Friday, May 17, 2013

Going to Cambodia - Best Tuk Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh!

Going to Cambodia

One of the great things about working overseas is that when friends move on to schools in other  countries it is wonderful opportunity to visit these friends and discover new horizons. When my friend and co-worker, Bridget, moved to Phnom Penh I told her that I would come visit her in the coming fall over Chusok Holiday, which falls either in September or October depending on the year. 

Summer vacation took me back to Seattle, then to Portland, Sacramento and back to Portland, to Disneyland and then back to Portland and Seattle again. I returned to Seoul for a few days before I flew to Chengdu where I met Tessa and Adam, and we went to see the pandas. Next we flew to Shanghai for a week before returning to Seoul together. It was blistering hot in Seoul and we mostly dodged into buildings for a bit of air conditioning or waited in long lines for cold drinks. 

School began again the first week of August. I was worn out from traveling so I wrote to Bridget and apologized for my situation, promising that I would make the trip six months later, over Spring Break. 

For an inexplicable reason I became preoccupied with safety in Cambodia. I had heard a few stories of travelers who had problems and I began to think that I best be prepared. I had gotten a passport holder that I could wear around my neck, and rummaged through my drawers until I found my fanny pack. Someone suggested that since we were taking cash, (Cambodia uses the USD in addition to their riel), that we stash it into several different locations. 

I had booked my trip to leave on Friday night after school let out. Normally I would never to do that as I prefer a little down time to rest, organize and pack before I leave. However, Bridget’s time off for spring break didn’t coincide with mine so if I wanted to see her I needed to get there at the beginning of the weekend. Happily another teacher friend of mine, Helen, came along. 

When school let out we jumped on the school bus, and confirmed with each other that we had exactly twenty minutes before we were to meet in the lobby. I flew into my twenty-third floor apartment, threw down my school bags and ran Ruby out to the fourth floor patio where dogs can relieve themselves. As I stepped back into the elevator I was getting that feeling that I always have when leaving Ruby. Ruby’s dogsitter was going to stay with her all week, who she adores, but I always feel a lingering sorrow at leaving Ruby. I stuffed my school bags into cupboards since there is a guarantee that Ruby will chew up absolutely anything that is left out (nicknamed the result  “Ruby Chew”. I wonder if Jimmy Choo fans would appreciate this?). I got my suitcase and my backpack, met Helen and walked the short distance to the airport bus stop. I had only been on the bus for about 5 minutes when she asked if I had the hotel voucher for Siem Reap. I got out my plastic folder to show it to her that I had them, but much to my chagrin realized that my visa documents were not in the folder. Helen told me to be calm and to look through everything. I already knew that if they weren’t in the folder they weren’t there. When we got to the airport, Helen, who is extremely resourceful, suggested that we find a business lounge so that we could reprint the documents. As it turned out there were no printers available. We did check my hotmail account to see if I could retrieve my visa number, but damn! Hotmail had blocked my visa information and the only access I had to it was from a document that I had saved on the desktop of my computer that I’d left at home. Luckily the visa was only about $25 so I decided that I would just have to buy another one when we arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh. (The whole purpose of getting the visa beforehand was to avoid the wait in the visa line upon arrival!). The flight was non-stop and only about five hours, so we had time to relax. The sky was very beautiful as we got nearer Cambodia, ablaze with stars. I was enchanted by the clear night and was even more pleased when I saw a falling star. Only then did I realize that I don’t think I have ever seen a star in Seoul. Granted, I do go to bed quite early, but I think the area that I live in is far too bright, and too polluted, to be able to see stars. 

As we descended the sky became more hazy, but I could see Phnom Penh in the distance. I was extremely surprised to see what a village feel the locale around the airport had. Neat, straight roads were dimly lit and I could see the grid pattern of the area. After deplaning I explained to a man at the visa desk that I had forgotten my visa so would need to get a new one. He told me to go to customs and tell them. I did and the young man at the desk looked very angry and shook a threatening finger at me telling me to go back and pay. I said in a mouse-like voice that I was told to come to this desk. He yelled at me again. Inspiration made me ask if he could access the visa by my passport number. He looked at me with contempt, but entered the number into his computer. Before I knew it he was printing and noisily stapling documents into my passport. I apologized for being so much trouble and got a weak smile from him. 

