Thursday, March 13, 2014

letter from Cambodia, #2

Phnom Penh:
Took a sardine can on wheels from Kompot in the south to Phnom Penh in the center of Cambodia. A remarkable drive full of striking images. I recorded 4 pages of notes about people, clothing, architecture, flora, commercial vehicles, and took a lot of video footage. Planning on constructing a video of moving and still images, sounds, text, and voice over, a follow up to the montage I'm writing of the first surreal days here.

What a drive. Traffic is insane. Whoa!

Checked into perhaps the most elegant hotel I've ever stayed in. Took some pix. Antiques in the halls, beautiful old lithographs in our room, and lovely teak furniture. A balcony stretching the length of 2 sides of our large room. Entrance to the room thru a large open exterior terrace. 12 rooms in the whole hotel.

We got settled, and set out for the Russian market, Cambodia’s version of Istanbul’s covered bazaar, tho the passages here are much narrower. Grabbed a bite to eat along the way, a fish omelette for me, a fish stew/soup for Cal, both very good, $3 total.

It was over 90, heat and humidity.  No doubt, it will be another 2-shower day.

Rested and read for an hr or so, then off to find the riverfront and street food, preferably grilled. Funny thing happened along the way. Passed so many interesting restaurants, all upscale. Phnom Penh is a foodie haven. Came to one, La Table Khmer with a sampler for 2 consisting of 2 raw spring rolls, 2 fried egg rolls, pumpkin soup, mango salad, pineapple beef, fish coconut curry,and chicken curry, plus dessert of the day (turned out to be a coconut, banana boba-noodle-like preparation; yow!). Cal was intrigued so we went for it! $18. Amazing; the interior really lovely, and a kitchen that they teach cooking classes in during the day. We photoed it all. So we went from street food to tres chic. Who'd a guessed?

We then continued on towards the river, made a wrong turn off one of the main, and most up-scale boulevards in the city, and 2 blocks later we saw a strange building that defies description. As we got closer it appeared to be an abandoned building, many blocks long, with walls collapsing out and vines or trees growing among the ruins. No. More bizarre than any movie set, it was the most squalid, horrifying 4-story tenement either of us had ever seen. You could look up into tiny decrepit rooms with no exterior front wall, and crumbling interior walls and see people lying in filth, or legs dangling out the front. Cal went up to look inside and a few men came up to confront him. They offered him drugs, then sex  with children. Seems it was one of the centers of child sex/slave trade in Cambodia! I shouted  'No!' when Cal wanted to go in and check the place out, and that generated a few course comments from the pimps. I expected knives to flash at any second. Cal reluctantly turned back. Remember, it had been dark for an hour or more already. We walked a narrow dark alley that fronted the tenement for about 3 blocks. It was lined with squalid shacks made of tin, rubble, and scrap lumber salvaged from the building behind. They were tiny, businesses mostly: sewing shops, vile restaurants, I can't remember what else. People working, eating. Prostitutes staring at us. We were both appalled and shaken. Cal conflicted, as well, about not going in. We turned around, still lost, walked a mile or more in the wrong direction from the river, thru thick crowds and snarled honking traffic, finally hailed a tuktuk who couldn't understand a word we said. Another tuktuk stopped; maybe he grasped where we wanted to go, maybe not. We couldn’t tell. Bargained the price, $2, got in, come what may. He was shitfaced drunk, jabbering non-stop, including an occasional English phrase, or so it seemed, but he got us to the river in a slow weaving motion. We walked the quay silently, trying to grasp the evening and what we saw. But we had/have no context. Dispirited. Everything looked ugly and stupid to me. Took a tuktuk home.

I worked on this email, while Cal wrote in his journal about the evening. There is lovely live Cambodian music drifting in the window from a chic club down the street. There are child sex slaves a mile down the road.


So far from home.

Russian market:

Tuktuk, shop, apartment:

Machine shop and young teenager:

La Table Khmer:

Sex-slave tenement, night:

Street food:

Dessert, a compote of fruit, boba-like noodles, condensed milk, who knows what else:

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