Sunday, 27 May 2012

Day 64 - Killing Fields, people watching, abandoned French villas and thoughts about food. (Cambodia)

Before leaving Phnom Penh we took a drive out to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (better known as the Killing Fields) just outside of the city. This is one of the hundreds of sites all over the country where the Khmer Rouge brought about 20,000 people to be executed in the 1970's (a total of about 3 million), a truly horrible yet significant place to visit. It's very hard to put these things into words without losing some of the intensity and horrificness of the situation, but really it is such a confronting thing to face.

We found a nice shop by the water front in Phnom Penh (aimed at European ex-pats we assume) which sold pharmacy items, English language newspapers, cigars and a wide selection of foreign soft drinks and beers. So we purchased a Leffe Blond each and sat on by the side of the river, which turned out to be an excellent people watching position. We were happily surprised by the lack of hassling and begging aimed at us. Most of what we did get was people asking for our empty cans and bottles, or actually selling stuff but being able to take no for an answer. We even saw a few people with the interesting business idea of carrying around bathroom scales and offering a weighing service. Of course there was the usual white men with young Asian women, and a few backpackers. At one point we watched two foreign men (probably in their 70's) approach a local woman, and although we couldn't hear what was being said it was fairly obvious what was going on. Unfortunately her high heels, nice dress and inviting figure had given them the wrong idea, but in fact she wasn't aiming to sell her body and was probably just heading out for dinner with some friends. She was fairly blunt in trying to shake them off, but they were persistent and kept following her for a while. Eventually she got the point across, but it was quite an embarrassing things to witness. As she walked away, obviously quite humiliated, we watched them continue to accost other similarly dressed women. Some of the Western couples and families though were hard to pick whether they were on holiday or actually living locally. When we saw two old white women who didn't look like tourists we actually wondered whether they could be left over from before the Khmer Rouge, but we dismissed this as fairly impossible. We did meet one American guy who was here to help with the de-mining; I wonder how many other people we saw are also here for similar type of aid projects.

Today we made our way from Phnom Penh to Kampot, in the South of Cambodia. The roads we've driven on in the last few days have deterioratied a lot since our first impressions, becoming much more like what we had expected throughout Asia. We're starting to realise why luxury four wheel drives are what all the rich locals are driving. The 150km that we drove today took us around four hours.

We stopped for a look around the town of Kep, which we compared to Portsea in Victoria (Australia). There's not actually much there, in terms of shops or attractions - it's just a nice place by the beach with really expensive properties and lots of very nice hotels. It seems to be the popular place for wealthy Cambodians to go for holidays. What sets it apart though is the remnants of the French colony still present behind the beach front. All the old French villas are still there, shelled and abandoned at the time of the Khmer Rouge, now left to disrepair, but still the majesty of the buildings is so evident. There's an odd feel about the town, sort of like a ghost town, and yet it is very enchanting. It is such a surreal thing to see - these houses that forty years ago would have been resplendent, set on the hills overlooking the ocean, in a lively town full of French people; now completely dilapidated, and left to be taken over by the forest.

We've been loving the food in Cambodia so far. There's a lot of cross over with other cuisines such as Vietnamese and Thai, but the freshness and variety available has been quite impressive. Evidence of the French colony also remains in the plethora of bakeries, baguette stalls and French restaurants, and after not having had these types of food available to us really since Australia, it is quite a nice change to have these options. A couple of nights ago in Phnom Penh, we decided to really fork out and eat at a proper posh French restaurant. We shopped around a bit and decided on Comme a la Maison where we had an incredible three course plus drink meal for around $12 each. It feels like a lot when that's 12 times what we're used to spending on one meal, but it was actually a highlight for us and we're still talking about it several days later.

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