24 June 2012

The dark side of Cambodian Buddhism

Curtains of barbed wire
I usually blog about Buddhism or Buddhist temples, monasteries and related topics. However, having been in so many temples in Cambodia I have heard "Khmer Rouge" so many times, that I ended up buying a book to read more about it and it happens rarely, but I read all 500 pages in one go! I was pretty speechless after I finished the book "Surviving the Killing Fields". 

Prison rules
Going back to Cambodia and visiting Phnom Penh temples and southern Cambodian Khmer temples, I was not sure if I even wanted to visit the S21 prison and the Killing Fields, which are covered in every guidebook. I left it open with my tour guide if I even had enough time for it. 

But learning that during the Khmer Rouge regime nearly two thirds of more than 3.000 temples got destroyed and the rest were damaged and desecrated and that only 3.000 monks of 65.000 survived the 4 years of genocide, I changed my mind. The Buddhist sangha, the teachings and believes were virtually annihilated from a Nation, which built some of the greatest temples in the world. 

Blown up Buddha image
In Udong we visited the impressive temple of Vihear Preah Ath Roes with it's huge Buddha statue inside, which were both blown up by the Red Khmer with only sections of the building and parts of the Buddha remaining. Reconstruction work was going on while we visited and we made donations to support those efforts.

Prisoners at S21
So, I decided that I would visit the former Tuol Svay Prey High School, which was turned into the Security Prison 21, where more than 17.000 people were held and tortured before being taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. My guide and I visited several of the rooms where prisoners were held and interrogated and where many had died. It was an unbelievable experience and thinking that this had happened in my own lifetime made it even more realistic than other genocides, which happened in the past and I could only read about. 

Killing Fields
At the end of our visit to the rooms and buildings we visited the Documentation Center of Cambodia where I met with two of the survivors of the prison, Mr. Chum Manh and Mr. Bou Meng, who both published books about their stories to make sure it is not forgotten by future generations (or even today's generation).

"Killing Tree"
After the S 21 prison we went the long way out of the city to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where the 17.000 men, women, children and even infants were exterminated by unspeakable methods. While the visit to the prison was difficult already, this was just unbearable. Nobody speaks. Some people, even western visitors, cried as they walked over the mass grave sites, which are in direct neighborhood of villages and rice fields. Some of the remains of dead bodies are still out there in the open sites, some are shown behind glass containers. 

Desecrated Buddha Tree
The most graphic display of what human beings are capable of doing were the "Killing Tree" and the "Magic Tree", which is the Buddha tree where he meditated and attained enlightenment. The Memorial Stupa, which contains 8000 skulls arranged by age and sex, just left me in a stage where I lit some incense sticks in memory of those who suffered and died here, but I was not able to visit the nearby Museum anymore. 

Skulls in the Memorial Stupa
As difficult as it might be to see these two sites, you cannot avoid it when traveling in Cambodia. The Documentation Center has documented 196 prisons and 388 genocide sites, which contain 19,733 mass graves all over the country. Besides these numbers and the fact that there are memorials all over the country, many of the people you see and interact with today are still survivors or participants of the Khmer Rouge regime.

14 June 2012

Old woman Penh

Let me dwell a little more on Phom Penh, while it is fresh in my memory. While there are no Khmer temples here to visit, there is still a good amount of sites to see and explore, besides finding a better Hotel than the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel ;-)

All the tourist sites are listed in guide books and web sites and we did of course visit them as well. We used the city as a base to go out to Khmer sites and ancient places, which we will cover in their own blogs. But we absolutely loved Sambor Prei Kuk site, Phnom Udong mountain and specially Phnom Chisor sites and the whole area around Tonle Bati lake and Ta Prohm site.

Phnom Penh city was a bit too chaotic for my taste, specially the traffic and the street vendors got onto my nerves, though having my tour guide to fend them off really helped. I found the city far more expensive than Siem Reap though. Making it across the streets alive was a real challenge as pedestrians seem to have no rights whatsoever. The traffic was dominated by very expensive and very big SUV's, which were used as weapons on the opposite side of the road, with flashing lights and hunking horns. Phnom Penh also appeared to have the highest number of Toyota Prius Hybrid cars I have seen so far, which was a bit surprising given that Cambodia is one of the poorest countries.

