Phnom Penh or Beirut?

Beirut, or Phnom Penh?

Sometimes, when you get up in the morning, its easy to be confused about where we are – the streets here seem just like the scenes of Beirut we used to see in the 80’s. Everything just seems a charm-less mess.

And it also seems that everything is improvised – take the Toyota Camry above – when you’ve got a car, you can’t let it just sit around doing nothing all day – this one appeared to double up as a washing line and a drying rack for left-over rice. The Toyota Camry is the workhorse car of Asia, just like Peugeots used to be the car in Africa. The Camry’s are all over Asia, and seem to be able to withstand the rough roads pretty well – despite the atrocious condition of the dust road between Poipet and Siem Reap, our Toyota had belted along at 60mph, bumping over potholes and rocks without seeming to notice them. I’m amazed we’ve not seen them broken down beside the road all over Asia.

There is no limit to how much a motorbike can carry

The other vehicle that is everywhere is the motorbike, most popularly the Honda Dream. We don’t really see them so often in England, but here in Cambodia there are probably 10 times more bikes than there are cars. And they are used to carry the most ridiculous loads, often stacked high and wide behind, under and in front of the rider. This bike was on its way to deliver a load of flat-pack cardboard boxes for recycling (they’re collected from shops on the street, and then collectors earn a quarter dollar for every 25 kilos).

It’s our last day in Phnom Penh, and after seeing the Royal Palace (architecturally very similar to Bangkok’s Grand Palace, but smaller and without thousands of people blocking every view), we wandered through some of the run-down temples in the district. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, monks were either killed or forced to abandon their robes and return to normal peasant life, and the temples were left to ruin or systematically destroyed. The evidence is still to be seen in the conditions of some of the temples, while others have been restored and repainted in garish colours.

Everywhere you go in South East Asia, you see monks of all ages

For our last evening, we ate at the famous Foreign Correspondents Club on the banks of the Mekong. During the 90’s it was the hang-out for the many journalists covering the Cambodia story, and I guess it was a pretty nice place to come after a dusty, hot day. Sitting on the balcony, watching the sunlight fade on the wide Mekong River, and with a beer in our hands, we could imagine the scene inside was pretty much unchanged over the last years. The menu even transported us home, with roast chicken and mash, spare ribs and steak sandwiches on offer (and came in portions sooo huge we ended up wasting over half of it).