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What This Hall Has Heard...

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posted by Neil Noland alias Neil Noland on Friday 3rd of June 2016 03:26:28 PM

From the May 2016 trip to Thailand and Cambodia: After five days in Thailand (3 in Bangkok, which included the day trip to Ayuthaya, and 2 nights on Koh Chang), it was time to make our way to Cambodia. There were two places in Cambodia I was looking forward to seeing: Angkor Wat (which pretty much everyone who comes to southeast Asia wants to see) and Phnom Penh’s Killing Field memorials. First, though, was the matter of getting from a semi-remote tropical island in Thailand to the national capital of Cambodia, about 400 kilometers to the east. There isn’t a direct, easy way to do this, so being able to get it done in the time I hoped for was the biggest concern of the whole trip to me. Part of the reason time was such a factor is because I had only planned to spend Friday evening and all day Saturday (until early afternoon) in Phnom Penh before flying out to Siem Reap. With so little time there, I wanted to have as much as possible. With that in mind on waking up, I wasn’t sure how the day would turn out. I’m glad to say, it went very well. The first thing we needed to do was get from the Arunee Resort to the pier on the opposite side of a small mountain at 6:00 in the morning…on an island with no taxis. (It is a tropical place to relax, after all.) The hotel drove us over in a truck for 300 baht. After another 40 baht/person ferry ride across the gulf, we got back to the mainland sometime around 7:40. From there, another 50 baht/person via tuktuk/van to the main bus terminal in Trat, about 45 minutes away found us in good time to grab a bus. (This is the terminal to come to for buses returning to Bangkok or going on to the Cambodian border.) The minibus to the Cambodian border was roughly an hour and a half ride, and I was another 120 baht/person lighter. The time flew by, though, as we only passed through one very small town between Trat and Hat Lek (the border town). The border crossing at Hat Lek is a bit interesting. Lonely Planet advised me ahead of time that this is the most expensive (and only truly expensive) border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia. (Unfortunately for me, it was also the only practical/logical one to use, so I didn’t have an option.) Via airports and at all other border crossings, the Cambodian visa costs about $25-30. Here at Hat Lek, though – and I don’t know why – it’s over $50. The fact that there isn’t uniform regulations at border crossings seemed suspect to me to begin with, but it doesn’t change the fact that you still have to do what they say. (You just get the feeling that you’re being fleeced unnecessarily…and by government officials, at that.) On arriving at the border, the first thing you do is pass through the Thai exit post, which is quick and painless (and free). Walking a few meters farther, you come to the Cambodian entry office, which has a lot of folding tables set up outside. The first thing you do (as US citizen, anyway) is hand over your passport to someone who does NOT look official – yet, he is. You pay him 1600 baht for the visa, plus another 200 baht if you don’t have a passport picture on hand (which I didn’t). So…that was $60 more out of pocket. Also, while sitting at these tables having your passport/visa processed, people will come up and ask where you’re going and offer private cars to get there. There are supposedly three buses from Hat Lek to Phnom Penh, the last leaving at 11:30 in the morning (and taking 5 hours to get to the capital), and you would have to take a car to the town/bus stop which is about 10 km away. (Not knowing, precisely, how to do that, I went for the easiest way there and just agreed to pay a guy 1000 baht/person to drive us in his Camry all the way – 300 km – to Phnom Penh. It ended up costing 2000 baht (close to $65) plus another $25US in total. Now, $90 may seem a bit expensive, but this was a personal car, what amounted to be a 4 hour ride, and he dropped us off right at our hotel. (I put this in perspective simply by thinking of the cost of a taxi ride from Newark International Airport to JFK in New York City…and this deal was much, much better.) The only thing that was slightly disconcerting is that we didn’t actually know this guy and could have possibly been taken advantage of. However, my charmed life seems to continue… We got to our hotel and checked in by 4:00 in the afternoon on Friday, so things – though slightly pricy by local standards – went very, very well. The Number 9 Hotel (on St. 258) is less than a five minute walk from the Royal Palace in downtown Phnom Penh. There are quite a few monuments around the area as well (Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument, Independence Monument, etc.) The hotel itself was also a bit no-frills, and advertised a Jacuzzi/spa on the roof…which they said was under repair after we checked in. No worries, though; the restaurant at the hotel was quite good and I think it’s the only place we ate for the ~24 hours that we were there. The staff and service were top notch. As I was still getting over the previous day’s bug/virus/whatever, I didn’t go out on Friday night. Saturday, though, was a different story. Just outside the hotel (and there are quite a few boutique guesthouses on the rather short St 258) are a group of tuktuk drivers all happy to get your business. Now, Phnom Penh isn’t actually much of a tourist destination. In total, there’s the Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda (within walking distance) and the National Museum (just north of the palace). Additionally, there’s the Russian Market (which we didn’t get to). The main reason I really wanted to come to Phnom Penh, though, was to go to the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. (I won’t give a long