Silver Pagoda
Must see's were the Royal Palace and specially the Silver Pagoda with all it's awesome Buddha images. While photos can be taken outside the buildings, there is no photography allowed inside the Silver Pagoda. Some of the most important images are covered in a very good, yet very bad quality book, which is available for sale in the Royal Palace stores.  There is also a good size replica of Angkor Wat behind the Silver Pagoda.  

Wat Phnom
We did also visit a good amount of local monasteries, which with a few exceptions, turned out to be very disappointing. Most were really dirty, filled with litter and filled with people who lived in the temples. Something we had never seen before. Whole families with kids going about their daily life, in the middle of a temple. It was different on the opposite side of the Mekong river, but most of the Phnom Penh temples seemed to be "living temples". Wat Phnom, the temple on the hill was a nice place of worship and prayer though and we also were positively surprised by the Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Center in Udong and the Sway Chroom Pagoda on the other side of the Mekong.

National Museum
The National Museum is filled with information and statues related to all the Khmer temples we have visited before and which were still on our list to visit. I personally found the National Museum in Siem Reap better in terms of presentation but the pieces shown here are just awesome. Going through the museum with all it's detail takes time and we took plenty of time since those pieces here where the originals of all the copies we usually see in the Khmer temples in the country. Unfortunately there is absolutely no photography allowed inside the museum :-(

S21 prison and Killing Fields where two sites, which every tourist visits and they both were some of the saddest places I have ever visited. Since it is part of the Khmer culture, I will probably do a separate blog on them because I learned a lot about the Red Khmer's disrespect of their own history and the deliberate destruction of Khmer temples and artifacts.

07 June 2012

Rules & regulations and bad service (Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel)

Alley to the street from the Hotel
I had already shared what the room of the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel in Phnom Penh looked like in my last post. Where it gets really nasty is when we checked into the hotel. 

I have been to many Hotels around the world and in a lot of countries in Asia and have checked in without any trouble. I had booked a room for two people online. Yet the staff of the hotel was surprised when I actually checked in two people, which was a bit awkward for me. 

I had booked a Junior Suite for me and my tour guide, so we do not lose any time for him to travel to and from the Hotel, plus my guide is from another city and had just traveled 8 hours to meet me at the Hotel. The staff at the reception seemed to have never checked in two people since they were debating where to write the name of the second person (my guide). They demanded ID's which is fine and which I have had to provide in all other Hotels as well but they seemed to be very unhappy about the fact that two men checked in, one being a European and one being a Cambodian.

After filling out the check-in form, I was immediately given a paper titled "Hotel Policies":

I. Frangipani Villas are Absolutely Against Sex Tourism

II. Visitors are not allowed to go into guest's rooms

III. - V. were considering Cancellation, No Show, Check-in and check-out and Non-smoking, which were all fine.

In fact all of the rules were fine with me since I did not consider myself a sex tourist and I had not planned to have a visitor in the room, though rule II sounded strange since I stayed for two weeks and I might have had other people meet me here and not wanting to sit in the hotel's tiny cafe. There was also no comparable nice large lobby or hotel bar where I could host friends vs. those of other Hotels I had been too. But since we were both registered guests I thought everything was fine.

So I thought!!! When my guide left the Hotel to run some errands the next morning, they did not allow him back in the Hotel. Instead they called me in the room and said I had a visitor and that he was not allowed to come up to the room, where all his belongings were. I told them that he is a registered guest and had checked in with me and I still got the answer that it is "against the Hotel's policy"!! So I had to go down and pick him up!  That already was a bit strange to me, but I was not going to make a big fuss about it.

So we were visiting the Royal Palace and the Museum, had dinner and walked back to the Hotel in the evening. And the staff of the Hotel again did not allow my guide to enter the Hotel and the room. I told the night staff that he should check the computer and that we are both registered guests. So, after checking the computer I was only met with a very unpleasant face and a "good night" comment and we were allowed to go up to the room.

Having breakfast the next morning, I was confronted with the most unfriendly staff of all my Asian trips to date. Nobody said a word, nobody said good morning or even looked at us. And this is when I lost it and stormed into the lobby to demand an explanation to what had happened the day before, the night before and just now! I told the hotel that their service is the worst I had ever experienced and that their racist behaviour towards one of their own people will make me want to check out immediately.

I demanded to speak to the manager, who was not willing to speak to me at that early hour. 10 minutes later I was allowed to speak with a supervisor, who apologized and asked if I wanted to check out. When I said yes, he told me that I can do that, but I would have to pay the entire bill for the full 14 days I had booked the Hotel for!!! Just unbelievable how the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel treats it's customers. Of course I would not do that and pay a huge bill for nothing!

