Monday, December 24, 2007

Day 6: Historical Phnom Penh

Breakfast at the Pavilion

the main building and swimming pool

The next morning, we got up early. There was lots to see and lots to do before the heat became unbearable. Breakfast at the Pavilion was served at the poolside cafe, the perfect spot to enjoy the lush garden and the odd bird.

oriental magpie robin

Breakfast for two was included in the price of the room. The only catch with it was that it had to be a continental breakfast - pastries, juice, fruit, and a hot beverage each, no sausage, eggs or bacon. We didn't miss the latter - the bread more than made up for the lack of meat. You have to give it to the French - their former colonies produce the best bread. Good coffee, great bread - what's not to like?

served with butter and jam


passion fruit juice, a French obsession according to HM

part of our daily quota of fibre and vitamins

The City of Phnom Penh

Having emptied the bread basket, we were ready to face the world. Or at least Phnom Penh. In the light of the morning, the city seemed a completely different place. By night, the city had seemed a little seedy, a little dangerous. The streets, even in this most central of areas, weren't terriby well lit. The pavements, with their slightly uneven surfaces, offered the occasional protrusion for unsuspecting tourists to stub their toes against. The walls reeked of urine. It was all a little depressing. By day, what was old and rundown, nay, decrepit even, provided a certain pictureque quality to the place, a certain charm. In the days to come, we would find this to be true even in the more local, less gussied up areas; we certainly couldn't accuse Phnom Penh of being sanitised or antiseptic.

The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda

Today was the designated sightseeing day for the Phnom Penh leg of our trip. Our first pit stop was the Royal Palace and within its compound, the Silver Pagoda.

the boulevard outside the Royal Palace

at the palace gate, well, one of them anyway

THE image most associated with the Royal Palace

portrait of King Sihamoni, the current monarch

the plaza opposite the palace

students on a field trip

Inside, the Royal Palace was a heady mixture of the kitschy and the extravagant. The halls were filled with plenty of royal memorabilia, right down to the incongruous, like the teapot collections.

echoes of Bayon?

who dropped this building here?!

east meets west

strangely reminiscent of St Petersburg

a dispenser or a wash basin?

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday... (I'm not kidding)

a royal stupa

the Silver Pagoda, renowned for its silver-tiled floor

a home for some

St Petersburg, again?

still a place of worship

why bother climbing up Phnom Bahkeng or taking a ride on the Angkor balloon (yes indeed there is one) when this view is available here at the Royal Palace...

royal thorn amongst the roses

what a wonderful world

traditional costumes

HM's favourite scene from the Reamker (the Khmer Ramayana), the Churning of the Sea of Milk, reproduced here in the palace compound

There was also a special exhibition commemorating the ascension of King Sihamoni to the throne.

a tableau depicting the coronation of King Sihamoni

why does that look Catholic or Greek Orthodox?!

the court

the man himself or at least his wax replica

a lucky cat i.e. one that brings good fortune (the Cambodians consider tri-coloured cats to be lucky)

While our visit to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda was entertaining, it wasn't exactly educational. Perhaps we should have hired a guide.

The National Museum

The Museum

The National Museum next door on the other hand was chockful of interesting artifacts and displays. Even though we had already been to the Angkor Temple Park, we found lots to marvel at. The displays took visitors from the prehistory of the region through to the heights of Angkorian civilisation, and then abruptly stopped there. There was nothing on modern Cambodia, let alone the turbulent history of the last 80 years.

The only thing I was bummed about was not being able to take photographs inside the museum. I only realised this after I had paid the US$4 fee to bring my camera in; photographs were only allowed in the grounds of the museum, not in the buildings.

not exactly the most modern of museums

Lunch at Friends

We took a much needed breather at one of Phnom Penh's culinary institutions, the Friends restaurant, right round the corner from the Museum.

Inside Friends

Mith Samlanh, the organisation behind Friends, runs programmes for street children. Coming out of 30 years of war, Cambodia has more than its fair share of children who live and/or work on the streets. Friends is one of Mith Samlanh's ventures which seek to train street children in vocational skills so as to improve their employability and give them and their families a chance at a viable future.

the menu at Friends

Friends serves its food in tapas-sized portions, presumably so that patrons can sample more of its specialties. Looking through the menu, we had to concur: tapas-sized portions were a good idea!

strawberry and green peppercorn martini

pineapple, mandarin orange and ginger fizz

sundried tomato hummus on crispy wantan skin

grilled vegetables with tapenade (olive paste)

cucumber and mint salad

cambodian chicken curry

crepe with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce

Friends had got it right. A meal at this restaurant was no hardship tour for bleeding heart liberals trying to change the world one good deed at a time. Even dry-eyed conservatives who think that everyone, including the limbless, should pull themselves up by the bootstraps would have no problems parting with their hard-earned cash here, as long they are genuine foodies of course. The food was seriously good.

After lunch, we decided to go next door to the Mith Samlanh centre where there was a thrift shop. After all, our bill at Friends only came up to US$21.

Mith Samlanh

We try not to buy a product that we don't need or use a service that is substandard, just so we can make a donation. In our books, that would be condescending and, ultimately, insincere. Having said that, we still came away with US$31' worth of stuff like bibs, story books, t-shirts, post-cards (featuring the children's artwork), and, get this, a School Atlas of Cambodia complete with Teacher's Guide!

Back to the Pavilion

By this time, it was past noon and too hot to be outside. HM had wilted so we trudged back to the hotel. While HM had a nap, I had a mission. My job was to accost the cleaning girls who hung around the annex and offer them a bag of laundry to do for us. That was part of my plan to reduce the amount of luggage we would have to lug with us on our two day trip to Sihanoukville, that and leaving a bag or two in the Pavilion's store room. Hey, there was a lot of Angkorian dust on those clothes!

