A Few Days in Phnom Penh

Hello again!

I apologize for how slowly these posts seem to be going – It’s already been almost 2 months after the fact, and I’m sitting in a hostel in central Vietnam, writing this over my holiday for the Lunar New Year.

But that’s a story for another day, one that I should work on getting out a bit faster this time…. But now, back to Cambodia.

When Pace and Lisa took off to rejoin Pac Rim, Annin and I kept going, flying from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. While we spent time in Cambodia during Pac Rim, we had been in a completely different part of the country, Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat). This time around, we decided to check out life in Cambodia’s big city, and visit a few of Annin’s relatives.

The independence monument, a short walk from our hostel
The independence monument, a short walk from our hostel

Getting off the plane it was immediately apparent I was no longer in Vietnam. For two countries that share a border, there are so many differences between them! First off, there are way more cars in Phnom Penh than in Vietnam, and Phnom Penh has tuk tuks, which are basically rickshaws with a motorbike attached.

Anyway, after traveling by tuk tuk we got to our hostel (the “Top Banana”) and settled in, then went out and about with Annin’s cousin. We had a lovely introduction to Phnom Penh’s awesome food scene with burgers and beer at an expat-run place near our hostel, and over the next few days we would continue to eat delicious food of all varieties. It really amazed me that Phnom Penh, which is both a smaller and less developed than Ho Chi Minh City, has such a vast and tasty food culture. While we were in PP we ate Indian food, homemade tacos (with real cheese!) and cupcakes, and of course a variety of Khmer (Cambodian) foods, including a delicious donut thing that I can’t quite explain, but really want to try again.

View from the hostel - a bit of new meets old, telephone wires and monasteries
View from the hostel – a bit of new meets old, telephone wires and monasteries

 

Anyway, on our first night in town we set out to celebrate New Year’s Eve with Annin’s cousin. We went to a house party, then tried to find a club, but ultimately ended up at a rooftop bar where we watched fireworks and rang in the New Year. When we got back to the hostel we quickly realized that it was truly a backpacker joint, and we weren’t really backpacker types. There was a roaring party going on till the wee hours of the morning, but luckily both of us are pretty good sleepers. We woke up the next day, if not feeling refreshed, then at least we weren’t terribly tired/angry. We also decided it was a good thing that we settled on a private room (which was still only $10/night).

 

After sleeping in a bit, we went out for Khmer (Cambodian) food that was delicious and cheap, then visited the Russian Market. Not one to ever leave a shopping venue empty-handed, I picked up a number of scarves and various trinkets to give out to friends back home (whenever I actually get home… still figuring that out, guys!). While Annin’s cousin, Patrick, was really great at helping us haggle, the market was still a bit exhausting, and so we picked up tons and tons of tropical fruit, and brought them back to Patrick’s house to sample. All of it was delicious, and even though I’ve been living in the delta for a while, there were some fruits I’d never tried. The red dragon fruit was particularly interesting…

 

A red dragonfruit!
A red dragonfruit!

The rest of the day was a lot of sitting in traffic (which Phnom Penh has, and pretty bad. Too many cars and lots of narrow streets do not mix) and eating more delicious food. That night we walked around town, from the royal palace to the riverfront, and all sorts of other places I can’t quite remember now. We walked and talked and checked out the scenery for at least 2 hours, which was wonderful. I love traveling with Annin because we have a similar attitude about what we want to do, and both of us are happiest when we can just go with the flow and take our time to enjoy things. Even though we only had a few days in the city, neither of us were interested in rushing to fit in every single museum or sight, and by just being willing to walk anywhere and everywhere, we still saw quite a bit of the city.

 

After our long walk we returned to the hostel to redeem the complimentary beers that came with our room, and took in the views from the rooftop bar. We turned in early and began mentally preparing for the next day, our trip to the Killing Fields and S21 Prison.

 

If ever you find yourself in Phnom Penh, I highly recommend visiting these two sights. The Killing Fields in particular gives an extremely moving and informative account of the Khmer Rouge genocide that devastated Cambodia in the 1970s. I hate to say it, but before visiting the museum I knew very little about the Khmer Rouge, and walking through the Killing Fields was a bit of a shocking experience. For those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar with the Khmer Rouge, here is an extremely brief history:

Essentially the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) won a five-year civil war in 1975 and attempted to create an utopian society by starting over at “year zero”. Angka, (“the party”) drove everyone out of the cities and back into the countryside, because agriculture was considered the only honorable type of work. They rounded up and killed all scholars, old government officials, monks,  people who spoke a foreign language, and anyone they viewed as a threat to the new agrarian utopia. People were moved around into forced labor camps, and over the course of four years, close to two million people died either from starvation, execution, or from various diseases related to the horrible living situations. If you would like to learn more about the Khmer Rouge, you can read a bit about it here and here. I also highly recommend the book, “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him, which the account of a survivor of the labor camps. It’s written in a very readable style, though the content is obviously harrowing.