Later that day some of the receptionist of the Hotel apologized to me and my tour guide and the rest of the staff tried to be nice. However, looking at their faces, I could see that it was just a fake smile and I decided to just make the best I could over the next two weeks. What bothers me the most is that the hotel's management never even attempted to speak with me or apologize.

Restaurant and food:
Hotel's restaurant in the court yard
The Hotel has a very small restaurant. The food selection wasn't spectacular and I only had one dish there on the first night. We did have breakfast there though for most of the days and the options we had were very very limited. We had to fill out a form after taking our seats which required Name, Room Number, Signature, Day and Time!!! And then we had some very limited options of what we can have for a breakfast. The only variety was really how the eggs are prepared: fried, scrambled, omelet or boiled. Which might be ok for one day or two but not for two weeks. We even decided to skip the breakfast on some days and eat outside the Hotel. Filling out the form though and having to sign it, cracked me up!!

Speaking is still allowed though!
Like I said in the beginning, the Hotel is a pure concrete structure with a no thrills atmosphere. The stairs up are wooden and naturally make a lot of noise when one walks up with regular shoes. But the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel even has signs on the walls for that and reminds customer to soften their steps :-) I would not have been surprised to find another sign which advises against having a conversation on the stairways, but who knows, maybe after reading this blog, they will add it.

Usually Hotels have a number of taxis waiting outside or if there is none, they will call one for you. For the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel it does not stop there. They see the tuk tuks and cars as another way to make more money and it is not just a service to their customers. The drivers outside the Hotel are told to charge a higher price to the Hotels customers because the Hotel wants to collect commission from them. So, we ended up having to find our own transportation for the two weeks we were there which saved us a huge amount of money vs. just using the drivers which wait outside the Hotel. Since we traveled long distances to the Khmer sanctuaries and other temples in the countryside, it made a big difference to us.

As I am writing this, it is my last day at the Hotel and I have no idea yet how the check out experience will be, so I will amend this post, when my overall bad experience at the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel in Phnom Penh is over.  Our Phnom Penh friends warned us that some hotels even sneak into the rooms to check on their customers and surely on the last day I saw the door knob turn without a noise and the door opened without anyone knocking or calling before. It was one of the Hotel's receptionist who said, she confused the room number....very surprising for a small hotel with almost no guests during the low season!

Oh, by the way...there is nothing "Fine Arts" in this Hotel. The only reason why they chose this name, is probably because the Royal University of Fine Arts, is a block down the street from the hotel. So, don't expect too much!

During our stay at the Hotel we met with local friends who live in Phnom Penh and other areas in Cambodia and they all confirmed the bad reputation of the hotel. So, while this is a bad experience for us on a personal level, we are obviously not the only ones who had trouble with the Hotel. I hope my blog here will help to prevent future customers from staying here and I will for sure share my views on booking.com and other travel web sites.
Don't walk to loud :-)
Update from Singapore: Check-out did go as bad as I thought. It took about 20 minutes and started with the comment I really love from the reception: "please take a seat, sir"...and I will never take a seat then. The hotel actually ran my credit card and asked me to sign a bill for 14 days without even printing or showing me the bill. So only after I asked for it was I able to check the bill. And surely they added beers and cokes from the minibar which I never had. I asked them to take those items out but since they had run my credit card already, they had to pay me back in cash. So, this hotel has been a bad experience from check-in to check-out!

Update from Bangkok: I keep getting feedback from readers who are obviously happy with the Hotel's service. Fine for them, but I am not going to publish it here on my page. This is not a Hotel reservation page but it is my own, personal and very bad experience. Anyone who has not experienced the racist treatment of the hotel on a personal level is hardly qualified to compare his/her experience. Besides that, Hotel service is a highly subjective matter. What seems clean for one person might not meet another person's standards. And that the Hotel is central and at a great location to walk to the river and the sights is something I have said all along anyway. I am currently at a Hotel in Bangkok which is about a third of the price of the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel and I am receiving better service here. We customers have a choice when we book and pay for hotels!

