Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Since I'm currently working at a university in China, I get the Chinese New Year off! That's SIX WEEKS of holiday time. I'll take it :) Being already in the Eastern hemisphere, and with so much time to kill, my roommate and I decided to take a month and visit some sights in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Enjoy the sixth installment of that decision involving Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia:

Phnom Penh


*There’s a couple pictures that aren’t gruesome, but definitely sad. And a story that is both sad and gruesome. You’ve been warned.*

We had decided to take the boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh because it’s usually a more scenic and enjoyable experience than buses. In my opinion. The travel story to the capital is best told in pictures:

Earlier we had arranged a Couchsurfing host, but he was having Internet troubles and hadn’t responded in a while. Luckily, the day before we had to leave we got another offer from an Irish guy who owns a pub/guesthouse in Phnom Penh (we do not blindly trust hosts, we always go in with the intention of leaving immediately if anything feels off). We found his place no problem with a tuktuk ride from the pier, and he offered us one of the private rooms. Free of charge. Because he is our Irish angel.

So basically, we are staying in one of those good ol’ bars full of good ol’ boys who are taking special care to make sure we’re looked out for and safe. Which seems to be of particular importance in this particular town. Evidence of these guys’ goodness: a bar regular/worker from the States who had been in the military for over 20 years went with us to another bar down the street with another ex-military guy more our age from New Zealand. We’ll call him Dave (I honestly have forgotten his name even though we’ve talked extensively). Dave didn’t really care about going to the other bar. But he wanted to make sure we got there fine (it was only two blocks away) and he wanted to make sure Jesse (the New Zealand guy) wasn’t going to leave us. And before we left again, he gave Jesse one of those man to man talks basically consisting of, “DO NOT lose these girls or you’ll have me to answer to.” He needn’t have worried, Jesse himself is very careful too as far as we’re concerned. But the care for our safety is very appreciated.

Us and the best picture we could get out of Jesse.

Us and the best picture we could get out of Jesse.

The next day, we went to the Tuol Sleng name. It’s not exactly a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but it’s important. There are so many things we don’t learn in American history classrooms concerning the rest of the world. That’s another rant for another day, but it’s important to educate yourself when you can. Basically, in 1975-1978 a group called the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of the population in Cambodia. Look it up. Tuol Sleng was a high-school turned interrogation/torture center. As many as 20,000 (innocent) people were killed here. Only a handful who ever went in survived. 

After that, we went to Wat Phnom, a stupa with a little park around it that was nice to walk around. There were a lot of beggars, which is always sad/awkward/disturbing/uncomfortable. It was a nice area in general though. However, my strongest memory will be of some beggar kids playing with some birds they had found. I don’t know if they were babies, or injured or what but they couldn’t fly properly. The kids would throw them up, they would flap a little ways, and then fall back to the ground. These kids were playing pretty roughly with them though, and they were dying very slowly. It was very disturbing. Especially after a museum full of death.


So from there we went to the riverside and walked along a ways back towards the pub. It was around sunset time and there was a really nice breeze. That helped lift the mood. I always think of that little Bible story in 1 Kings 19 with Elijah whenever I feel a particularly pleasant or welcome breeze. God was not in the earthquake or fire, but the still, small voice. Like a gentle breeze. Little nice things like that, to me, feel like God saying hey. And I like that.

Late that night there was a rugby game on at the pub. The guys get pretty into rugby in general and it’s really fun and interesting to watch. Especially since this particular game was IRELAND VERSUS WALES. Dear lawd. I couldn’t imagine it before so if you can’t either it’s cool. But an Irish rugby game. Against pretty major rivals. In an Irish pub. Full of Irish men. It was really fun, to say the least.

The lads and their rugby.

The lads and their rugby.

The fun was interrupted by another (and hopefully the last) gruesome tale I’ll have from this city. Just outside was a hit and run. A crowd formed around the guy, and one of the Irish guy’s girlfriend/wife/whatever called an ambulance. Jesse (the New Zealand guy, remember?) was trained as a nurse, so he went to help out. I didn’t go because I’m not useful in such situations and I don’t like to make a spectacle of other people’s pain. I stayed with Dennis (the bartender) who then proceeded to educate me on a few morbid points of Cambodian law. *The following points are as Dennis told me, and I have not checked them on any official site for their accuracy. However, he has lived in Cambodia for a while and has a local wife too who’s very sweet. Anyway.*

  • If you injure someone in a motor vehicle accident, you are responsible for their medical expenses for life. However, if they die you only have to pay $1,000. According to Dennis, it is sickeningly common for people to back over the victim in this situation to make sure they die. It’s cheaper.
  • If you are a foreigner involved with or even kind of around these situations, it will likely be your fault or your responsibility to pay something. Dennis said it’s written in the law in Vietnam that if a foreigner is involved it is entirely their fault, because it would not have happened if they weren’t in the country.
  • In the states, there are certain “good Samaritan” laws in place to protect people trying to help others. In most of Asia, as far as I’ve been told, such laws do not exist. Therefore, it’s much riskier to help people in case something goes wrong as you try. As such, a lot of people don’t help. 

Really happy stuff, right? It doesn’t really get better. Jesse ended up going in the ambulance with this guy because he was the ONLY one with any medical knowledge. The ambulance driver? He was just that, a driver. Not a trained paramedic. The “ambulance” did not have oxygen, a defibrillator, or even a neck brace. Which is pretty awful considering the guy had a broken neck and no way to keep that stabilized when he had a seizure on the way to the hospital. And the lack of a defibrillator means that when his heart stopped after that, they couldn’t get it started again till they got to the hospital. If you know anything about such things, you know that every single second counts when a heart is stopped. Jesse had to help them carry the stretcher inside because the wheels were broken, but after that he left quickly. Because of the aforementioned laws. He doubts very much if that guy survived.

Done with that day.

Our final day we woke up early to catch some of the super bowl. Because Sunday night is our Monday morning. It was kind of funny, because the night before they were explaining rugby to us, and Monday morning we were explaining American football to them. To be honest though, the super bowl seems pretty gaudy first thing in the morning. Still entertaining though, which is the point I suppose.

We went to some markets and walked around with Jesse, but honestly we weren’t really wanting to explore too far. But the markets were nice. 

Bright fruits and veggies.

Bright fruits and veggies.

We spent a really short time in Cambodia. Not nearly enough to say I understand anything about their culture. But I do understand that it is a place of both light and darkness, just like the rest of the world. It’s darkness may be just a little more in the foreground.