Monday, February 23, 2015

Phnom Penh's royal palace and a bus ride like no other

We arrived in Sihanoukville, Cambodia's seaside resort. For us this was an access point for Phnom Penh, once considered the "pearl" of French Indochina. It would be a four-hour drive before we arrived there.

In the distance there were mountains shrouded in mist. Along the road we passed many small villages with open-fronted shops selling food, household goods or even motor scooters. White cows belonging to the villagers roamed freely, only going home at night. They are not used for milk, only to work and for beef. The houses were often on stilts, with a living area for people upstairs and for the animals below. The fields looked untended. It was difficult to determine if crops had been taken in as we never saw any activity in them other than some water buffalo foraging.

A rest stop after two hours gave us an opportunity to try some Cambodian coffee, which wasn't too bad. Our ship's captain wanted milk in his and so the lady produced a can of thick condensed milk that she poured in his coffee.

As we moved into the outskirts of Phnom Penh traffic became totally gridlocked with vehicles moving in all directions. There were many more cars than we had seen elsewhere, usually second-hand Toyotas from America we were told. Added to this were the scooters and 'tuk tuks', motorized rickshaws that usually carried four people but sometimes as many as twenty in longer versions. The schools were getting out for lunch in the case of private schools or for the day for the rest. It all added to the chaos. As we had seen everywhere else, there were up to four people on the scooters. Many were loaded up with a variety of goods and we even saw one with a number of dead chickens hanging from it.

Added to this scene was an awful lot of garbage, especially plastic. Thick piles of it lined the roads and it was quite common to see the white cows foraging among this mess. In some places it was burning. It was really disgusting. We had seen plastic in other places and along roadways but not to this extent. There is no recycling in Cambodia and no education about it. The thinking is that you keep your own house clean but beyond that it is someone else's problem. After crawling along for most of the next two hours we arrived at a hotel for lunch. I don't eat much meat anyway, but this was one day that I was very careful to avoid it!

After lunch our bus took us past some fine colonial architecture, parks and along the river until we reached our destination for the day, the Royal Palace. Outside the palace the wide streets had been blocked off to ensure peace for the royals. The king and his mother were in residence, where they had been celebrating his 61st birthday, so we were fortunate to be allowed to visit. In fact we were treated as VIPs; no other tourists had been allowed in. What a magnificent sight with beautifully manicured gardens and magnificent pagodas. We had just missed the king in the Throne Room. We were permitted to peek inside to admire the coronation throne, the everyday throne, beautiful chandeliers and frescoes.

We crossed over to the exquisite Silver Pagoda, so named for the 5,000 silver tiles that cover its floor. Most are now covered in carpet but there were a few spots where we could touch the tiles with our bare feet. The tiles were made in France at the time of Napoleon III. By weight the amount of silver that was sent to France was considerably more than what they got back in finished tiles; however Napoleon did send a huge statue of himself on a horse. The king then replaced Napoleon's head with his own. There are many statues of Buddha in this pagoda but the most magnificent was the diamond-encrusted, life-sized Buddha crafted out of solid gold.

There were many stupas -- funerary pagodas -- where the cremated remains of kings and their families were interred. We entered the palanquin room displaying palanquins that the royals had been carried around in. I particularly liked the life-sized white elephant complete with howda that the royals used.

At the National Museum we saw a fantastic array of Khmer artifacts from Angkor dating back many centuries. It is fortunate that these artifacts survived the Khmer Rouge period during which many were lost or destroyed.

Cambodia's recent history has been extremely turbulent. The country became entangled in the Vietnam war and then in 1975 the Khmer Rouge came to power and began their brutal reign, systematically exterminating 1.7 million citizens, particularly targeting those perceived as 'intellectuals'. Another 1.3 million people died from related causes such as disease, starvation, being worked to death or stepping on mines. Phnom Penh was completely evacuated and all the people were sent to the land as slaves. This was the time of the Killing Fields. The average life expectancy was 42 for men and 44 for women. In 1978 the Khmer Rouge was overthrown and the present government came into power. Although Cambodia is a democracy, and holds elections, the same party has been in power for 35 years. Corruption is rife, life expectancy is still only 62 for men and 64 for women, and although most children go to primary school not many make it to high school and only 8% go to university.

It was time to begin our four-hour return trip. The factories were finishing for the day and we passed many open trucks jammed full with workers, standing room only. It didn't look very safe or comfortable. Most of the workers were women who make $120 US dollars a month, a subsistence wage, with no benefits. The factories make clothes for the Gap, Old Navy, Polo and several other brands that you would recognize. Thirty-five per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

Since it was the end of the working day the roadside markets were even busier than before with people doing their daily marketing. We were moving along quite well until our driving had to come to a sudden stop because a truck ahead of us had hit a wandering cow. After a beautiful sunset we carried on in the dark. The only light came from other traffic, dimly lit houses houses, small piles of burning garbage that dotted the landscape. Finally, we arrived back at the boat. This was after its scheduled sailing time but that wasn't a problem as we had the captain on our bus. It was with some relief that we set out to sea, enjoying a beautiful dinner and thinking how fortunate we were.



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