Memorial Stupa for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is lined with skulls and bone fragments of the victims, each one marked to indicate how the person died.
Memorial Stupa for the victims of the Khmer Rouge. It is lined with skulls and bone fragments of the victims, each one marked to indicate how the person died. (You can just make out some of the skulls in the photo, right above what looks like the door)


But as I said, this was a particularly emotional and difficult visit. The Killing Fields Museum is a bit out of the city, and each visitor receives headphones to go on a walking audio tour of the actual site where thousands were killed and then buried in mass graves. The thing that really struck me, as I was walking around, were the signs that told me that due to the environmental conditions, bones still occasionally surface on the path, and please do not touch of step on them. And as you walk, you will absolutely see bones on the path, and it is a horrifying way to realize that what happened here was really not so long ago.

The Killing Tree. I was holding it together pretty well until this point. (trigger warning - this next part is gruesome). This tree was used to kill infants, because the Khmer Rouge's motto was, "Better to kill an innocent my mistake than to spare the guilty by mistake. Children were killed to prevent revenge vendettas, and in this spot they would literally grab infants by the legs and smash them against the tree, then throw them into a mass grave.
The Killing Tree. I was holding it together pretty well until this point. (trigger warning – this next part is gruesome). This tree was used to kill infants, because the Khmer Rouge’s motto was, “Better to kill an innocent my mistake than to spare an enemy by mistake.” Children were killed to prevent revenge vendettas, and in this spot they would literally grab infants by the legs and smash them against the tree, then throw them into a mass grave. The colorful bracelets have been left as offerings for the victims.

 

I could keep going, but I’ll spare you more gruesome details. Suffice it to say, I walked away with a lot on my mind.

 

We went back to the hostel and took some time to process everything, then set out for the second museum of the day, S21 Prison. This secret prison was the most notorious of the Khmer Rouge’s secret detention centers, where they would torture prisoners, and once a “confession” had been given, send them to the killing fields. Unlike the Killing Fields, the museum is not particularly well managed, but the location speaks for itself. The prison was originally a school, repurposed by the Khmer Rouge, and you can walk through makeshift cells used to hold prisoners. The juxtaposition of what the building was created for, and what it became is striking. The most memorable part, however, are the rooms filled with photographs of those killed within the prison. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of those whom they murdered, including transcripts of “confessions” and photographs.

 

In the S21 Genocide Museum. Faces of the top members of the Khmer Rouge have been scratched off, presumably by survivors and their relatives.
In the S21 Genocide Museum. Faces of the top members of the Khmer Rouge have been scratched off, presumably by survivors and their relatives.

We wandered around a bit to take everything in and After the museums we had dinner with Annin’s family, and it was great to end the day with positive conversation and good company (and also homemade tacos and cupcakes). We discussed the current state of Cambodian politics (being one of the most corrupt governments around) and went back to the hostel with full stomachs and minds.

 

Our last day in Cambodia was a bit more relaxed, and mostly consisted of walking around and some souvenir shopping. At some point I realized that I had left my iPhone at a café for breakfast, which was truly unfortunate. Just when I had given up hope of recovering it and accepted its loss, I returned to the café on the off chance that they had found and saved it, and they had! I was very happily surprised, and took off for the airport feeling incredibly lucky.

 

All in all I had a great time exploring Phnom Penh, and I’m glad that I was able to learn more about the history of the region. Special thanks to Annin’s relatives for the wonderful hospitality and delicious food!

A Wat (temple) near the hostel
A Wat (temple) near the hostel
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Dalat, Day 2

On the second day of our trip to Dalat we had decided to ride a cable car into the mountains, see some waterfalls, and then take a tour of local farms in the afternoon. But before all of that, we started our day with breakfast at the homestay.

Breakfast at the hostel was a do-it-yourself type deal, with omelet supplies readily available, and plenty of bread and Dalat strawberry jam. We came down a bit late so most of the guests had already left. This meant we got to spend the morning with one of the house residents, an older woman who spoke no English and had no intention of letting that stop her from having full conversations with the guests. She would speak to us in Vietnamese with plenty of gestures and expressions, and we would do the same in English. She was by far our favorite person at the homestay, with a huge personality and a lot to say.

