Vietnam & Cambodia: Phnom Penh
Our journey to Phnom Penh took 6 hours and passed through the lovely countryside of Cambodia. Quite quickly, we left the area of the grass huts. Soon they became scarcer and were replaced by wooden structures. However, the obvious poverty remained. We made a few pit stops. One was to visit a silk farm where local women were learning the art of weaving. With luck, this skill will keep them off the streets of the larger cities. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch there prepared by the owners. We then had a quick course in Silk Farming 101, from the cultivation of the worms to the final product. We discovered that the worms, once shorn of their threads, were often eaten by the workers. Well, not to be considered squeamish Americans, some of us indulged in the delicacy. Just chew fast and swallow before you have much time to think about it.
That was not enough for some. We had another stop later on where they cooked tarantulas and other assorted bugs. My roommate gave it bravely a go…but it came back to haunt her for the next two days! Personally, I passed this time.
Our home away from home in Phnom Penh was the elegant Raffles. Simply lovely and up to the famous Raffles’ standards. Before we checked in, we did one more little stop: a massage parlor. Well, not your ordinary massage parlor. This is one where the workers are all blind and were learning a skill to enable them to take care of themselves in a legitimate fashion. It was another wonderful treat after a very long day of touring and traveling. We finally arrived at our hotel well into our second wind – not that it lasted very long under the circumstances. But it got us through check in and into the casual restaurant long enough to down a burger (yes, a burger) and couple glasses of wine.
Another full day and whirlwind tour of Phnom Penh. We visited the National Museum with its wonderful collection of sculpture from the pre-Angkor period. We toured the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. You must remember that you cannot enter these areas unless you are properly dressed. Carrying a scarf to cover the shoulders is not acceptable. You must have your knees and shoulders covered by pants, skirts, jackets, blouses. If not, you will be buying an oversized t-shirt at the kiosk.
Lunch was even more fabulous on this day than usual. We ate at a restaurant that trains street kids to learn a skill in hospitality. The food was over the top. In fact, I got the recipe for my Pumpkin and Fish Curry. It is not quite the same done in one’s own kitchen, but it was close enough for me to reminisce. I also fell in love with many of the painting that lined the walls. They were all done by local Cambodian street kids. This proved a very special place.
After lunch, we were introduced to the tragic part of Cambodian history. We toured Toul Sleng, the former high school turned torture prison during the Pol Pot regime. It is not for the faint of heart. The photos are gut wrenching; the improvised cells distressing. However, this is part of Cambodia, and travel is intended to expose one to the lives and customs of other people. That is not always pleasant, but particularly here, it is necessary to understanding the poverty and the lack of an older generation. Fifty percent of the population is under 15, 70% is under 30. That becomes even clear when we traveled to the outskirts of town and visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Almost 12,000 bodies have been uncovered here from the mass executions that took place in the late 70’s. These represent only a portion of the 2 million who lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge during its 3 year reign.
That evening, to take our minds off the visions of the afternoon, we toured the Raffles hotel and enjoyed yet another great dinner there in their signature restaurant.