Bad - worse - Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel

Can you spot the Hotel entrance?
Going to the Khmer temples of Cambodia has been a great experience so far. I loved Siem Reap area and all the temples up there and I loved the Khmer temples in Central and Southern Cambodia. Traveling for weeks requires good Hotel stays as well and so far I have always been happy to very happy about my heavenly sleeps in Cambodia.  However, my pick in Phnom Penh was a total disaster and almost brings down the whole experience of visiting beautiful temples and monasteries of the Kingdom of Cambodia!

I picked the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel in Phnom Penh for my two week stay. The reason for picking it was a) Location and b) excellent ratings by customers in booking.com  

The Hotel's room price was not cheap compared to other Hotels in Phnom Penh. I paid 70$ per night and for that I would have gotten The Hotel Cambodiana at the river or for 20$ more even the Imperial Garden Villa and Hotel with an awesome view over the river. Both 4 star Hotels in booking.com, however I did not know these Hotels at the time of my reservation.

However the location is the only good thing about this Hotel. It is very very overrated and I usually do not blog about Hotels, but this bad experience deserves it's own blog here!

The room:
Comfortable beds
I booked a Junior Suite for my stay, which is a 35 square meter room with two separate beds. I had my tour guide staying with me because we were going to temples and monasteries every day, so I booked the room for two people. The room was positively large with lots of space. My personal measurement is my large suitcase...if it fits in and I can open it without any problems I am happy :-)  The beds were large and comfortable. Two chairs and a small table gave us options to sit in the room and wait for a monsoon rain to finish. A wooden board with the TV served also as an option to set up my laptop and do my Internet updates and blogs. There was no extra desk available though. 

One open shelf for everything - no drawers
There was no single shelf, cabinet, nightstand or any drawers available, which meant that I had to live out of my suitcase for two weeks. There was absolutely no space to store my things, my cloths or items I bought during my stay, other than my suitcase. That is a problem most "designer hotels" have. The designers obviously never stayed in this hotel and if they did, they did not check in with cloths and other things which would usually be stored in a drawer. There was only one wooden hanging device on the wall, but everything would hang out in the open, so not an option for underwear etc. 

The bathroom:
Nice but very slippery

Concrete, like the whole room and the rest of the hotel, I did not give it much thought, until I had to use it. It was only then that I noticed that there was no door between the room and the bathroom, just a curtain, which was even open on the top and the bottom. So there was absolutely no privacy when using the bathroom/toilet, which some people might have no problem with but I did not like it at all. 

The bathtub looked nice but when I used it the first day I realized what some people commented before on booking.com - it was very slippery. There is no way to hold on to anything and I slipped many times in the next two weeks and was just lucky that I did not fall and break something. 

Can you spot the amenities?
The amenities in the bathroom where the absolute bare minimum one can imagine! Two tiny pieces of soap, one tiny container for bath gel and one tiny container for shampoo. That was it. No cotton balls, no comb, no shaving devices....nothing, but a shower cap which was useless in my case. The shampoo and the bath gel was barely enough for one person to get you through the day in a hot and humid climate, but is was not enough for two people. And to top it up, it was refilled only. So, if you did not use it up 100% you ended up with a tiny bit of bath gel for the next day and we decided to go out and buy our own bottle of shower gel. On my second last day here the cleaning personnel did not even refill anything anymore, so for the last two days there was nothing left. 

The Internet worked fine and was free of charge. The TV program was also a bare minimum. No movie channel except FOX. CNN and Asian Channel News were my only entertainment to get me through the rainy days. 

Whats in a view?
Hotel with no view!
I booked the Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel for it's location next to the Royal Palace and the National Museum. I was on the second floor and I had absolutely NO view at all. Looking out the window provided me with rundown houses where local people lived and they were so close that I could watch them taking a shower in their bathrooms. The rest was an ugly and tiny inner courtyard with barbed wire everywhere. Naturally you woke up at 5:50am when the kitchen and the "restaurant" started moving things around because the courtyard just echoed every single sound upwards to the rooms. Walking in and out of the Hotel, the view was not any better, just more barbed wire fence everywhere. At times it reminded me of the S21 prison we visited during my stay here :-( 

Prison or Hotel?
The view of the Hotel from the street is non existent. If you do not know where the Hotel is, you will never find it. Only a tiny sign on the other side of the street gives you the idea that it must be here somewhere. You then walk through the space between two houses on the street side and reach the lobby. So, I guess on the positive side, there is no street noise either. 

I will get to my check-in experience, the service, food etc in my next post and it is NOT going to be a pretty one ;-)