March 9, 2017
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I wake up at 6:28 am every morning. I don’t set an alarm. I just wake up then. I have no idea why. Today, the early morning rising ritual paid off in dividends as it was just then that our boat was reaching the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh. The city is located at the confluence of the Mekong River and one of its major tributaries, the Tonle Sap River. If you look at a map of Cambodia…. I’ll give you a minute, go get one….
Okay, you back with me now? Good. So, if you look at a map of Cambodia, you’ll notice that about 180 km. north of Phnom Penh is a big lake. It’s called Tonle Sap, which means “large river”. So, saying that the Mekong River meets the Tone Sap River at Phnom Penh is kind of redundant, redundant. But I just report things here so go complain to someone else about this.
But I digress. I rose at 6:28 am just in time to see our boat reach the peninsula of land that marks the confluence point. The Mekong (on our right) was blue. The Tonle Sap on our left was more brown. There is a distinct and easily discernible difference between the two colours and that’s actually quite fascinating.
Equally fascinating was seeing the various wats, pagodas, shrines and temples built along the river bank glide past as we approached the mooring dock and our home for the next 36 hours, Phnom Penh.
In my post about our morning visit to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison I mentioned the emptying of the city by the Khmer Rouge. The people have come back now, and with a vengeance. It’s a bustling city of over 2 million and the seat of power. Specifically, the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party). While the country is not a communist state or socialist republic, it is not yet a full democracy, as one party rule is the order of the day.
After Pol Pot’s paranoid border raid butchery, his worries about Vietnam invading came true. I’m not sure what he expected of them, but the Vietnamese retaliation was fast and furious. On December 25, 1978 Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia and just 2 weeks later they occupied the entire country and removed Pol Pot from power. From 1979-89 Vietnam controlled the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
Showing just how whacko the UN really is, the rest of the world continued to recognize Pol Pot (now in hiding in the border jungles with Thailand) as the true leader of Cambodia and his Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government.
Meanwhile, King Sihanouk, the royal leader – who was the hero of Cambodia for standing up to the French and wresting independence for Cambodia in 1953, ending its status as a French colony, and who had for a time collaborated with Pol Pot – went to the UN arguing that the world should not be recognizing either Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge nor the Vietnamese puppet government but a coalition of semi-democratic opposition groups that he headed. He was successful and even though his coalition lacked the four criteria of statehood (people, territory, government and supreme authority within the borders of a country) the international community went along with the idea.
As a result, Vietnam was being vilified & isolated internationally for having invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot. Ain’t the world a wonderful place? The boycotts were tanking the Vietnamese economy and still, it wasn’t until 1986 that Vietnam introduced two radical policies that ultimately moved things forward for both Vietnam & Cambodia.
The first was the policy of Doi Moi (‘Renovation’) – essentially an abandonment by Vietnam of communist philosophy for market capitalism, without coming anywhere near really saying that.
The second was the decision to completely withdraw from Cambodia, which fully occurred by the end of 1989. In 1985, the Vietnamese had appointed Hun Sen as Prime Minister of Cambodia. He met regularly with King Sihanouk, then living in exile in France, and in 1988 offered him a position in the Cambodian government, which Sihanouk refused.
In April 1989 Hun Sen convened the Cambodian National Assembly so that they could adopt a new constitution. While they were there, for good measure and because they had the time, they also changed the name of the country to the State of Cambodia, re-established Buddhism as the state religion, and allowed citizens to own private property. Hun Sen changed the name of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and it is Hun Sen and the CPP that holds power in Vietnam to this day.
In saying this, I have skipped over the drama of what really happened with the politics of Cambodia but I will say that in 1993 a constitutional monarchy became the official government, and the name of the country changed once again to its present one, The Kingdom of Cambodia, with King Norodom Sihanouk serving as the head of state. He served in that role until he abdicated in 2004, criticizing Hun Sen in his farewell and see you later letter.
The National Assembly passed laws that authorized his abdication and also selected his son Norodom Sihamoni to succeed him as king. Sihanouk died in Beijing in 2012 and two years later a huge statue of him was erected on the boulevard that also houses the huge lotus erected to celebrate the original independence from the French that he brokered back in 1953.
And that, in a nutshell, is how it came to pass that we paid a visit to King Norodom Sihamoni’s Royal Palace in Phnom Penh this afternoon.
…… he was out.
So, we visited his Throne Room. This time I remembered not to actually sit in his throne – big faux pas – go know – but it’s not like he was sitting in it so what’s the big deal? Everybody has their ‘special chair’, I guess.
The Prasat Pak (Silver Temple) is named that because of the 5,000 foor tiles that are made of sheets of silver. Inside the Silver Temple sits a 200 lb.Buddha made of gold with 2,086 diamonds attached, just for good measure. Behind him is another Buddha made of jade. In fact, it’s that Buddha which gives the temple its alternate name, the Jade Buddha Temple. Either way, it’s pretty clear that the King has some pretty pretty fancy stuff going on at his Palace.
I learned the story of Cambodia’s trials & tribulations (past & present) over a mango mint smoothie at ‘Friends’ Café (operated as a training restaurant for street children) with our guide, Nyphea Khun (“call me Pier”). He told me that in the presence of the king you must bow your head and not look at him. He also told me that when he first met him, he peeked a little.
Pier gave me some insight into the lives of Cambodians today. Overall, Cambodia is not as ‘advanced’ as Vietnam but they are on their way. On the other hand, there are far more cars on the street than in Vietnam, in proportion to motorcycles. Crossing the streets in Phnom Penh can be every bit as tricky as it is in Saigon or Hanoi but there are far more stop lights and, overall, the pace of life here is slower than in Vietnam. To me, this just means that when I get hit by a car or motorcycle, there’s a better chance that I’ll see it coming.
