Week 45: New Year, New City: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia is best known for Angkor Wat, the incredible archeological complex near Siem Reap built by the great Khmer empire of the 12th Century. On our first big trip, travel-partner-in-crime Angela and I spent a few days exploring the temples of Angkor as a side trip from Thailand. We had the best time with our incredibly patient guide Borey, and enough fun and buckets for the rest of our trips.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, has way fewer tourists and only a few must-sees, most of which have to do with the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the ‘70s. I was dreading this month a bit because I expected a big southeast Asian city, full of pollution, rip-offs and petty crime (we were warned of drive-by purse snatchers, and several Remotes fell victim to these thefts).

What I got both met those expectations and surprised me in some good ways…

First of Phnom Penh & New Year’s Eve

After reuniting with my fellow Cousteau Remotes and an easy flight to Phnom Penh, I settled into my new apartment and got ready to ring in 2017. We lived in three beautiful, luxury buildings a bit away from the touristy part of town. My building had two pools and a sauna, and my apartment was fully renovated and really nice (only downside: my window faced into another building, so no light for the month).

Phnom Penh is full of traffic (tons of scooters & tuk-tuks, no public transportation), but also surprisingly green in a lot of areas. There aren’t many skyscrapers, and the city felt more like a big town than a major metropolis. I think I might like it here, I thought.

Remote Year had organized a New Year’s Eve party at Eclipse Bar, a rooftop of one of the few skyscrapers and a “must-visit” on most lists. We arrived to an Asahi-sponsored event with a good mix of expats and locals. But only Asahi. Champagne toast at midnight? Nope.

There was a K-Pop style dance crew in sailor moon outfits. There was a raffle every hour with a flat-screen TV as the grand prize (fellow Remote, Darrin, won, we all went crazy, and he ended up donating it to a school). There was a Cambodian singer in a gold sequined outfit. There was also a fantastic DJ and a lot of fun happening. It was one of the strangest events I’ve been to.

Cousteau took over the dance floor, as we typically do, had a great time, and rang in 2017 in style. About half of our crew was missing (travels, opt outs), but we made the most of our evening.

Around Phnom Penh

The rest of the week was mainly spent working and exploring Phnom Penh. There are a ton of cafes to work from, which was great because our workspace wasn’t very inspiring or convenient. It was here, in third-world Cambodia, eating muesli and drinking cold-brew that I realized this whole year, we’ve been seeking out these hipster places that have become ubiquitous all over the world. (And these places ain’t cheap, even in Cambodia.)

Phnom Penh isn’t very walkable (because scooters, shops and parked cars take over the sidewalks), so we’d have to get tuk-tuks to almost everywhere. The call of “Tuk-tuk madam?” became very common, and I became suspicious of anyone saying “Hello! How are you?” since I could almost guarantee the next question would be about a ride.

I also checked out the Russian Market, so called because Russian tourists “discovered” it, and marveled at the stacks of fake Nike sneakers, yoga pants, and of course souvenirs. I also had the “best coffee in Phnom Penh” from a stand at the market, and it truly was delicious: strong black coffee with condensed milk, over ice. Yum.

During the week, I took a yoga class at Krama Yoga, which a Khmer princess also attended! One of our city staff pointed her out to me on my way into class, and I read a bit about the royal family in today’s Cambodia: largely a figurehead, but respected nonetheless.

At our Welcome Party, we saw some traditional Khmer dancing and got another fun gift: custom Remote Year tanks, in Thai! We went crazy and immediately put them on over whatever clothes we were wearing because one can never have enough Remote Year gear.

Biking to Silk Island

I lived with Arestia this month (for the last time!), and her sister Thayer came to visit. We took a half-day biking trip with Grasshopper Adventures that took us into the outskirts of Phnom Penh and Silk Island.

We got fitted for mountain bikes, driven to “the countryside,” which was really just a 15-minute ride away and probably within city limits, and rode off. We rode on dirt roads, saw village life unfolding in front of us (mostly children running around screaming “Hello!” and various livestock doing the same), and took a few ferries across the Mekong River. On Silk Island, we visited a temple, observing the colorful paintings on the ceiling that were totally absent from Thai temples, saw local women weaving silk (including learning about the full process, from worm to thread), and played with puppies.

It was amazing to see the sun setting over Phnom Penh, just a short ferry ride away, while being immersed in total village life. I’m not sure if the residents of Silk Island work in the big city, but it seemed to be a place where time totally stood still.

Also, I ate a cricket.

S21 & The Killing Fields

A group of us took a morning to visit S21, the old school-turned-prison of the Khmer Rouge, and the Killing Fields, the site of the mass murder and burial of Cambodian “dissidents.”

The Khmer Rouge came to power in the late ’60s, with Pol Pot at its head. In the ’70s, the party committed what is now known as genocide against two million (25%) of its own population. Pol Pot had grown paranoid and wanted to eliminate political dissidents, academics, and eventually civilians. People were relocated to work on farms, families were split, and children were forced to carry out atrocities as members of the party.

At S21, we saw the living conditions and learned about how prisoners were tortured. We also learned about how several children escaped, two of whom work at the prison, sharing their story. Most striking was the exhibit of victim photographs, many of whom were just young adults who might’ve been my sister’s age now.

At the Killing Fields, we got the very well-made audio-guide and strolled around the grounds listening to stories of the Khmer Rouge. The memorial exists to honor the victims and to serve as a powerful reminder that it doesn’t take much for tyranny to overcome reason and horror to become normalcy.

It is also yet another reminder of how the international community needs to do more to support humanity all over the world, whether or not there are vested interests involved. I thought again about what our kids will say about Syria in a couple of decades, and whether the loss of life there will be partly on all of our hands.

There are several great films out there about the Khmer Rouge, including The Killing Fields and just-released First They Killed My Father, directed by Angelina Jolie. I haven’t seen either but look forward to doing so as soon as I can.

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