Phenomenal Phnom Penh

After Angkor Wat it’s time to move on again, letting Siem Reap fade in the rear view mirror and looking forward to Phnom Penh.  Another day and another bus, story of my life lately! 

Our tour team selfie
Not sure he liked all the loud English spoken around him
Our chariot, half way to Phnom Penh

As I was watching the countryside scroll past me out the window I had a sense of déjà vu that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I found myself smiling.  And then it hit me:  What I was seeing was the real life version of a childhood fascination.  When I was about eight years old I learned that in some impossible-to-imagine place on the other side of the world people would live in houses built on stilts, letting them spend the day in hammocks in the shade under the house or keeping the floor dry when the flooding comes.  I remember vividly thinking this was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to live in a “treehouse without the tree”.   Fun to witness it almost exactly the way I had pictured as a kid!

While in Phnom Penh we learned about the horrific period in Cambodian history during the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regimes.  Heartbreaking doesn’t even come close to describing the devestation inflicted on the country, where in a four year span roughly two million people lost their lives by execution, starvation, exhaustion or war.  We visited the memorial at the Killing Fields as well as the Genocide Museum housed in a former detention prison, and I think each of us struggled to contain our emotion while hearing about the atrocities committed by the regime.   I find it really difficult to write about; on one hand I believe it’s important to share and educate people about such shocking events, and on the other I’m afraid to do a disservice to the victims due to my own ignorance.  Hearing from our local guide some of the facts and personal stories made me want more information.  If you would too, here’s two websites I’ve been reading through to learn more: Killing Fields or  Khmer Rouge 

A former school transformed to an execution prison
Bracelets left as blessings at one of the mass graves
Killing Fields memorial, built as a Buddhist stupa

I don’t know the real significance of the memorial stupa, but to me it evokes a graceful sense of hope in the soaring height of the pillars.  (A stupa is a sacred structure that contains the remains of the deceased.  Inside this one are more than 5000 carefully preserved skulls.) 

Emotionally drained by the weight of the Killing Fields, I had wanted only to escape to my hotel room and disappear into a novel for a while.  On the walk back, though, I spotted a beautiful spa promoting massages, and almost before I realized what I was doing I had Tricia and myself booked in.  We didn’t really know what to expect of a Khmer massage, complete with a guava and rice milk scrub, but the whole place just seemed so serene.  That is, at least, until our awkward nervous giggles broke the tranquility.  Tricia and I were led to side by side tables and instructed to take off everything – everything! – and to cover with the towel set on each table.  Feeling sheepish that I apparently booked us a couples massage, we did our best to swallow our giggles and just enjoy the treatment.  And as soon as the massage began I forgot about anyone or anything else…  My masseuse was a tiny beautiful woman who seemed to possess superhuman strength, which she used to wipe out knots I hadn’t even realized I possessed.  Once my muscles were sufficiently tenderized, jasmine and lemongrass oils were massaged into my skin.  First time I’ve smelled so nice since I left home I’m sure!   Next came the body scrub, and I was impressed with her ability to keep my modesty intact as she deftly folded the towel to only expose the limb she was working on while basically giving me a sponge bath with guava fruit.  The final step had her massaging a thick and grainy paste all over me.  Toes to nose my skin glowed baby soft!

Scene at the spa waiting for us after the massages were complete

Dinner together with our group this evening had been hotly anticipated (or dreaded, in Tricia’s case) as our guide Joe had promised to take us to a place that served spiders.  As we arrived, I think everyone breathed a small sigh of relief to see it was a really nice restaurant.  Just as we were placing our drink orders there was a commotion at the table beside us, and we got ringside seats to witness a plate of three tarantulas being eaten by one brave tourist.  So we couldn’t let our table be shown up, and ordered our own dish of horror to share among us.

Our order of tarantulas

The most surprising part of this story isn’t even that we ate huge and hairy fried arachnids – it’s that it actually tasted really good!  If you want to know what it’s like but don’t see yourself getting here, just imagine a big mushroom with a crispy coating and delicious peppery citrus soya sauce.   This was Tricia’s show, and everyone including the people at surrounding tables, was invested in her ability to overcome her phobia and take a bite.  After she finished her first bite spontaneous applause broke out! 

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