I had worried about finding Bridget, which turned out to be a ridiculous worry for two reasons. The first is that Bridget is a blonde and stands out easily in a crowd of Asians. The second reason is that the airport was about the same size as the airport in Saipan...tiny! We saw Bridget’s smiling face and waving arms and ran to give hugs all around. She took us into the inky, humid night to wait for her Tuk Tuk driver to circle around and pick us up. I was immediately charmed by Sarom the moment that Helen and I met him. We packed our bags into the little open air trailer, climbed onto the seats, pulled by his motorcycle and off we went. The night air and the happy conversation were pleasant and reviving as we were now at 1:30 AM by our Seoul time zone, although was only 11:30 PM in Phnom Penh. We arrived in a lively neighborhood that was still busy at this time of night. Before we climbed the flights of stairs to Bridget’s apartment we stopped at the “Panda Mart” to get some snacks and drinks. I opted for two beers! I was ready to start my vacation. 

Bridget’s apartment was fantastic. It was an old style colonial design with modern updates, high ceilings, a balcony and plenty of space. The living room had a large corner sectional covered with exquisite silk pillows in a myriad of vivid colors. It didn’t take long before we looked at the clock which told us that it was 2:30 AM! (4:30 AM Seoul time). We headed to bed and agreed to rise quite early so as to take advantage of every moment!

We got up early and had a delicious breakfast of a variety of fresh tropical fruits and coffee. Stepping out onto the balcony I basked in the warm humid air that wrapped itself around me. Watching the activity down on the street and curiously observing a Buddhist Monastery
just around the corner I took a few photos with my camera. The colors, and the hum of street life in the neighborhood were enticing. After we showered and dressed we said our “good mornings” to Bridget’s neighbor walked just around the corner to some wonderful shops. It wasn’t long at all until I had purchased some beautiful leather dress shoes, and had my eye on some some wallhangings and jewelry at another gallery filled with lovely curios made in Cambodia. As we meandered from shop to shop we stepped into shops with lovely silks and beautiful locally made goods. Anyone who has ever done any serious shopping knows that one can really develop an appetite from the exertion. We went to a restaurant that overlooked the Tonle Sap River, merging into the Mekong River. We all ordered fresh fruit smoothies and some local dishes. I enjoyed a local specialty called Fish Amok, which is the national dish of Cambodia. The flavors were delicate and light. Cambodian food is mild in flavor, unlike food from its neighboring country, Thailand which is known for their hot and spicy flavors.

After wending our way through a few more specialty shops we decided to return to Bridget’s via the Palace, which is in her neighborhood. It was so hot that we almost melted! Even in the heat the fuchsia colored blossoms of the bougainvillea were an oasis of color and shade. Before returning to Bridget’s we couldn’t resist the temptation of stopping in just a few more shops.  Helen went ahead to look for a scarf that she had seen that morning. To her disappointment it was gone. It took me all of 2 seconds to make a beeline back to that store to see if the wall hanging that I liked was still there. It was, so with relief, and the joy of obtaining something special, of course I bought it. 

We stopped by the Foreign Correspondents Club for a pitcher of mohitos and a wonderful view of the merging rivers. This three-story colonial style building became very famous during the Vietnam War years since it was the most popular hang out for journalists at that time. The building looked as if it was from a colonial era film. A wooden bar, heavy pillars, ceiling fans and photographs on the walls made me want to come for the afternoon to visit with people or simply read poetry. We watched people strolling along the waterfront and watched many boats traveling on the misty river.

That evening Bridget took us to a French restaurant of colonial style, which was a perfect blend of elegance and relaxation.. After having eaten so much Korean food or whatever western food I am able to cobble together in Korea, the prospect of French food was tantalizing. The menu  offered a wide variety of dishes. The food was delicious, and made me wish that I could move to Phnom Penh without delay! The climate was so enjoyable, the people so warm and friendly, and there was an abundance of wonderful fruits and vegetables which added color and texture to the city scenes! 