The Pavilion itself did not provide a laundry service. In the words of its management, it preferred to allow the guests to deal directly with the service staff, so that the locals would have an additional source of income. There was in fact a laundry just down the road from the hotel, but we liked the look of these girls who went about their duties so cheerfully. As HM put it, they had yet to develop the calculativeness of their counterparts in the region's big cities.

Tuol Sleng

Mission accomplished, I retired to the room to find HM up and about. As we pottered around the room, the shadow of Tuol Sleng loomed large. How could we visit Phnom Penh without going to the infamous Khmer Rouge security prison turned genocide museum? And yet, a visit to Tuol Sleng isn't the kind of thing one looks forward to. HM, she whom I had to drag to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, in particular wasn't keen. We sat around and did some reading, until we could ignore the elephant in the room no longer.

Outside the Pavilion lay several tuk tuk drivers in waiting. We picked the one with the most honest face whom, just between us, we took to calling "Uncle".

riding across town

It took less than 15 minutes for us to reach Tuol Sleng, the former Security Prison 21 or S-21. From the outside, the place looked most innocuous which made it all the more disconcerting. A school building initially, it had been appropriated by the Khmer Rouge after the fall of Phnom Penh to incarcerate and/or otherwise eliminate enemies of the regime. Ironically, the bulk of its victims were the Khmer Rouge themselves, at least the elements considered to be "traitors to the Revolution".

rules and regulations

The Khmer Rouge meant business. It was estimated that something like 17000 prisoners were held there, in small cells carved out from the building's many classrooms. The prisoners were interrogated, tortured and eventually killed, at Tuol Sleng itself or, later on, at Cheong Ek aka the Killing Fields. In any case, only 12 people are believed to have survived.

where prisoners were bashed

the gallows

the victims of Tuol Sleng, as documented in the Khmer Rouge's own meticulous records

There was an excellent exhibition by DC-Cam (Documentation Centre, Cambodia) comprising photographs of some of the victims accompanied by excerpts from their life stories as extracted from their "confessions" or as told by their surviving relatives. It gave a human voice to what had transpired there, particularly since many of the victims were themselves at some point the perpertrators.

vilified and hated

After emerging from the various displays, we sat in the playground and pondered: what kind of madness would drive a people to fall on themselves like that? It was a question that had no easy answers. As dusk fell, we left the premises, to find Uncle waiting for us. The ride back was a quiet one.

passing by the Independence Monument on the way home

Apsara Dance at Souvanna Phum

The visit to Tuol Sleng left us with knots in our stomachs. To alleviate the unease, HM suggested that we try and catch another apsara dance. There was one that night by Souvanna Phum, a community-based performing arts troupe.

Stepping out of the hotel, we didn't see Uncle, so we gave the job of driving us to the venue to a different tuk tuk driver, a younger man who insisted on waiting for us. When we told him that we had no idea how long we would take, he said confidently that he would be back an hour and a half later, to pick us up.

Souvanna Phum's premises were nondescript. Except for the fact that it was one of the few lit places along the generally dark road, there was little to indicate that one of Phnom Penh's better known cultural events was about to take place.

The place was empty, save for the two people manning a makeshift ticket counter within the compound. We bought our tickets, US$5 per head, and then took a stroll up and down the road in search of food. There was none to be had. We headed back to Souvanna Phum, hungry.

a piece of Down Under in the vicinity of Souvanna Phum

inside the Souvanna Phum space

We wandered around the small foyer space for a while before settling down in the seats. Despite the seeming lack of patrons, we were told where to sit. We had lots of time to take in the small stage (circa 1970s Singapore primary school), the hard wooden benches and the primitive lighting system. THIS was community theatre!

the bare basics

the musicians

We waited in anticipation. Remarkably, the seats filled up. It was a full house - ang mo expat families with kids in tow, obviously out for the cultural exposure. Some of our fellow audience members came with sandwiches and drinks. Clearly, they had been forewarned!

The seats may have been hard, but this was the real deal. While the repertoire of dances was similar to that of the Siem Reap debacle, the quality of the dancing was clearly superior. The gestures were more refined. Even the folk dances were earthier.

evidence of real skill

Rama and Bro again

more flirting

"You want the magic ball? Come and get it..."

tea-plucking up in the hills

in the darkness there was light

looks Filipino somehow

The evening drew to a close and not a moment too soon. I was starving. Our tuk tuk driver was waiting to drive us back to the hotel, but we had made up our minds to end our day at Comme ala Maison, one of Phnom Penh's most well-known French restaurants.

Comme ala Maison

a cosy outdoor space

We found Comme ala Maison amidst a stretch of what looked like residential buildings. (Most restaurants in Phnom Penh seemed to be housed in former homes.) Fortunately for us, the kitchen was still open, so we managed to place our order, despite the lateness of the hour.

green salad with fried duck liver

baked chicken leg with onions, herbs and fresh pasta

roast duck leg with green olive sauce, and spinach and cheese ravioli

the bread the bread the bread

green apple sorbet

The food at Comme ala Maison was good solid fare - we certainly couldn't accuse it of nouveau cuisine - and we enjoyed it all the more for having waited so long. The damage? The bill only came up to US$29.

As our tuk tuk driver drove us back grumpily ("You said one hour. Now two hours..."), our minds were still abuzz. From the extravagance of royalty, to the horrors of genocide, it had been a stimulating day indeed, with much to digest.

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