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Vietnamese revolutionaries wave us goodbye
Posted Sunday, 27 August 2006
It's fair to say that as Wendy and I left the really rather Westernised and comfy confines of Vietnam for Cambodia I began to kak my pants somewhat. We were heading to the land of civil war, genocide, extreme poverty and where, famously, people with landmine shorn limbs would wheel themselves after you down the street begging for money

To prepare ourselves, on the way to the border, we embarked on a spending frenzy of about $5 buying some peanut cracknel and biros to give out to any Cambodians that should pass our way. Realising a had a rather large wad of Vietnamese dong notes (in a culturally-sensitive kind of way we would often refer to the Vietnamese currency as 'Ding-Dongs') I exchanged most of them with a bunch of ladies at the border who promised me an exchange rate not a million miles away form the HSBC branch in HCMC. Not knowing whether Cambodia had banks, let alone exchanged ding-dongs, I readily agreed and was handed a much smaller pile of your everyday currency in the land of the Khmers - US Dollars.

We chugged through the Cambodian countryside and the change was evident. House are made of wood here and sit on stilts above sodden paddy fields, the hammer and sickle was replaced by a multitude of signs for political parties and the pointy conical hats had transformed into a series of jaunty scarves laid around neck and head. And then we stopped. And we were mobbed. Young teenagers knocked on the window incessantly pointing to there plastic ice-filled containers of cans shouting: "Fantail, Coke? You want some?" 'No, thanks", I replied, "Does she want some then?" pointing at Wendy. And then teenage boys would come right on the bus and sell locals Cambodian celebrity magazines which, aside from the Khmer script and unidentifiable stars, could have been last week's Now.

The bus moved on and several hours later we entered a rain lashed Phnom Penh.
We were sent to the OK Guesthouse and for $2 a night we had a double room, DVD lounge, restaurant, internet cafe and even a souvenir shop - a first in a guesthouse. Admittedly the door wouldn't close on our room, but as the hotel staff leaverd off the door and sanded t down they taught me the finer points of the Khmer language. Even so, it took a full 24 hours before I dared leave the confines of our backpacker fortress. I watched a Hugh Grant film instead.

Bit I should have left my room earlier fro Phnom Penh is a fab city - possibly one of the nicest French Indochinese capitals built. It nestles beside the Mekong and has grand boulevards and big houses aplenty. The Royal Palace dominates the centre while the enormous amount of diplomatic/NGO/charity staff mean a beer, a latte, a gay bar and internet cafes are a plenty.

But there are two things that you can't miss in PP. 1, the poverty, and 2, the genocide. Although less than we expected there was a fair whack of limbless booksellers, children selling bits and bobs and one man did indeed wheel another man on a stretcher along the prom begging for dollars. Feeling somewhat hopeless Myself, Wendy and Doug (for he'd rejoined our gang now) spent an afternoon in an orphanage. Tucked inside what was literally a shanty town it was a somewhat humbling sight. But the kids were overjoyed to see us and I quite wore myself out throwing five year olds in the air. We bought their carers rice and meat and we bought the kids pens and I spent several hours drawing Man U and Arsenal football badges for soccer-obsessed boys while Wendy hung out with the teenage girls cos they wanted to look cool.

The other obvious thing that happened in Phnom Penh was the mass murder of the Cambodian population. If you want to know the full story go here: As the victorious Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in 1975 they told the locals the Americans were about to bomb the capital they evacuated everyone. The intelligentsia and government supporters were murdered in various gruesome ways, and everyone else kept their heads down. The people starved and the Khmer Rouge’s dream of a completely self-sufficient agricultural society began to wither like the crops in the fields. Unable to believe it was their brutality and philosophy at fault, began blaming anyone they could see for Cambodia's shortcomings including fellow generals. To survive you collaborated and grassed people up for things they hadn't done. And if you were grassed up there was no trial. You were either killed on the spot or taken to Tuol Sleng High School in PP (often with your family) where you were either tortured to death, or tortured and then taken to the Killing Fields outside PP and murdered. This continued until the Vietnamese invaded. However, as Vietnam was Communist, Thailand and the US ensured the Khmer Rouge kept Cambodia’s UN seat and supplied them with weapons so they could wage a bloody decade’s long civil war which planting the land mines which still maim the population. Whilst touring all the genocide sites we were asked if we'd like to go and shoot some big fat guns. Maybe a tin can, a chicken, or, for a few dollars more, a cow? No, we replied, many, many times.

Aside from that PP really is a very nice place – quiet overall but often charming and bustling. We went and ate fine food, not so fine food, went to bars and in one club called Apocalypse (the classiest in all Phnom Penh) saw someone from Casualty being chatted up by two Khmer women. He left not long after, and then returned somewhat flushed. Naughty porter.
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