I asked Pier about his children (7 & 8-year-old boys). As is the case in Vietnam, the government of Cambodia can’t afford to build enough classrooms and employ enough teachers. As such, children attend school only ½ a day. Many people work multiple jobs in order to pay for their children to attend a private school in the afternoon – usually one with a focus on teaching English.
Tomorrow we will visit a public school in a small village and Pier (pronounced "Pea-uh") says we will be impressed with the English skills of the young students we meet. I don’t doubt it – as in Vietnam, it appears that everyone here has some basic proficiency in English.
Before dinner tonight, a bunch of children aged from 8 – 14 years came on the boat and dressed up in traditional Khmer clothes to entertain us with music, song and dance. The Cambodian musical instruments and music are every bit as strange to our Western eyes and ears as the Vietnamese ones we saw and heard on our first night on the boat but the resulting sound was quite different from the Vietnamese – nowhere near as ‘screechy’ and far more rhythmic.
The girls performed a couple of Apsara dances that were quite stunning. An Apsara is a female spirit who lives in the clouds and waters, in both Hindu & Buddhist mythology. We call them nymphs. They are all over the place, in sculpture, paintings, song & dance. They are beautiful and cultured and mesmerizing.
There was a monkey & mermaid dance that was funny and a circle dance (let’s call it a Hora) that ended their performance which involved members of the audience including Debbie, my own personal Apsara. She fit right in with the children – she’s exactly their size – and don’t think that I won’t be bribing her with the video that I took of the dance at some point. That digital footage is gonna come in handy somewhere down the line, I’m positive.
Because we are moored to the harbour here in Phnom Penh, we are able to simply walk off the boat and into town to explore if we like. Tonight, that meant having dinner in town. You will recall our friends Stacy & Gina. Stacy lived in Phnom Penh for 4 years until she moved to Danang 6 months ago. She gave us tips on things to see and do while we’re here and told us not to miss dinner at her favourite spot, The Chinese House.
If I asked you what you thought they served at The Chinese House, you’d tell me “Chinese Food”. That’s certainly what I thought. Turns out, however, that the Chinese House is so named because it’s located in what was an old Chinese trading warehouse on the waterfront. The food is actually some kind of fusion stuff. And so, when the menu says that the item is called “Something Different Chicken” they weren’t kidding. It was indeed something different.
That said, we enjoyed every dish. Except the tofu. We got sucked in by the description of it as being ‘encrusted with macadamia nuts’. In our heads, we had a way different vision of what that might look and taste like. Mind you, if you like a square blob of plain tofu well, then you’d have been in luck. But that was no never mind because, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The owner (Benjamin) hails from South Africa originally and his Afrikaans melded perfectly with the German spoken by our boat buddies (and dinner pals tonight), Stefan & Heike, who hail from Hanover, Germany.
We have made a bunch of boat buddies over the past 4 days but Stefan and Heike are the ones we invariably hang with. They are a lot of fun and laugh at the same things we do. Stefan works in the aviation industry, ordering and overseeing the delivery of aircraft on behalf of airline companies worldwide.
When I told him about my stint working at the airport in Resolute Bay, NWT he recalled that it was one of the emergency airports that lined the normal flight path over the pole from the Boeing plant outside Seattle to Europe. He told us that airlines paid a fee to have standby emergency landing rights in Resolute Bay when taking delivery of new planes.
Heike is a transportation engineer who specializes in the creation of bike paths. We’ve had a ton of fun making plans for her return to Germany with a radical new plan based upon the traffic management methods here in SE Asia. No need for bike paths, no need for anything – just let it all sort itself out.
To get to and from The Chinese House we used a tuk tuk owned by my new friend Sam. Sam and I hit it off right from the start. The start was when I walked off the boat this morning to get on the bus that took us to see the Killing Fields. The walk was no more than 40 feet. In that space of time, Sam and I formed a lasting bond that consisted of the following conversation:
Sam: Hello, Sir, tuk tuk?
Me: Soor s’day (hello). Arkun (thank you).
Me: Umm, no thanks, we’re going on the bus now.
Sam: Okay, no problem, maybe later?
Me: We are going to dinner tonight at 7:10pm.
Sam: Okay, I will be here and see you and take you then. My name is Sam.
Me: Okay, see you then, Sam.
At 7:10pm when we walked off the boat, Sam was there. It costs a buck per person for a tuk tuk ride. Tuk tuks are called ‘Remorkes’ by the Cambodian government, for no reason anyone can figure out. Everyone else calls them tuk tuks. Here, they are little wagons that seat 4 people (2 benches facing each other) that you climb into. The little wagon is covered, as it rains a lot here, but open sided so if it rains you’ll still get wet.
The little wagon is pulled by Sam’s motorcycle. Sam weaves his tuk tuk, with us in it, in and out of traffic like the pro that he is. Tuk tuks are noisy (they don’t have the same double muffler noise reduction requirements in Cambodia for motorcycles as they do in Vietnam). Tuk tuks are stinky – you get the motorcycle exhaust kicked up into the wagon, along with the exhaust from all the other tuk tuks and motorcyles and cars around you while you idle along at a stately pace in traffic.
And, most important, you need to keep your arms inside the tuk tuk and should not for any reason ever stick them out – oh, let’s say, and just for example, to take a photo with your camera – because you never know when something (oh, say a truck) is barreling up next to your tuk tuk. I’m trainable. I’m sure I’ll figure that out sooner or later.