Coffee beans laid out to dry
Coffee beans laid out to dry

After breakfast we took a taxi to the base of the cable car, where we took in a lovely view of the city, and came across sheets of coffee beans, drying in the sun. After snapping a few pictures and wondering who the beans belonged to, we made our way to the cable car and rode up with an Israeli guy who told us all about his travels. The views were lovely, and I was really enjoying being in the mountains after months of life in the delta.

The city of Da Lat
The city of Da Lat

At the top of the cable car we found our way to the monastery, which was nice enough. Mostly we wandered through the gardens, watched other tourists (mostly Russians), and enjoyed a nice, sunny day.

Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery
Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery

After walking through the monastery we decided to walk to the waterfall, which we were told was about 2 kilometers (roughly 1.2 miles) away, and definitely within walking distance.

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Now, I should say that in Vietnam, if you ask for walking directions almost anywhere, even just a few blocks away, people think it’s weird. People pretty much take their bikes or motos everywhere. So, when the woman at the monastery assured us the walk was short, we believed her. Turns out we shouldn’t have, since the walk was way longer than we had anticipated. But after about an hour of walking, with a few pit stops for dried fruit and fresh persimmons, we found the waterfall.

Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall
Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall

The first thing we noticed is that we had to pay to see the waterfall, which was a bit strange, but we accepted it and went in. Once inside the gate, at the top of a hill, we saw a sign for a “roller coaster” that could take us down the hill to the waterfall. Lisa and Annin were really excited about it, so I set aside my fear of roller coasters and decided to give it a try – it was more of a toboggan slide than a roller coaster, and I was put in charge of the break. The ride was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. Annin and I were screaming the whole way, but I used the break every time we passed a “break!” sign, which was probably a good idea – some of the turns really made me think we might fly off the rails (though that probably would never happen…. right?).

Toboggan on the way back up - no screaming this time.
Toboggan on the way back up – no screaming this time.

But anyway, we all made it safely to the bottom, where we admired a very nice waterfall. Before we went up to the waterfall, we saw that there was yet another cable car, and since we had bought tickets for every other type of transport that day, we figured it was probably best to ride this as well. The ride was super short, and it took us to a smaller waterfall. There was nowhere to go, but there was a glass elevator built into the rock, and for another fee we could ride the elevator down. We all decided this sounded a bit absurd, and we rode back to the main waterfall.

Pretty!
Pretty!

As we were looking at the big waterfall, we noticed a man dressed as a monkey wandering around. We weren’t sure exactly why he was there, but Annin went to go take a picture with him. He promptly turned around when she walked up to him for a picture, which we assumed meant he wanted us to pay for the photo (though he never said anything, or did anything to suggest we pay). We went ahead and took pictures with his back turned, and right after the photo below was taken, he angrily shoved Annin away. While we were standing next to the drop off for the waterfall on slippery rocks. She was totally fine, but we were a bit shocked.

Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin
Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin

Since everyone was alright we laughed it off and took the “roller coaster” back up the hill, since it had a suspension deal that pulled us back up. We headed back to town and had lunch by the lake.

IMG_2611 In the afternoon we went back to the homestay and the owner lead us on a walk through the neighboring farms. The terrain was a bit treacherous, and another guest who was walking with us slipped and fell down a hill leading to the strawberry plants. He was alright, but after that we were all very cautious.

Strawberry fields forever
Strawberry fields forever
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills

We walked through fields of flowers, stawberries, broccoli, and countless other plants that I have since forgotten. We walked around for over an hour and the scenery was lovely. At the end of the tour we watched the sun set over the farms and went back to the homestay to cook dinner.

Dinner at the homestay
Dinner at the homestay

Flowers, Friends and Mystery Foods – Goodbye Da Lat!

On our final day in Da Lat we made plans to ride an old train from the town station out to yet another temple. It was extremely touristy, but all of us love trains, and hey, we were on vacation! So we ate breakfast with the family and other guests at our homestay and took a taxi to the train station.

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Now, if you find yourself in Da Lat and want to ride the train (which is very cute, if a bit overpriced and really short), don’t try for the 11:50 train. It is a lie. We looked online beforehand and chose this time based on our collective desire to sleep in, and because at the bottom of the website it said that the train would run so long as there was a certain number of people signed up. I can’t remember what that number was, but it was close to 4, which was the size of our party. We arrived and were told that, in fact, the train would not be running at that time, because actually we needed 25 people. This seemed… suspect, but no amount of arguing would change their minds. We decided that they probably wanted a lunch break, and resolved to go to the flower park while we waited for the next train.

