Thursday, March 10, 2011

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

March 10, 2011—Our bus trip to Phnom Penh started out on a little rocky. The front desk at our hotel told us to be down at 6:30 a.m. for our taxi ride to the bus. We decided that it was safer to be there earlier so we went at 6:10. We checked out and waited for our taxi, but about ten minutes later we found out that they had not called the taxi, so they took us outside and hailed a taxi for us. The driver took us to the pick-up point and dropped us off. Unfortunately, he dropped us at another bus stop, but we didn’t know it at the time. When we showed our receipt for the Phnom Penh-Sorya Transport Company to the guy at the bus, he said that he didn’t know the company but offered to sell us tickets on his bus. We started to, but then Steve refused. We started to walk away when a local told us that the place we wanted was just down the street. We thanked her and walked that direction. Everything was closed so we were a bit confused until another local guided us to the right spot. Neither of these two people asked us for a thing, which was really nice. We were finally at the right spot so the man gave us our tickets, and we climbed in the van. We were now sure that the guy back down the street knew exactly where we needed to be—amazing.

It was now 6:40, and our bus was supposed to leave at 6:45 so we were a bit stressed. We tried to relax when the driver told Steve that the bus would wait. We finally got everyone picked up and drove to the bus, where we all piled on and took off. We were pleased to see that this bus was much nicer than the last one. The drive to get out of Saigon took us almost an hour because of the horrible traffic. Also, at one point a power line had come down so our bus had to cross traffic to the left lane and VERY slowly creep under another part of the power line. A little further down the road, we could hear the overhead power lines scraping against the bus. It was all a little unnerving.

The rest of the Vietnam drive was through the usual countryside filled with beautiful, green rice paddies for mile after mile. When we reached the border, we stopped and had to take our luggage in to be scanned. Our guide had collected all the passports in order to expedite the process at the border so we stood in line to wait until they called our names, and then we picked up our passports, gave them back to our guide, and got back on the bus. We drove a few hundred yards to the Cambodian processing center and again got out of the bus, without luggage this time. We went into the center and had a seat. We had also paid our guide $50 for our visas for Cambodia so he took care of everything. All we had to do was sign the visa application and then pass through Immigration and Customs. It was all very well coordinated and took very little time, and it was the first time in Vietnam that we felt we got what we paid for.

A few minutes later we stopped for a quick lunch; however, Steve and I were short on cash. Thankfully, we had eaten something for breakfast so we could wait. The last part of the drive took about three hours. At one point we had to cross the Mekong River on a ferry. The driver took the bus down an uneven road and pulled it onto the ferry, along with two other large tour buses and a truck. One family in the truck beside us had so many people crowded in that we took a picture.

When we arrived in Phnom Penh the bus pulled into the central bus station, which was a pretty busy place. We grabbed our bags and began to walk. It didn’t take five seconds before a taxi driver asked if we needed a ride so we told him no and said that we already had one. He actually followed us to see if we did. At one point we thought that we had lost him, but he then appeared from another side. We just kept walking until we found an ATM where we got some money, and we were surprised that it was U.S. currency. There was a hamburger place next door so we went in to eat lunch.

We finished lunch and grabbed a remorque-moto, which is a trailer hitched to a motorcycle, and went to the Silver River Hotel¸ where we checked in and went up to our room. The room was small but very nice, and we again have a balcony that will be great in the afternoons. We took a break and then went down to schedule our bus to Siem Reap on Friday.

Today we left with our guide Mr. Thay for a day of sightseeing in his Tuk-Tuk. Our first stop was at the Royal Palace. The grounds were beautiful with flowering trees and shrubs, and the buildings were spectacular. Unfortunately, we were limited to just two areas, but it was well worth the time to walk around and to see all the artifacts from the royal families.

After the Royal Palace Mr. Thay drove us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly known as Security Prison 21. This facility was Tuol Svay Prey High School before it was transformed into a security prison by the Khmer Rouge where political prisoners were interrogated and tortured. We walked through the cells and through rooms filled with photographs of the many prisoners who were tortured and murdered. It was a very moving experience, and everyone there was very somber. We are pleased that they have created a museum to memorialize the victims.

After the museum we felt that we needed a break so we asked Mr. Thay to take us to a restaurant for lunch, where we enjoyed a sandwich and a Caesar salad. Next we drove through Phnom Penh and headed for the Killing Fields. The drive provided us with a great view of the people and how they live and work in Cambodia. We love riding in the Tuk-Tuks because we can see all around us, which is not the case in a taxi. It was about 10 miles so we just relaxed and enjoyed the view. The best part of the ride was when a man on a motorscooter passed us with two pigs strapped on the back of his cycle--and Steve got the picture.

We arrived at the Killings Fields of Choeung Ek. Rising above the 129 mass graves is a beautiful white stupa or religious monument that serves as a memorial to the some 17,000 men, women, and children who were killed here. Encased inside the stupa are almost 9,000 human skulls found during excavations in 1980. It was overwhelming.

From the stupa we walked through the fields where large craters remain from the excavations. Every now and then we could see pieces of clothing or bone coming through the dirt. It is so hard to fathom what happened here, and we left feeling sad.

We returned to Phnom Penh and made a quick stop at the Russian Market, which is much like the Central Market. We picked up a few items, including some “Panasonic” batteries. We did not want to pack our recharger for batteries, so we figured that we would just buy them along the way. Well, we bought eight batteries yesterday, and when Steve used them today, four batteries were good for about 10 pictures—then nothing. Thankfully, we have the small camera that we can charge, but we are still going to buy a lot of “Panasonic” batteries for the next two days.

We were tired and hot, so we had Mr. Thai take us back to our hotel. We thanked him and shook his hand, and then we paid him his fee plus a tip because he was an excellent driver and a very nice man.
Now it was time to cool off since it had become quite warm in the afternoon. We relaxed in the room for awhile and then left to walk to the river. On the way we passed the National Museum, which is spectacular building. Unfortunately, it was closing in 30 minutes, so we continued on to the river where there is a very nice river walk.

Tonight we will pack up so that we will be ready to leave early tomorrow for Siem Reap—another glorious bus ride. This ride will be with the same company as the last bus trip, so it should be fine. Also, it will give us a chance to see more of the Cambodian countryside.

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