New Country, New Bikes…

Day 67 – 19th May to Day 70 – 22th May

Getting to Phenom Pehn by public transport was not an enjoyable experience and I wish we had done it on bike. Although the bus was air conditioned Als and I managed to get the two seats right next to the AC outlet aka it was warm, very warm. I was struggling through but Als found it unbearable and kept complaining the whole way there. It was mine and Als’s first overland boarder crossing and we had no issues at all, we got off the bus, went through Vietnamese passport control followed by Cambodian passport control and then we got back on the bus. Couldn’t be simpler!

By the time we got to Phenom Pehn it was dark. As the bus pulled into the bus station there were hordes of people waiting for us, not us in particular (much to my disappointment) but for the bus in general. They started banging on the windows offering the best, or cheapest (or both) Tuk Tuk in Cambodia. One guy seemed slightly more frenzied than the others so we asked him for a lift to Guest House No. 9 as recommended by Als’s bro Nick. After a bit of extreme dodging and weaving we made it there in one piece. It turned out to be Guest House Sister No. 9 but what’s the point in being fussy!

A lot of people seem to dislike Phenom Pehn and describe it as a dump but both Als’s and I thought it was a pretty cool place. In my eyes there’s three main parts to the town; the tourist are along the river, the tourist are by the lake, and what’s in between the two. Obviously that is a very simplified version but it sufficed for my needs. The tourist area along the river is the upmarket side of town and has some really nice bars and cafe’s over looking a beautiful river. The main part of town is massive, although not on the same scale as Saigon, and is full of various shops, restaurants and quite a few high risers (not New York high). The shops range in size and standard. Some shops are straight out of a high street in London whilst others look more like a garage sale with a varied and random collection of goods. The same goes for the restaurants although, arguably, the best food comes from the more run down looking places. The main part of town is also home to a massive indoor market where you can buy pretty much anything your heart desires at bargain bucket prices providing your haggling skills are up to scratch.

Which leaves the tourist area around the lake. The lake used to be immense apparently but the government has reclaimed a lot of it for land, although nothing seems to be have been built there. The lake was still a nice feature but mainly at night when you couldn’t see all the scum floating around. The area around the lake was both mine and Als’s favourite part of Phenom Pehn and had very small streets lined with bars, restaurants, and a few shops. We found a curry house that did all you can eat chicken thali for $3 including naan and one beer…incredible. $2 for the veg version and the curry was delicious. Anything and everything was on offer for sale down these back streets and you couldn’t walk two meters with out being offered ‘boom boom’, or weed or a million other illegal things even blowing cows up with bazooka’s…brilliant.

Sister Guest House No.9 was a couple of doors down from No. 9 but they were owned by the same people and we could hang out in either. Both guest house’s had large decking areas extending out over the lake with a range of hammocks and comfy chairs to relax on. It was a great place to chill out and have a beer and it was bloody cheap too at $2 a night. One of the reasons it was so cheap was due to the lack of AC and Phenom Pehn got ridiculously hot. So hot in fact that the first night we were reduced to throwing cold water over each other but that turned out to be a mistake as very soon the mattress was soaking with warm water that only got warmer with your body heat. In other words once you started there was no stopping. The second night Als tried to make some adjustments to the fan which the fan did not seem to appreciate and self destructed one piece at a time…well done Als!

We spent most of our time in Phenom Pehn looking for some new motorbikes, an extremely fun and enjoyable task. We must have visited around 20 shops and who knows how many bikes we tested but they were all leagues better than our previous Minsk’s. Eventually we settled on a pair from of 250 Honda Baja’s from ‘The Bike Shop’ which were by far the best we had tested. I recommend anyone who’s looking for a bike in Cambodia to go talk to Bernard at ‘The Bike Shop’ his bikes are in great nik and well looked after and he has a vast knowledge of Cambodia and the surrounding countries in terms of riding.

Whilst in Phenom Pehn we went to check out S-21 (or Toul Sleng museam) and the ‘Killing Fields of Choeung Ek’. Both are very heavy and depressing. S-21 is actually an old school that was converted into a prison and torture house during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (1975 – 1979). The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of everyone who was admitted and now their photos line most of rooms. Not many people who entered S-21 as a prisoner ever made it out alive, in-fact between 1975 and 1978 more that 17,000 people were killed, a horrific number. S-21 still contains some of the beds, intact with the shackles, where the prisoners were tortured and has several gruesome photos to document what happened. Other rooms, where the prisoners were locked up, are split into tiny cells maybe 4 x2 ft still with the iron shackles bolted to the floor. I can’t imagine the suffering that went on in this place.

Despite all the horrendous images I had seen it only really sunk in after reading people’s real life experience’s. Not of being in S-21 itself (as very few people made it out alive) but more of people who’s family and friends just disappeared overnight and they later learned they had been taken to S-21. No one was safe during the Khmer Rouge era, towards the end of their reign they even turned on themselves and the tortures soon became the tortured.

S-21 was enough for one day so we headed to the Killing fields the next day, again it was very heavy day. The tortured prisoners from S-21 were transported to Choeung Ek’ to die. Typically they were bludgeoned to death to save bullets. In 1980 86 of the 129 mass graves were exhumed to find a total of 8985 bodies, a truly horrifying number. Walking around Choeung Ek’ was an eerie experience, it had an unnatural peace about the place. But as I walked around this peaceful place I was distinctly aware of bits of bones scattered around and sticking out the ground. Then I came across a tree with bricks sticking out of it which the Khmer Rouge once used to kill children with. In the centre a memorial stupa has been erected that houses all of the bones that have been unearthed, quite an unnerving thing to see.

After seeing the depths to which humanity can sink to Als and I decided to try and cheer ourselves up by visiting the infamous club; the Heart of Darkness. It was one of the slickest places we had been to so far in the whole of SE complete with bouncers and everything. Apprently the bouncers are there as Phenom Pehn has a real gun and knife problem…great news. The club was very dark and a little bit seedy on the inside. We were by far the youngest westerners in there and the place seemed to be full of older sex tourists and also, of course, it being SE Asia a lot of prostitutes (less than Saigon though). I pretended to be gay to get the lady’s of the night off my back and told them to go for Als which was very entertaining to watch.

Another great thing about Phenom Pehn is that they have KFC but not as we know it. Every Wednesday from 11 till 3 it was all you can eat, all you can eat for only $5, that’s right $5 for all the chicken you can consume from 11 till 3. Incredible! Unfortunately we weren’t going to be around on Wednesday but we knew we were coming back in the near future, oh happy days.

On the way back from KFC we were caught in some real heavy traffic. It was extremely frustrating and I was wondering what kind of idiotic driver could be causing all these delays when an elephant rounded the corner walking down the middle of the road. I sight I was not expecting but welcomed despite the jam it caused.

After getting our bikes sorted and picking up all the new spares and tools we needed it was time to get going and visit the coast of SW Cambodia.

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