Day 4: River cruise on RV Mekong Pandaw
When I emerged from my cabin in the morning, we were moored at Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.
Once again, a feast to start the day. By now, the staff had grown accustomed to seeing me turn up first to the dining room to take photographs. "You take photo?" they would ask, smiling. Always, I would grin back and say "Yes!"
As usual, I skipped the cold buffet and instead enjoyed a hot breakfast of bacon, sausage, tomato, baked beans, fried egg and hash brown with a cup of strong, sweet coffee, followed by fresh fruit - this morning, watermelon, pomelo and green (but sweet and ripe) banana.
Our morning excursion began with a cyclo ride through Phnom Penh, organised by Pandaw as part of our cruise. Cyclo (pronounced "see-clo") refers to the pedal-driven three-wheeled rickshaw found in Cambodia and Vietnam. Our troop of drivers, all wearing fluoro green shirts, were supported by a charity called the Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association, which provides training, including English language lessons, and basic welfare assistance to the cyclo drivers.
I felt every bump in the road, but the cyclo ride was much smoother and more comfortable than the previous day's ox cart ride! It's a strange feeling, sitting in the open air, quite close to the ground, right in the midst of busy traffic. A couple of the drivers helped with traffic control at the busier intersections. My cyclo driver sang as he pedalled.
We visited the Royal Palace, which includes the Silver Pagoda, with floor tiles made of real silver (five tonnes worth!). Note: if you plan to visit the Royal Palace, you must ensure your clothes cover your shoulders and knees.
Despite admiring the detailed work and beauty of the carvings and sculptures, I must admit feeling quite 'templed out' by this stage.
Some of my fellow passengers were relieved to see a shady spot to rest their weary feet and have a cold drink.
The cyclo drivers wear individually numbered shirts - make sure you memorise your driver's number! But my driver recognised me immediately (I was the only Asian woman on this cruise) and waved at me as I approached.
Back onboard the ship, lunch began with samlor kako, a delicious traditional Cambodian soup with minced pork and vegetables. It's a hearty meal on its own. I could've eaten a large bowl of this soup and nothing else and been perfectly satisfied.
A new selection of salads awaited us at the buffet. Apologies - I don't have the names of all the salads. As usual, I had a bit of everything.
For my lunch main course chosen at breakfast, I picked the curry mee. This thick, spicy Malaysian-style yellow curry and coconut milk-based soup was full of egg noodles and chicken.
Dessert consisted of fresh rockmelon and dragonfruit and a pudding with coconut milk. None of these appealed to me, but I'd had plenty to eat and was content to skip dessert.
For our afternoon excursion, we boarded a bus that took us to the killing fields memorial at Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. The term "killing fields" refers to places around Cambodia where people were killed and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge.
Many of us have heard/read about the reign Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, when Cambodia was known as Democratic Kampuchea. During that time (1975-1979), many people were imprisoned, tortured and executed as traitors and "enemies" of the Khmer Rouge - this included intellectuals (practically anyone with an education - doctors, teachers, lawyers - even people wearing glasses were in danger as it was seen as a sign of intellectualism), writers, artists and people of other ethnicities. Children were taken as well as adults. People were forced out of their homes in the city and forced to work at agricultural labour camps in the country where many suffered and died under terrible living conditions, malnutrition, starvation and poor hygiene. The Choeung Ek Memorial houses over 5,000 skulls and clothing collected and placed on display. Many of the skulls show evidence of having been bashed in.
We walked along the path to see the killing fields, where the mass graves were found. The grass is growing but you can clearly discern the pits where the graves used to be.
Our tour guide Sean told us his parents were both teachers and among the many who went missing during Pol Pot's reign, presumed imprisoned and then executed. As most of the remains that have been found have not been identified, Sean's parents have never been formally found. And still, Sean told us, bones, teeth and clothes continue to be found, surfacing in paddy fields and around the countryside.
We then visited the site of Tuol Sleng Primary School, repurposed by the Khmer Rouge to become the infamous S21 Detention Centre where people were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured before their execution. Repurposed again after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, it is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The evidence of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge are now on display here for all to see - including scores of photographs of prisoners, archives and gruesome illustrations depicting the torture methods that were used, as well as the torture and killing tools themselves.
There are so many photographs on display - bewildered, defiant, frightened and occasionally hopeful faces, identified as prisoners by the numbers hanging around their necks. Thousands passed through S21 but in the end, only seven prisoners survived.
It's horrifying and sad to imagine what went on here not really so long ago.
We got back on the bus and headed back to the ship.
Later, we talked about what we'd seen today. It helped to talk. It helped to talk over a cold drink before the dinner gong sounded.
The starter for dinner was fresh vegetable spring rolls served with sweet chilli dipping sauce.
Next, a delicious Chinese style sweet corn soup.
For main course, we had been given the choice of prawn and crocodile satay, Cambodian style vegetable curry or ostrich with Kampot pepper sauce. I'd never pick a vegetable main course over two interesting meat dishes! Since I've eaten crocodile before, I chose the ostrich. This was one of the best dinner main courses of the cruise. I was surprised to find the ostrich wasn't gamey at all. It was very lean and tender, a red meat more like veal than beef. My only complaint? The serving wasn't big enough.
Dessert was an "iced" tiramisu, an ice cream-based tiramisu, creamy and coffee-flavoured, with the crunch of chocolate and chopped nuts. It reminded me of Viennetta, which I love.
Genocide is confronting and difficult to think about, possibly even more so when you're on holiday. All of the Pandaw cruise excursions are optional and indeed a few passengers chose to skip the afternoon's activities and remain back on the ship. While I could not say this afternoon was "enjoyable", I'm glad I went. What I saw will stay with me for a long time. Even more than before, the guys and I felt lucky and grateful for all our luxuries and creature comforts... and that we were safe.
But there's more to Phnom Penh than its grim past. After dinner, the guys and I caught tuk-tuks to Street 51, Phnom Penh's entertainment district. We went to a club called The Heart of Darkness, where the boys were frisked by stern security guards dressed in black, my bag searched, and my bottle of water was confiscated at the door. Upon entering, we found the the place empty! We ended up enjoying drinks and telling stories at a small bar called Area 51. For half of us, a couple of rounds of mojitos (the boys) and iced pineapple juice (me) was enough; we grabbed a tuk-tuk back to the ship. For the other half, the pub crawl continued and may have included a stop at the legendary The Drunken Sponge...
Someday I'd like to come back and spend longer in Phnom Penh. We didn't get to visit the Russian Market, for example, and on our night out in Phnom Penh I spotted Chuck Norris Dim Sum (closed). Next time...
We were due to cross the border into Vietnam the next day.
There's still more to come in this series - see the posts so far.
TFP travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam as a guest of Vietnam Airlines.