by some guy to "come with me, please", and, in a state of panic and guilt, ran off and hid behind a bush, waiting for B to notice me missing and come rescue me. Not my finest moment. He didn't think so either. But it's the principle, you understand. The principle.
Oh, I almost forgot! The anti-malaria pill fiasco. Yeah, so it turns out that taking doxycycline every day for three months made my arms and legs break out in red and purple bruises. Painless, but really hideous looking. The kind of thing other people point at when you're walking down the street. The doctor who prescribed doxycycline to us back in LA never mentioned this delightful side effect because it's apparently very rare, but after a blood test at a Phnom Penh clinic (and I'm afraid of needles! hate blood tests! unfair! unfair!) I knew those pills were the culprits. For the record, they also made me nauseous and made Brendan's hair fall out. Now friends, I realize malaria will be a bitch if either of us contract it, and I sincerely hope that we don't. BUT- I'm also a nice girl and nice girls don't like walking around with hideous looking bruises all over their bodies. Brendan is a man and men don't want to go bald. So now we're off the meds, depending solely on the DEET, and watching my bruises slowly, slowly fade away. It may take months.
After about four days in Phnom Penh, The Morans were falling apart and clearly in desperate need of some R&R, so we took an early morning bus south to the Cambodian beach resort town known as Sihanoukville. I'll tell you all about it next time.