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Friday 12 Jul 2013
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A change of scene

After visiting Teul Sleng and the Killing Fields in one day, we were all quite subdued on the ride back to our hostel. While I didn't want to forget or marginalise what I'd seen, we all agreed we needed a change of scene and headed to the river front for dinner. After eating, we walked along the front to the Foreign Correspondents' Club, a colonial era cocktail bar with a rooftop terrace overlooking the river. As a chilling reminder of today's visits, there was a black and white photograph on the wall of the view below in 1975, showing people in the streets cheering as the Khmer Rouge 'liberated' Phnom Penh. Only days later the city had been emptied and the violent regime had begun.

Between us we'd got pretty good at negotiating with tuktuk drivers.  They'll always start higher, we go lower and we settle on a price in the middle.  Simple.  In Phnom Penh, a couple of dollars per tuktuk will get you almost everywhere you need to go.  We'd only paid $4 each for the entire day today including the 14km out to the Killing Fields.  After our cocktails at the FCC, we decided to head over towards the backpacker area of town, so we found a group of tuktuk drivers on the street corner.  There were ten of us, so we needed three tuktuks.  Recognising a group of Westerners, the driver started high at $5 each.  Without looking at each other and in perfect synchronicity, we all looked at him and said 'Nah' with such resoluteness, that he couldn't help laughing and we agreed on $3 instead.  The negotiations were done with a smile and he was happy to chat and ask where we were from. 

There was no mistaking the backpacker area when we got there.  It was lined with bars and restaurants and full of Westerners.  We saw a live band in one place, so jumped out of our tuktuk and went to investigate.  It turned out to be a funky jazz band, complete with double bass, jamming in the corner of a sports bar.  An odd combination, but the music was great and we took over the pool table in the corner for a while.  In some ways, it is a shame to hang out with all the other backpackers as you end up in a bubble away from the real country that you're visiting.  You end up eating western food and paying inflated prices.  But the positives are that it makes it so easy to travel by yourself and still meet people.  Kye was a natural social ringleader and would talk to just about anyone, foreigner or local, and either get a game of pool or beer pong going or invite strays to join our group.  We were just a collaboration of solo travellers anyway, so everyone was welcome.  In one bar, Kye and I played three progressively worse games of pool with a group of local lads.  They were clearly a lot better at pool than either of us, but we were all enjoying the games so it didn't matter.  We only won one game and that was because they potted the black by mistake!  Later on, half of us went on to a club that they'd recommended - the Heart of Darkness!  We played the usual tuktuk negotiation game, agreed on $2 each, and off we went.  We'd been around a few bends when I spotted the sports bar that we'd been in earlier on.  Having got my bearings, I realised we were being scammed and the drivers had the cheek (or maybe genius?) to drop us off outside the club, which was directly opposite where we had got in!  None of us had seen the club beforehand, so the drivers had just driven us around the block assuming we'd be too drunk to notice.  I was the only one who had, so our tuktuk driver left emptyhanded while the guys in the other tuktuk paid up in complete ignorance.  Muppets! I wonder how many times a night the drivers get away with this trick...

We gave ourselves a well-earned lazy day the next day.  By an amazing stroke of luck, Jon's passport had turned up at the bus station yesterday (Lucky Swede!), so he and Carl had gone to S.21 and the Killing Fields today. Natalie, Jill, Krysia and I headed back down to the river and had a nice girlie lunch while the boys went off to play boys' games at the firing range.  It seems to be quite a popular tourist attraction now, firing AK47s or grenade launchers, but I found it difficult to even contemplate after what we had seen the day before.  Even though guns were not necessarily the weapon of choice at S.21 or the Killing Fields  - quite the opposite there, in fact - the idea of making a game out of any sort of violence sat uncomfortably with me.  I'm not a fan of guns and the closest I've ever come to them is firing airgun pellets at a paper target on school adventure holidays twenty years ago.  But Kye, Josh and Simon had a great time playing Rambo and came back buzzing.  They'd stopped short of firing a rocket launcher at a cow (I never found out if it was real, alive or fake, just the idea of it was bad enough) and seemed to have spent more time posing with the guns than actually firing them, but they were happy.

When we had booked our bus tickets on to Siem Reap at the Stray office, we were told there would be a minibus pick up from our hostel at 7.45am to catch the 8.30am bus.  By 8.15am the next morning, our pick up still hadn't arrived and we had to call the office several times before they answered.  The lateness was blamed on picking up other passengers first, but the minibus was empty when it reached us and the guy drove like crazy across Phnom Penh to get us there (with our lives flashing before our eyes at some of the moves he pulled).  They'd obviously forgotten about us, but must have spoken to the bus company as we were nearly 15 minutes late but the bus had waited for us.  This coach was full so we had to squeeze in next to each other.  Natalie and I watched another movie and I passed the journey catching up on the final season of 'The Big C', which I had picked up in Don Det.  Unfortunately the travelling and late nights caught up with me at last and I started going down with a cold.  Either that or I was allergic to something on the bus, but by the time we reached Siem Reap I couldn't stop sneezing and my eyes had become hypersensitive to the light.

We stayed in the Mad Monkey hostel, a sister hostel to the one in Phnom Penh, and Nat, Jill and I shared a room again.  The top floor was set up as a beach bar, with sand on the floor and hammocks strung from the corners.  We had our free welcome beer in the sunshine on the roof and congratulated ourselves for reaching Siem Reap.  It was time for another change of scene, for Angkor Wat to show us another slice of Cambodian history.


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