Not the train we rode on, but a cute flower train in the Flower Park
Not the train we rode on, but a cute flower train in the Flower Park

On our way to the flower park, we walked into a small coffeeshop called “audiophile coffee.” They had massive antique speakers and played jazz. It felt like walking into a Murakami novel… After some refreshing coffee and ambiance we made our way over to the flower park.

Flower Park
Flower Park

I had assumed this would be a big botanical garden, but the name actually says it all – it was a sort of flower amusement park. The whole setup was fun, if a bit bizarre, and we had a good time exploring and taking pictures. I’ve included a number of flower photos below, because they really were beautiful.

Playing around in the Flower Park
Playing around in the Flower Park

After we finished up at the park we returned to the train station and boarded the afternoon train. The train itself was nice, and we had a nice view of the farms as we made our way out of town.

View of the flower park
View of the flower park

Once we reached our destination, we knew there were two temples we could visit. The one advertised by the train was the porcelain temple, made up of mosaics. The other, which I had read about earlier, was a temple for a unique religion that sounded like a blend of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. We really wanted to find this one, but when we asked for directions everyone just assumed we were looking for the porcelain temple, so that’s where we ended up.

porcelain monastery
porcelain monastery

In the end this was totally fine, as the temple was beautiful, and I love mosaics. We spent 20 minutes or so wandering around, then returned to the train and went back to town.

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Porcelain details
Porcelain details

That evening we decided to skip dinner at the homestay and see what we could find in town. We walked through the markets looking for dried fruit, teas and souvenirs. I learned that my bargaining skills aren’t what they used to be, but I still walked away with some dried kiwi.

walking back to the train
walking back to the train

After the market we walked around town, going in and out of shops and generally just looking around. At this point we met a series of animals. First, an adorable puppy, which kept me busy while Annin was doing responsible things like printing our travel documents. When a little girl from our homestay came by and took the puppy’s attention we moved on to a shop selling fruit jams and baby clothes (not sure about the combo), and we started talking to the shop’s owner. I’m not sure how this came up, but she mentioned that she had a pet turtle, and would we like to see it? So we said sure, and she walked over and took him out from under a rack of clothes, where he had apparently been sleeping. He had a sticker that said “STOP” over his tail, and another traffic sticker on the side of his shell, and the woman kept tapping him to wake him up. The whole thing was a bit odd, but funny. After talking with her for a while she gave us dinner recommendations and directions, all with the turtle sitting on the map. We said our goodbyes to the turtle (whose name was something like “shelby”) and decided to check out the place she recommended, since it was only a block away.

Getting directions from a turtle and his owner.
Getting directions from a turtle and his owner.

Naturally, on our way to the restaurant we got sidetracked by shops, and so we decided to check out a leatherworks shop with bags, wallets and belts. Inside someone was holding a guitar, and Lisa convinced him to sing us a song. I forget what song he played, but we all sang along and had fun. We walked out with a few new goodies, and then decided not to go to the restaurant recommended by the turtle.

Serenaded at the leather shop
Serenaded at the leather shop

After a long and confusing search for Pase, who had left us to do some work in a coffeeshop, we ended up at a barbecue place with some…. unique offerings. The menu listed “clones” as an appetizer, and “goat tits” for barbecue. Naturally we ordered both, along with a few more recognizable dishes. The “clones” turned out to be freeze-dried frogs (not my favorite, but I gave it a shot), and the goat tasted more like pork rinds, so who knows what it actually was. All in all, we had a tasty meal, and afterward we went next door for waffles and hot chocolate. A great way to end the trip.

Trying "clones"
Trying “clones”

The next day we flew back to Ho Chi Minh City, where Annin and I said our goodbyes to Lisa and Pase. But hopefully not for long – I’m still hoping to see them again before the year is out! We’ll see what ends up happening…

Goodbye to Lisa and Pase - We hope to see you again soon.
Goodbye to Lisa and Pase – We hope to see you again soon.

After a bit of discussion, Annin and I had decided to take a plane to our next destination, Phnom Penh, rather than taking a 7-hour bus. We were very happy for the change in plans, and after a 20 minute flight we had made it to Cambodia – which I’ll tell you all about, next time.

And now, a few more photos!

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Dragon at the flower park
Dragon at the flower park

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My favorite face at the porcelain temple
My favorite face at the porcelain temple

Welcome to Da Lat!

