Tuk tuk sir?! – Food, people and past of Phnom Penh (6-10 Dec 2013)

Our first encounter with Cambodia was in its capital city Phnom Penh. As soon as we got off the plane we got fully submerged in it’s intriguing life and culture. It’s a city of tuk tuks, great food and free wifi.

As soon as we got off the airport we jumped on a tuk tuk which took us to our hotel and in those first minutes I got fascinated with this totally new exotic place. I fell in love with its food and most importantly people who smile in such an honest warm manner that I just can’t help but smile back. And I mean it. But let me start with the food.

The food is delicious and omnipresent on every corner and in every form. From shabby street food stalls to fancy hotel restaurants, from a small food cart to a huge maze of a local market. We tried them all and the most rewarding was always eating with the locals in small street corner eateries. Local food consists mostly of rice and noddle plates and soups. What’s new to us is that they basically eat the same meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner or at least it seems so to us. Never before we had rice with meat and stew for breakfast and in here it starts to be a regularity. Food is also so cheap here. It seems that locals prefer to eat street food than cook themselves because it’s affordable and good. We pay $1-2 for a meal at a stall or at local eatery or $4-5 in a western restaurant, which is still not much, but the difference is the company of white tourists which make the experience less exotic. Needless to say we tend to look for local food. It’s healthy, nutritious and cheap. For example milkshakes here are made of whole fresh fruit and a little bit of milk not some watered down flavoured milk. Cambodia is a poor country, but they eat well. At the beginning we were cautious about fresh fruit, vegetables and ice. Yet in the first two days we tested everything. Nothing ever happened except overeating. Now we eat everything we see from anywhere, cooked by anybody. What a joy! We are still learning how to eat their food of course and need lessons from waiters and locals, but we’re getting better. As for now we are addicted to sugar cane juice and ice green tea. Food scene of Phnom Penh is also famous for it’s weekend night markets where we had dinner three days in a row. We had awesome fried sea food, veggies, spring rolls and ice cream, sitting on floor mats, surrounded by families and delicious smell of cooking food. Paradise!

Getting from our place to the centre took us 15mins by walk, otherwise getting to more remote places took much longer and would be doable in cooler weather, but with 35 degree heat the only way to get anywhere was by tuk tuk or a motorbike. We tried both on many occasions and were always left gobsmacked by the traffic. Streets were congested and people on bikes and motorbikes seemed to drive in all directions on right, left and in the middle following rules known only to them. Strangely nobody got hurt. Everyone had a motorbike here. We saw families of 4 on one motorbike, as well as teenage couples, monks and elderly ladies. Nobody walks apart from tourists like us that still believe that walking is easier. Yet riding a motorbike around the Monument of Independence feeling the wind in the hair and the heat dissolving with rising speed is an unforgettable experience.

In Phnom Penh we saw many people living on and from the street. By this I don’t mean beggars. There are very few of them considering how much poverty there is. People instead of begging find a way of earning a few Riel here and there. They would sell food, drinks and snacks or offer services. The best service we have seen so far is weighing. There is an elderly lady sitting on a pavement of riverfront with a scale. Why bother spending money on your own scale if you can check your body weight on the street paying a Riel? So practical! One thing that struck me about street life is that many kids walk around selling souvenirs, bracelets and small groceries. Teenagers on the other hand can often be seen working in garages, street eateries and shops. And then going crazy on motorbikes in the evening :) )

Still it’s much better to see them working than seeing young girls in front of night clubs waiting for customers. Unfortunately sex is cheap in Cambodia and sex trade is a million dollar business. The red light district of Phnom Penh is in fact massive. Both in the city centre and suburbs there are many clubs for gentlemen only and young slim girls in mini skirts advertising them. I don’t even want to think about their lives. I’m just sorry that they don’t have, can’t have or don’t want to have another choice. Whichever way it is, it’s wrong.

But sex industry is not the only aspect that disturbs me in Cambodia. Another one is it’s history. I can’t grasp the violence that happened here only 30 years ago under Khmer Rouge regime. What hurts most is that Cambodians were killing Cambodians. Without mercy and humanity. In only 4 years they killed 2 million people, wiped out whole cities, destroyed agriculture, schools and culture. Before Khmer Rouge regime there were 7 million people living in Cambodia, in 1979 there were only 4 million left – 2 million lost their lives and 1 million sought refuge in other countries. What was left was ashes and pain from which Cambodia still hasn’t recovered until today. Everywhere we go we hear ‘this is how it was before and this is how it is now’. 30 years have passed, but the country still suffers from poverty, parts of cities stand in ruin and education system is not as good as it used to be. All that for Marxist ideals of Pol Pot and his army of teenagers trained to kill. The methods they used for interrogating, torturing and killing innocent people were unimaginable. It was pure brutality. When asked why he chose to join Khmer Rouge one peasant teenage boy said “Because carrying a gun is lighter than working in the field”. But how can a human being smash babies against a tree in front of their mothers? And yet it was a common killing method in the Killing Fields were the remains of thousands people – men, women and children – lie until today. What were they guilty of? They were intelligent, foreigners or had links to royal family. Pol Pot needed a stupid nation to work in the fields and factories. He wanted to transform Cambodia into work camp of China. Artists, teachers, monks, directors, people speaking English, people with soft hands and whiter skin, they were all a threat and so were killed together with their whole families so that nobody could seek revenge. Wearing glasses was enough to get killed. People were accused of working for CIA or KGB, tortured and beheaded. Bullets were too expensive those days so the weapons they used were simple farming tools like shovels, bamboo matches or just wooden poles. Young soldiers of Khmer Rouge were killing their neighbors and family members. Later on, after Khmer Rouge was overruled only generals were prosecuted. Khmer Rouge soldiers were thought to be brain washed by the propaganda of Pol Pot and did not face trial. Pol Pot himself died at the age of 82 of heart attack and in the 20 years after Khmer Rouge regime was still involved in politics. What hurts me most however in all that brutality is that in whole 4 years nobody stopped Khmer Rouge. UN and the US sat back and watched, Italian Emergency was the only one to send humanitarian aids. Pol Pot was recognised as lawful ruler of Cambodia and other nations could not or did not want to intervene. It was the Vietnamese who stopped Khmer Rouge and helped Cambodians recover from disastrous famine. Vietnam was itself shuttered by the war with America and suffered from famine, yet gave an order to each family to give a cup of rice for humanitarian aid for Cambodia.

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National Museum, Phnom Penh

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Buddhist Headquarters, Phnom Penh

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Central Market, Phnom Penh

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Central Market, Phnom Penh

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Central Market, Phnom Penh

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Main Pagoda in Buddhist Headquarters, Phnom Penh

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Main Pagoda in Buddhist Headquarters, Phnom Penh

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh

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The Cheoung Ek Genocidal Centre, The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh province

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The Cheoung Ek Genocidal Centre, The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh province

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Tuk tuk ride in evening rush hours of Phnom Penh

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Tuk tuk ride in evening rush hours of Phnom Penh

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Tuk tuk ride in evening rush hours of Phnom Penh

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Tuk tuk ride in evening rush hours of Phnom Penh

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Street eatery, Phnom Penh

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School boys feeding fish in National Museum garden, Phnom Penh

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School boys feeding fish in National Museum garden, Phnom Penh

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Buddhist monks strolling in front of Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Little boy selling corn to passer-bys in front of Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

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