history lesson here, though highly encourage anyone reading this to do a quick Wikipedia search for “Choeung Ek Killing Fields” or, for something slightly more in depth, try to find information from the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979.) The only things I’ll mention about that era is that, in 1975, the population of Cambodia was about 8 million people. In the five years of the Khmer Rouge regime, they saw fit to assassinate close to 3 million of their countrymen. (Think about that for a minute…imagine your country’s population, whatever the number, then imagine the country is taken over by a military regime that commences to slaughter 35% of the populace. The most conservative numbers I’ve seen are 2 million killed, which is still 25%.) With that as background info, we arranged one of the tuktuks to take us to the Tuol Sleng Museum, then to the Killing Fields, 15 km southwest of downtown Phnom Penh. Our driver, Ron (perhaps Ran, but pronounced like the former) agreed to be our driver for the day. He took us to the museum, then the killing field, then in the early afternoon to the National Museum and picked us up at the Royal Palace around 3:00. At 4:00, he ushered us about 15 km north of town to the airport. We met his wife as we went to the airport. Total cost for the day: $33. Our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Museum. This is a former high school (a place of optimism, aspiration) that the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture chamber. (Additional psychological trauma, I guess?) I’ll give no details, save to say that I likened it to a Nazi concentration camp minus the gas chamber. To visit here, though, you are spared no detail in the presentation. I’ll commend (perhaps not the best word) the Cambodians for owning up to their atrocities. Other countries in the region could learn a lot from this. (They say it’s important to bare all so that people can see the horror and it will be less likely to happen again.) Anyway, after paying the admission ($6, I think?), you wander through the buildings with your audio guide and the many well-presented exhibits. At the end, about an hour later, there’s a man selling a book for $10. He’s a survivor of this place. I really had no words; just hugged the guy. He and his daughter said he was spared simply because he knew how to fix and use a typewriter. After leaving Tuol Sleng, in quite a somber mood, Ran took us across town to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (this is probably the most famous one in the nation, though there are literally hundreds here…and also still many active landmines from the war in the 1970s, so…I wouldn’t wander around too freely). If the Tuol Sleng Museum was somber, this place is equally, if not more, harrowing. The admission here was also around $6 or so, and comes with another audio guide. There’s also a small room/museum with a 15 minute informative video. After that, you wander from point to point where you learn that this place was the former mass grave for Chinese. You also see mass graves for women, for babies…a tree (still standing) where babies were murdered, and so on. The final stop is a memorial stupa which contains the skulls and other bones of countless victims, classified by gender and method of murder (though all victims are still unidentified). However, the presentation is more than powerful enough to make its point. The morning touring done, we returned to Number 9, had a leisurely lunch, then had Ran take us up to the National Museum. It’s a rather small museum, though quite good – especially if you like stone Buddhas. The museum admission is around $5, and the building has four small wings, that visitors tend to visit beginning on the left and going in a clockwise manner. No picures are allowed to be taken inside the museum (which I thought rather unfortunate, as it really was quite interesting and tasteful, as far as museums go), but you could take pictures of the museum itself and the internal courtyard. Leisurely seeing the entire museum takes less than an hour. From there, it was about a 5-10 minute walk along the palace wall (north side, around the east wall that runs parallel to the river). After paying to enter the Royal Palace at the southeast gate, you’re allowed entry to the grounds and have access to view buildings such as the Coronation Hall, the Crown Room, and the Silver Pagoda. This is essentially quite similar to Thailand’s Royal Palace in terms of how much (and what) you can see, though it wasn’t quite as nice as Thailand’s to me. (I don’t mean to imply that it’s not nice, though; it was an enjoyable afternoon, though with temps around 40 degrees, my energy waned rather quickly.) After an hour or so here at the Royal Palace, we made our way back to Number 9 (at this point, barely a 2 minute ride by tuktuk), where we rested until 4:00 and had Ran take us to the airport for our 7:30 flight to Siem Reap, 45 minutes away. En route, though – and also from observations riding around on the way back from Choeung Ek – I got the impression that while Phnom Penh may not be the most touristy place in the world, it sure seemed like a great place to live (as much for expats as anyone). There’s still a lot of French influence, so my first abstract impression is that it reminded me of a combination of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Fuxing in Shanghai, and just some trendy/hippie areas in general. There were lots of cool little boutique hotels, restaurants, stores…and the Cambodians are exceptionally friendly and pleasant (as are Thais). I don’t know that I’ll ever come back here, but I certainly wouldn’t feel bad if I did… At any rate, those were just my impressions on the way out of town. Getting to the airport, I was ready for the final stop: Siem Reap & Angkor Wat. The only thing standing between me and my ultimate destination…a prop jet.

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