Sunday, 21 July 2013

Day Twelve - Phenom Penh - Cambodia

We woke up early in our hotel in Phenom Penh so that we could go and visit the Royal Palace before there were any crowds. The palace was just across the road from our hotel so we walked over there just in time for the gates to open. We opted out of having one of the tour guides as there is enough information in places like this to make your own way round usually. Unfortunately, with the Royal Palace there is no information boards or annotations for buildings as you go around. However, a lot of it was self explanatory it just meant I had to look up some information after the visit.

They Royal Palace consists of a number of different building within the Palace grounds that serve as a residence for the king of Cambodia. It was built in 1866 by King Norodom and is now home to Her Majesty Preah Reach Akka-Mohesy Nordom Monineath Sihaonok, Queen of Cambodia.

Within the palace grounds are the coronation hall which is used as an open air hall for the royal dance troupes, a balcony for royal appearances as well as an open air pavilion for the king to view his movies. The Kings private residence is also within the grounds hosting a collection is Cambodian artwork from around the world. There is also an office where royal duties are seen too.

We spend a couple of hours wandering around the grounds looking at the beautiful architecture and watching some young monkeys playing of the rooftops and bathing in the water fountains. We then returned to our hotel and picked up a moto to take us to the Russian market.

This market is located to the south of the city centre and has a maze of stalls selling everything you could possibly need under a sea of tarpaulin. You enter through busy stalls selling clothing which has often fallen off the back of lorries from factories producing apparel for European and American brands and retailers. Jamie picked up a pair of Levies for a few dollars and that was without even bartering! You then pass through jewellery, food stalls, homeware, trinkets, baby products then finally we were in an area that sold mechanical products. At this point I decided to leave before I lost Jamie and we headed back to our hotel to have lunch and relax before our bus picked us up to take us to Battambang.

We had reserved tickets on a mini bus that would take us the 280 km and 5 hours to Battambang. The bus arrived on time at our hotel and we loaded our luggage on board. We set off picking up a few other passengers on route through the city. Our last stop we picked up a group of middle aged French guys who were instantly unimpressed with the lack of space and kicked up a bit of a fuss. However, they boarded the bus and we went on with the journey. You get used to cramped methods of transport here, it's just the way it is and if you don't like it (like we didn't in Saigon) you get a driver instead!

Jamie managed to get a seat in the front of the minibus up with the driver and me just behind where we both had a little more space. These were the only seats left but actually worked out the best ones. I sat next to two other travellers from America one of which was native Cambodian and could speak the language. I got talking to them as the journey went on.

We drove through some beautiful countryside with rice paddies and dense misty palm jungle the whole way. We follower the river more of less most of the way which was beginning to flood now as it's the start of the wet season. All the houses are on stilts with little shutters, some in a much better state than others. We also passed through the shanty town of Phenom Penh on the outskirts of town but people still seemed happy and had water and food supplies unlike the shanty towns I had seen years back in Mumbai. The people here are just very very poor - it's very different here to the feeling you get in Vietnam.

We stopped half way for a twenty minute break and to stretch our legs. The French guys again started kicking up a fuss though I have no idea what they were expecting to change this far into the journey! The roads here are a lot less chaotic than in neighbouring Vietnam with less vehicles and it's a slinky less bumpy ride too. Shortly after setting off a again we must have hit a pot hole or something (though I didn't notice it any more than any other part of the road) One of the guys that had been complaining at the back had grabbed the curtain and ripped it off it's rail - he said it was because the bump was so hard that he had to hold on for safety (this is debatable). This really upset the driver who screeched the bus to a halt and got out and went crazy.

I was glad I was sitting next to the American that spoke Cambodian as he was able to try to calm the driver down (though this didn't work) but at least managed to translate what was going on. Instead of the guy who damaged the curtain just apologising he wound the driver up even more saying it's too cramped and uncomfortable. The driver was shouting none stoop abuse at the top of his voice that begun to make us all feel really unsettled. He then got the guys bag out and tried to throw him off the bus. He then insisted he paid $300 to get the curtain repaired too. After we managed to persuade the driver to at least go to a town we carried on with the journey.

The driver was now really in the rage and drove at top speed zigzagging through the bad roads nearly missing dogs and children along the way. It was truly frightening but it was a situation where if we questioned him we too would risk being chucked off the bus. We were also in the middle of the countryside with little chance of getting a lift to town still over 100 km away and it would be dark in less than thirty mins. We held onto our seats and breath and just hoped we would make it. The driver kept cursing and shouting every so often but the guy next to me managed to persuade him that he should take them to Battambang.

The driver calmed a bit and agreed to take us all to Battambang. He was now going to drop us all of in town and then drive the French guys to the countryside and sort them out! We got off the bus at the first stop with our new friends and decided to carry on with our journey independently from there! As we got off we told they guys what they were in for but before they could get off the driver started shouting and locked the door and drove off with them. Hopefully with more of them than just him on his side they were OK but who knows. When in Cambodia do as the Cambodians I say - as the guy next to me said 'there's no law here'. If you get into trouble here there will be a long wait for help!

We arrived in town about seven thirty and couldn't get a feel for the place as it was dark. It's supposed to be the second biggest city here but it feels no more than a rural village with no street lamps anywhere and few real buildings. We ate in a shelter with some gas stoves that severed a wonderful stir fry and served gin and tonics all for less that a few dollars then went back to our villa and got some sleep!


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