After departing from Ho Chi Minh City by plane, Annin, Lisa, Pase and I made our way to Da Lat – a city in the central highlands known for strawberries, flowers, and cool weather. It’s also more of a destination for domestic tourists, and is often skipped by foreigners, which is a big mistake in my opinion.

Cloudy sky over pagoda #2
Cloudy sky over pagoda #2

Flying in it was very clear that the area was going to be beautiful – we could see mountains and lakes from the air. The drive from the airport was also beautiful, even if the cab driver made a mysterious call in the middle of the drive, handed us the phone and a voice informed us we would have to pay d30,000 ($1.50) more than the taxi voucher said. Despite our protests, when we arrived at our homestay, the taxi driver was adamant, and eventually we had to give in. This is a pretty common occurrence in Vietnam – many times you can get a taxi voucher from the airport with a flat rate for taxis, but they will try anything and everything to get more than you paid for, since they can pocket any extra money, rather than going through the airport service.

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In any event, we arrived safe and sound at our homestay, and were immediately given a delicious lunch of homemade noodles, and the owner of the business, Hoang, told us all about his decision to turn his family’s house into a homestay, his tour offerings, and a bunch of other information. It was all a bit overwhelming, so we retreated to our rooms and decided to just walk into town by ourselves, rather than take him up on a tour.

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The homestay was a bit out of the way, but it was a nice walk into town. On the way we passed three different pagodas, all of which were very interesting. The first was very pretty, and we saw monks walking across the grounds and praying in a nearby building. Walking around, a man informed me that the bonsai trees cost several thousand dollars, which was very impressive, but unfortunately he couldn’t explain t to me why there were two topiaries in the shape of teapots… I suppose this will remain a mystery.

No clue why this was in a monastery...
No clue why this was in a monastery…

Pagoda number two was attached to the first one, but was rundown and seemingly abandoned for the most part. It was clear that people maintained the altars, which held fresh flowers and offerings, but the rest of the facilities were in disrepair. It was a bit eerie, wandering around, but also very beautiful.

A sly looking elephant at the abandoned temple
A sly looking elephant at the abandoned temple

The final pagoda was probably the strangest. We were drawn in by a giant sculpture of a dragon, which we could easily see over the gate and down the street. This thing was massive! It circled half the grounds, and was quite a sight. And it wasn’t the only spectacle – the entire pagoda was littered with sculptures and paintings of various Buddhist stories. Honestly, we thought they had something for every single Buddhist story, from the life of the Buddha to the Journey to the West. It was fascinating, and we all wandered around testing our memory of each story depicted.

A bit of scale - this dragon was HUGE and wound all around one half of the grounds. I'm standing next to only one portion - it was too bit to fully photograph
A bit of scale – this dragon was HUGE and wound all around one half of the grounds. I’m standing next to only one portion – it was too big to fully photograph

After taking a plethora of photos at the monasteries, we walked into town in search of the lake. We never actually got there, but we did wander into an awesome bakery where we purchased everything with an interesting name, and a few things that just looked great. We kept wandering around, but eventually had to call it quits in order to return in time for dinner at the homestay. We found a taxi and set out, but after a few blocks it became clear that the meter was rigged. We debated what to do for a minute, and decided to call him out on it. We told him to pull over and hopped out of the cab. The price was double what it should have been, and we refused to pay. We started walking away and the taxi driver, angry at our decision, started following us, and tried to cut us off by driving up onto the sidewalk. We continued walking around him, even when he tried this at least three more times. When we got to an intersection, he took a right, headed in what he knew was the direction of our homestay. We promptly took a left, and walked on until we realized he had given up and driven away. The whole experience was a bit scary, but everything was fine in the end. Most of the areas were well lit and crowded, and when we got out we realized where we were, and walked the remaining distance to our homestay without incident.

An interesting statue and a very expensive bonsai
An interesting statue and a very expensive bonsai

Dinner that night was a group affair – we helped cook curry and a few other dishes, then sat outside with the other homestay guests, plus people from the hotel down the street. There must have been 15-20 people total, and it was a bit awkward, but the food was tasty. That night we played cards and proceeded to eat all of the baked goods, some of which were better than others. One particularly memorable item was a “coconut cake” that tasted like mashed potatoes… not what I was expecting. After Annin crushed us in the card game, we decided on our plans for the next day and went to bed.

It's all about the details - a porcelain mosaic dragon with wire whiskers
It’s all about the details – a porcelain mosaic dragon with wire whiskers