Day 4: River cruise on RV Mekong Pandaw

Phnom Penh

When I emerged from my cabin in the morning, we were moored at Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.

Moored at Phnom Penh. The guys visited Gloria Jean's a few times to use make use of their wifi while we were docked at Phnom Penh.

Boats sped past on the river.

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!"

The breakfast cold buffet

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.

Fry-up and coffee

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.

Cyclos ready to embark. The cyclos have a retractable sunshade, but make sure if you're wearing shorts you slather sunscreen on your legs - the daytime sun is deceptively hot while you're sitting in a cyclo.

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.

And we're off!

A monk walks sedately, shaded by an umbrella. The colonial-style buildings are quite beautiful.

Tuk-tuk driver snoozing.

The power lines are something else!

Phnom Penh traffic

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.

Royal Place entrance

Royal Palace building

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.

Rest and refreshment spot.

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.

Cyclo driver

The cyclo convoy is on the move again. We went to the National Museum - I didn't take photographs there. The museum houses the finest collection of classical Angkor sculpture in the world.

Another fully loaded motorbike.

Mates catching up.

Reading.

Back to the ship, moored at Phnom Penh.

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.

Samlor kako (traditional Cambodian soup with minced pork)

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.

Russian salad

Snow mushroom salad

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.

Curry mee

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.

Dessert station

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.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre

Choeung Ek Memorial

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.

The memorial houses many skulls of people murdered in the killing fields.

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.

The pits where mass graves were found.

Magic Tree - a loudspeaker hanging on this tree played music to drown out the moans of victims while they were being executed.

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.

Memorial to children who were killed at Choeung Ek - these colourful bracelets draped on bamboo poles form a border around a mass grave site where the bodies of many children were found. It is said that many children were killed so that they would not grow up to avenge their parents.

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.

Tuol Sleng - S21 Detention Centre (genocide museum). Barbed wire netting covers much of the building, preventing prisoners' escape and/or suicide.

One of the prison cells - visitors to S21 are now free to walk into all the rooms.

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.

People imprisoned and then murdered. There are so many images like this on display.

It's horrifying and sad to imagine what went on here not really so long ago.

The primary school that became the prison known as S21.

We got back on the bus and headed back to the ship.

Street-side dinner on the corner outside Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Taken via bus window as we drove back to the ship

Taken via bus window as we drove back to the ship

Taken via bus window as we drove 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.

Fresh vegetable spring rolls - one spring roll and bowl of sauce per person.

Next, a delicious Chinese style sweet corn soup.

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.

Ostrich with Kampot pepper sauce with potato mash and vegetables

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.

Tiramisu

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.