Minor edits to protect the guilty..........
My 30th birthday was at the Correspondent’s Club, a place that has been in business since the French were in charge here. Set overlooking the river, it was one part Rick’s Cafe American, one part Bowery Bar. I had a $15 steak (which wasn’t bad, although Lugars has little to worry about), Caesar salad (with the egg) a glass of Shiraz, a Monticristo No. 3 and a glass of Laphroig 10 yr. I am sorry that none of you were there to share it with me, but I suspect that some of you would have done me ill had you been, especially as the "expensive" beer is $1.50....
I have now been here 3 days, and I have settled into the pace of the place. That is not to say that I know or understand Cambodia at all, but rather I have figured out how to move about here, how to say no - to the taxi drivers, the bar girls, and assorted other sales people- and actually have my meaning conveyed, how to cross the streets (something I used to take for granted, even in midtown...), etc. Phnom Penh is a small city, one that could be walked around in a day. There are 4 or 5 major sites in and around the city, so one need not kill oneself on a day after day basis to get things done. Further, all of the government sites, the palace, museum, and assorted Stupas are all closed for a long 2 hour lunch break at midday.
With that in mind, the first day of my 4th decade started slowly, with a rather simple plan: Explore on foot, end up at the river, perhaps see a national site, have lunch, and go to the Killing Fields, about 14km outside the city. That I managed to keep to most of it was bonus.
The day was glorious, low 80s, sunny with blue skies as I set out south from the hotel along one of the major grand boulevards that runs through the city. Lined with government buildings, banks, and stately hotels, it is clear that despite the current condition of the country, there was once a time when Cambodia was thriving and new (and judging by the architecture, it was from the late 1800s to about 1950). In fact, on several occasions, I found myself walking quieter, tree lined boulevards that caused me to think of St. Charles in the Garden District.
The city is set out running north and south along the western bank of a confluence of rivers, the tonle sap, and Mekong. To the north west of the city center is a large lake that, like the riverside, has become the principal place where westerners stay. It was in this direction, away from the river, that I turned. Soon, I was turning onto a muddy, unpaved road, not more than 2km from the city center, and it was clearly into another world. This was more like India, or rather less like the west than either Thailand or that part of Phnom Penh I’d previously seen. Piles of garbage, naked babies running about, stray dogs, open sewers. People were friendly, and curious (there were many open states), and I got many more smiles from folks here. Still the lack of even basics was obvious, especially as I turned down a set of abandoned railway tracks and followed them into an old rail yard where thousands of Khmer live in squalid, muddy, poverty.
At several points along my walk I decided to turn around rather than stray too far a field, as I was the only western face I saw in that part of town, and at some points the relatively wide road narrowed down to 2 or 3 feet across, leaving me with the choice of walking into a gauntlet or choosing another route. I have not had any sense, personally, that there is danger in this city, but there are numerous reports I have read concerning how many guns are left over from the war, and how often they are used in armed robbery. Thus, I decided not to tempt the fates any more than need be.
Eventually I made my way to the waterfront where I decided to go to "Happy Herbs Pizza, Since 1994" for lunch. The pizza (I had pepperoni) wasn’t bad AND I managed to do the Sat. Sodoku (I was pretty stoked). After lunch, I negotiated a 3.50$ ride out to the Killing Fields with a motorcycle taxi. The road most of the way is paved, but once we crossed a one lane bridge (one that had rotted so much that is was reduced to wooden planks spanning the wheel paths with holes large enough to drop small children into the river below on either side) onto a side road, and the going got much rougher from there.
The Killing Fields themselves are the location of but a small piece of the Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge legacy. It was there that over the course of 5 years, about 8100 people, men, women and children, were taken after being held in a prison in Phnom Penh. Deemed to be enemies of the state for any number of reasons, they were beaten to death to save bullets. The bodies were then buried in a series of mass graves.
Today, all that remains are a series of holes in the ground that were the exhumed graves, and a large Stupa, rising into the sky. Within the stupa, one can find most of the bones of the victims, stacked upon the shelves like books in a library. I am not a expert in dead bodies, but it was apparent even to me that some of the skulls I saw had been subject to severe trauma.
On the way home, traffic had picked up, so it was a bit exciting, as I was constantly making sure I was not tipping too far to one side or the other and trucks snuck up on us from behind. Upon arriving at the hotel, it got more interesting still. As I sat in the lobby reading , there was a loud bang and crash and suddenly there was a motorbike sitting in the lobby of the hotel. He had smashed his way through the front door. Nobody was hurt, but under the circumstances, I was enraptured by the whole event and its aftermath.