Cambodia's assault on senses
THE river reminds me of cabbage stew.
Whiffs of fermented fish for making fish sauce assault my nostrils every now and then.
Fishing boats dot the expansive river and on them, families huddle at the back napping.
I am on a speed boat travelling from Chau Doc in Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
It is a pleasant five-hour journey cruising through the soup that is the Mekong River.
The Mekong Delta is enormous. The scenery of poorly built wooden houses on stilts, where sights of children bathing in the river next to women doing their washing at the beginning of the journey transform to paddy fields towards the end.
As the boat approaches Phnom Penh, the horizon changes again - it is now occupied by rising skyscrapers.
Evidently, foreign money is pouring into this former French colony that sits on the banks of three major rivers, once known as the "Pearl of Asia".
I walk through the streets that hug the riverfront and observe my surroundings.
A tuk-tuk driver dries his vehicle of rain water before soliciting new customers.
Girls, no more than six-years-old, carry baskets of hand-woven bracelets and CDs, looking for purchasers.
A mix of locals and tourists walk along the promenade chatting, laughing and taking photos.
It's hard to fathom that behind this vibrant waterfront is a city steeped in unspeakable pain.
Former Khmer Rouge leaders are today still awaiting trial at a UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh for their violence and inconceivable brutality.
The Pol Pot regimen of cleansing those who posed a threat to their party (notably those who were successful, educated, skilled or opinionated) saw a quarter of the country's population exterminated in a matter of days with tens of thousands more tortured and killed over the years.
The scene today is of locals living the best way they know how, but memories of anguish remain raw and very much alive.
The faces around tell a story of the unshakable sorrow and misery they once had to endure.
From the gloom of Cambodia's past, I head into the maze that is Central Market where a treasure or ten can be found. Clothes, accessories, gadgets and gizmos, fresh food and kitchenware occupy the many isles that form the market.
High-pitched calls of "you buy something?" become the theme song as I stroll through.
As a visit here should be equipped with energy, good bargaining skills and patience, all of which I left back at the hotel, I go on a leisurely cyclo tour to visit the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, Wat Ounalom Pagoda and the Post Office.
Not only is this the best way to get oriented, it keeps this traditional mode of transportation alive.
Faced with competition from tuk-tuks and taxis, cyclo riders are being phased out, which is a great shame as they contribute to the city's romantic charm.
For great sunset views, I head to the FCC.
The French Correspondent Club may be overpriced and food less than average, but it is airy, clean and home to an amazing collection by celebrated photographers of yesteryear.
It is here that I mingle with others and continue my education on Cambodia's dark past, progressive present and bright future.
IF YOU GO
Footsteps in Asia is a specialist Indochina and South East Asia tour operator, featuring some of the best and knowledgeable local tour guides around.
Visit www.footstepsinasia.com or call 1300 664 331.
Award winning low cost carrier, AirAsia X offers cheap flights to Phnom Penh via Kuala Lumpur.. For more inforamtion visit www.airasia.com.