The next morning we were up early again! Sarom was taking Helen and me to see The Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly called Security Prison-21, during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. To get there we drove through the heart of Phnom Penh. It was a bustling crowded city with cars, tuk tuk’s and motorcycle weaving around one another and pedestrians. I became very appreciative of Sarom’s excellent driving skills as he expertly avoided all obstacles including pot holes on the road. It was a bit dusty driving through the city but was a pleasure to enjoy the breeze and see the street life unfolding before us. Helen and I talked about Cambodian history and realized that we didn’t know very much about it. I think that this is a good very way to learn. When motivated by my interest and curiosity I look up facts and peruse maps to understand what has happened in the past, the history of a place. When I returned home I was very interested in reading a number of books about Cambodia in the 20th century. We arrived at The Killing Fields where there was an unusual feeling of quiet and stillness. We were able to rent headsets which were indispensable for understanding the history and events that occurred here. There were actually many areas that were called Killing Fields throughout Cambodia. Tragically Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for executing almost one and a half million Cambodian citizens who, because of their education and or political interests were considered to be political threats to the regime. It is believe that upwards of two and a half million Cambodians died from 1975 to 1979 was a result of execution, starvation and disease. As we moved through this area that nowadays resembles a park, it wasn’t difficult to spot bone fragments mixed into the soil that we walked on. There was a stupa erected on this site which contains the bones of many of the victims. Feeling profoundly sad we returned to Sarom and his Tuk Tuk which was waiting for us. We found some cold drinks and enjoying the comfort and shade of the Tuk Tuk engaged in a very pleasant conversation with Sarom about his family, his relatives and his life in Cambodia. He came from the countryside to work in Phnom Penh some years ago and has worked his way up to become the number one tour guide and driver in the city! While we talked and asked questions about his life, there were a number of small children who gathered around us asking for or demanding “a dollar, or “coke.” It was hard to resist their demands, but I held firm since the present thought is that it is not good for the children to develop begging as a way of life. For the old people it is viewed rather differently, since they receive no social security compensation. Next Sarom took us from the periphery of the city back into it’s heart. We went to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum where many young students and other people had been horrifically tortured and killed.
As we walked through the former school, then site of torture, and now a museum it was a bitter walk. Moving from dusty classroom to classroom, which had been turned into sites of torture, were horrific. Next we saw displays of some of the victim’s photographs, bits of clothing and instruments of torture. It was a tragic example of man’s inhumanity to man. I felt no ghosts there, for who, even among the dead would desire to linger there even for a moment? I felt like I was shaking off a dark shadow as we passed through the gates and found Sarom.

Greeted by Sarom’s  winning smile we boarded the tuk tuk and he took us back to Bridget’s home. She had stayed behind to grade papers. After we showered and cooled off Bridget tooks us across the street to a terrific restaurant called Friends. It was so popular that we had to wait awhile, so we opted to wait in their gift shop. What was unique about the shop  was that every item was made of recycled materials. The restaurant is well known for providing job training and jobs for former homeless and marginalized young people since 1994. The food was delicious and the restaurant provided a cool retreat for reenergizing ourselves. As we were eating we noticed many tasty looking desserts being served. Of course, despite being rather full from our meals we each ordered a yummy dessert as well! Now fully revived we ventured forth again into the midday heat. 

We forged ahead to see more sights and to explore more of the ever tempting shops.  Purses, paintings, jewelry, clothing and yards of gorgeous silk fabric seemed to be everywhere. Sarom was, once again, a wonderful guide and took us to many neighborhoods that had various specialties. We didn’t realize that the stores closed so early on Sunday nights so that only meant that we had to accelerate our schedule. You would have thought that Shop till we Drop had become our new motto. Happily Helen was able to locate a green scarf just like the one she had missed out on earlier. One of my favorite shops was a clothing store that reminded me of some of the lovely stores that I have been to in London and Paris. I found a beautiful blouse for my soon to arrive granddaughter and some very pretty and airy clothes for myself. I did get a bit of kidding about buying a size four blouse for an infant, but those of you know know how big the babies are in our family know that probably means that the baby will be wearing the blouse at around eighteen months! My most interesting find was a vintage dress from the mid 1970’s. It reminded me of one that I had years ago that had been a favorite of mine. It was in perfect condition and cost only about eight US dollars. 

Finally when the last of the shops extinguished their lights we adjourned to a nearby bar. A tall cold beer sounded very enticing to me, but after reading the menu there was only one local beer available on tap. After waiting a rather long time the waiter brought us a sample of a very unremarkable beer. It didn’t pass the taste test so we opted for cool drinks instead. Unanimously we agreed that we were still full from lunch so passed on the thought of dinner. 

We wanted to get back to Bridget’s to pack all of our new treasures so that we would be ready for a very early bus ride to Seam Reap the next morning. Bridget was able to take a few personal days and so we were quite pleased that she was going along with us for more fun and adventure.

To be continued. Part II Siem Reap 


  1. Beautiful travel post, Heidi! I didn't know that you lived on the 23rd floor! You must be having a beautiful view! I enjoyed reading about Cambodian history, culture and cuisine in your post. I loved all the pictures too! I was hoping there would be one of the famous tuk tuk too :) Can't wait to read about the second part of your Cambodian adventures!

    1. Dear Vishy,

      I just wrote a reply but am not sure that it actually worked. I'm still a novice at this. Thank you for your kind's funny that I seem to have missed the obvious photo of the tuk-tuk. I plan to start writing part two tomorrow...I should get busy before my memory blurs! Or perhaps I will have to return to refresh my memory!

  2. Thanks for the guided tour of your experiences; your pictures were engaging and your words gave them meaning. Coming of age during the Vietnam War, I steadily read my way through the time period, so your feelings and descriptions are very meaningful to me. Thanks for the adventure.