Temple Run #2 – Touch base Cambodia

If you haven’t read the first part, here’s the link: Temple Run #1 

I took the super affordable Air Asia for my maiden solo backpack trip. Big shout out to Deepak who was nice to come and drop me at Hyderabad Airport. Waiting in the airport for  Air Asia counters to open, I went through a wave of emotions what a five-year-old kid would have gone through while waiting for the boarding school bus post holidays.

“Should I cut short my trip?” still felt like a million-dollar question to me.

7 hours later…

@Kuala Lumpur’s Low Cost Container Terminal Gate 2.

“Welcome to Malaysia. Wish you fly with us again”, said the air hostess with the typical fake smile.

The airport is so huge that I can easily spend one day just roaming around. Massive! The hunt for food begins and that is when the reality hit me…hard…really hard.

There is no vegetarian food. Period. Every food has beacon or chicken in it. The staff in McDonalds, Burger King, KFC seems to have not even heard of the word “Vegetarian”. And butterflies weren’t just flying, but rocketing in my tummy. Finally, the outlet “Taste of India” pumped gallons of saliva onto my otherwise numb taste-buds.

Settled for a Masala Dosa with Dal. They do not even have chutney! #FTW

After 7 hours of craziness @ KL Airport…

The sky looked calm as if it was in deep meditation. The clouds seemed to flow like the water in the river downstream. The green lands beneath looked like a large ground full of trimmed grass. There, in the middle of that ground, is the river which looked like a snake making its way to the other end of the ground. It’s called Mekong that flows through the capital, Phonm Penh.

It is a beautiful city with red coloured terraces, wide main roads and narrow side lanes – both jam packed with tuk-tuks and mopeds. This city is a living example of how Cambodians miserably fail as city-dwellers.

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Kuala Lumpur <> Phnom Penh

Each city has its own charm and so does Phnom Penh. The first touch point for travelers like me is the tuk-tuk drivers (auto drivers in India). The tuk-tuk looks fabulous and one would fall in love with this eccentric vehicle. The tuk-tuk drivers gives a short intro about the city, where one can find the night life, how thieves steal on the road and what one should visit in this great city. They do all the talking while their tuk-tuk navigates through jampacked roads with ease. I must agree that they are nice and polite as compared to their Indian counterparts. And I must confess that I felt like a King sitting on the plush back seat and looking at my tuk-tuk make its way to my destination, Mad Monkey Hostel – Phonm Penh.

Mad Monkey is a famous chain of backpacker hostel, much known for its diverse crowd, good service and solid night parties. I was put up with 2 groups – a couple and four future dentists from England.

Yes! Finally, I am backpacking. Alone. Sharing dorm with random people who would disappear every day only to be welcomed by another random backpacker.

Phonm Penh

I always heard about the horrifying stories of how people were tortured, be it Nazi’s treatment of Jews or British treatment of people of erstwhile Undivided India.  But never ever was I in direct contact with any such place or monument that would bring those memories back to life.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is one such place. Former school in the capital city turned into a prison which silently witnessed the sufferings and deaths of thousands of Cambodians, including women and children. The death beds, the tools used for torture, the photos of thousands who were killed and the silent echoes in the deserted corridors still runs a chill down the spine.  The rules of the prison bear a testimony of the gruesome rule of the Khmer Rouge. The classes were filled with red bricks bears a testimony to how worse the situation of finding a skilled labor in Cambodia during the years 1975-79. A 100 sq mt block would hold up to 3 prisoners who were chained with their hands and legs stretched. They were given 2 spoons of rice grains a day, sometimes once or twice in a week, which served as their meal. The Khmer Rouge soldiers would sprinkle water from a pipe into a room filled with prisoners so that they can have their bath. Every day, hundreds of prisoners reach Killing Fields from this school to end their suffering.

The museum had a lasting impact on me. Post this visit, the way I looked at Cambodians changed forever. Just stop someone on the road, ask if their dad or mom or their close family member was killed during Khmer Rouge, they would have a story to share. Such was the horrifying days of the brutal rule that changed the demographics and the future of Cambodia forever. Almost one-third of the entire country’s population were killed.

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Top left: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum classroom, Bottom left: Classrooms converted into prisons, Bottom right: The child killing tree @ Killing Fields, Top right: Skull, bones and clothes unearthed @ Killing fields

Then, I visited the Killing Fields to witness the place which houses thousands of dead bodies of innocent Cambodians. It was not an act of split second anger but well-orchestrated killings. The place where children were hit against the trunk of the tree to kill them in one blow and how the soldiers took turns and played this like a sort of game shows that these killings were no less when compared to the holocaust of the thousands of Jews by Nazis. Sadly, the West always gives a step-brother treatment to the eastern countries and this was hardly escalated until 22 years post the end of Khmer Rouge rule.

To get back the feel-good factor, I went to watch the Traditional Dance show in National Museum in the evening where an NGO is trying to keep the culture and the art forms of Cambodia alive. Magnificent show! The Night Market is a place one must visit to experience the night-life and see the Cambodians open-air theatre DJs. The river front of Mekong would always be there to listen to your making it a great place for mid-night strolls.

The first day in the far-away land was well spent. The best thing about travelling alone is that you would always find a companion – a new YOU.

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Phnom Penh Night Market

The second day is all about exploring the city meeting tuk-tuk drivers, strangers who would want to steal money in the name of charity and excited kids who wants a photo of theirs taken. The unknown streets in the city welcomed me with open hands and the by lanes enhanced the curiosity to explore the adventurer in me. Each street had a story to tell and I was all ears to listen to them. The random wandering finally brought me to the Royal Palace of Cambodia. The abode of the King! The supposedly seat of power in Cambodia!

The gates were opened in the afternoon. The army of selfie takers and photographers marched through these gates to attack every Buddha statue and the building in the palace with their tongues out and their lips pouting. The Palace lush green gardens were well maintained with trees whose branches were trimmed to add to the beauty of the place. The Green Jade Buddha in the Golden Pagoda made this trip to the palace a memorable one despite the army of selfie takers throwing tons of stupidity.

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Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The evenings at the Sisowath Quay is something I looked forward to. The life on the river bank is a melting point of Cambodian age old culture and the new changes that Cambodians are embracing. The boat rides, street vendors, couples holding their hands while walking, the young kids playing, families taking their group photos and tuk-tuk driver waiting for the passengers…if someone loves spending time doing nothing but just watching what people do, This is the place!

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Sisowath Quay, Phonm Penh

Exploring the city helped me visit places not on the circuit like US Embassy Road, The French Building, Royal Cambodian Railway Station that opens only during weekends, The mysterious tall building of Cambodia, HQ of Canadia Bank, PM’s residence and the sunset from the railway station. The moped rides are no less exciting than the tuk-tuks.

The day long wandering in the streets made me feel like one of them. Back in the dorm, I was again with a group of unknown people but this time, it was FUN. 2 hyper-active girls from Singapore who came here to party, 2 guys from Italy who were backpacking SEA circuit and a confused Spanish teacher from Dubai trying to finish his backpacking trip on a high note are my new dorm mates. We headed out to the nearest happening place and the rest is something that needs an entire post to write. So, I’ll leave it at here.

Thank you, Phnom Penh!

To be continued…  

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