That’s me at the back waving. But I’m definitely Lucy, and I’m definitely in the sky, and it’s most definitely Diamond Island. So you can see what I’ve done there I think!
I only heard about Diamond Island a couple of weeks ago, and by sort of whispers. A student in another group mentioned it as a place to go, and then subsequently a couple of other volunteers ended up there either by accident or design, and it just seems curious. I didn’t actually read up about it until after I’d been, and inevitably, the history of the place is ‘complicated’. It is an artificially created island, now ablaze with lights and children’s fun fair rides and western style eateries. It is something of a bottle neck to get to, but you pass the wall of light and glass, with projected images of turtles swimming in clear blue water that marks the incongruously placed Nana world Casino, and head over a bridge towards the bright lights of the fair. It does seem to be a place where locals head to have ‘all the fun of the fair’ of a weekend, and perhaps of an evening too.
The more ‘complicated’ history, is that I learn this was the site of the stampede at the Water Festival celebrations of November 2010, that resulted in hundreds of deaths. I’ve taken this account from the blog post ‘Development and death – the story of Diamond Island‘ which is just as jolly as it sounds, but interesting too
On November 22, 2010, Diamond Island made international headlines when over three hundred people were trampled to death and nearly eight hundred more were injured in a stampede on the island’s northernmost bridge. People from surrounding provinces had flocked to the island for the annual three-day water festival—Cambodia’s most important public holiday that marks both the end of the monsoon season and the reversal of the Tonlé Sap River’s flow. After a day of boat races and an evening of concerts, mass panic ensued. Several investigations were launched to determine what sparked the tragedy, but no conclusions were ever made. Similarly, news media outlets all cited different causes for the stampede
It’s a good post though, it also details the story of how the land was cleared of its original inhabitants. Some got limited compensation, but others at the end were forcibly evicted with nothing. The vision is apparently of a ‘city within a city’ where the local Cambodian wealthy can play, insulated from the poorer elements of this complicated city. I am in no position to judge really. All I know is that I found my outing there extraordinary. It is definitely a haunt of locals, it is family friendly, not particularly cheap, but safe and I found it to be welcoming and tolerant of we three raucous women getting stuck in to children’s rides with the abandon of people who had never before seen such bright lights or seductive constructions. Knowing a bit more of the history does taint the experience a bit. Then again, we can do nothing about the past, though I think it is always important to acknowledge, document and learn from it. It is the present and what we can do now to make a better future that is the important thing. Sorry, just realised that sounds incredibly pretentious, even if it is actually true. Don’t worry more trivial stuff follows. For example, did you know all the rides on Diamond Island are made in Cambodia according to this Khmer News post. I have no idea if that is a recommendation or not!
The evening began with me going in search of decongestant. My cough/ cold has mostly passed (thank you for your concern), but I’ve been left with agonisingly blocked sinuses. I’ve been ignoring it for a while, but it’s become too miserable to disregard and hope it will go away. I decided to bite the proverbial bullet and try my luck at the nearest pharmacist. I think it was a pretty successful interaction. Turns out, my mime skills have got way better through teaching. I was able to convey my medical history and current symptoms. At a certain point in my compelling visual narrative, the person at the counter smiled broadly in recognition and went to have an earnest fossick about in a drawer behind the counter. With a flourish she produced the remnants of a pack of some sort of tablets. Five in total, no longer in their original packaging, but I was able to make out that the contents included both paracetamol and phenylephrine hydrochloride which sounds a bit like decongestant medicines I’ve had before. Also, it was an absolute snip at 2000 reil for the lot (about 50 cents) so the deal was struck. I did google first before taking any, but they seem fine, and such a bargain, maybe I should have got a whole barrow load to take back to the UK. I could be rich I tell you, rich, rich!
I met up with my two co-conspirators to have supper at The Big Board Kitchen, which basically does schnitzels. It has a nice ambience, but to be honest, the vegetarian option was poor, though it sounded nice – and there were a few to choose from, and I wouldn’t hurry back though as it wasn’t all that cheap either. Meat eaters looked like they’d nab a bargain though, and it was friendly and clean and with good English spoken, which are all qualities that make for a more restful outing than some of the other alternatives. Sometimes it’s really nice to have an outing where communication is straightforward and meal choices familiar!
From here, we were going to use the mysterious hail a tuk tuk app which enables you to order a sort of bubble car tuk tu on your phone. It is very cheap apparently, and means you agree a price in advance (no haggling) plus destinations are put in via google maps so no awkward navigation gaffs along the way. I do not have a smart phone, so all of this is entirely mysterious to me. Smart phone owners keep trying this, but I’ve never seen it work. We tried to use it coming back on New Year’s Eve, but the tuk tuk that accepted our fare, subsequently cancelled within 20 seconds, this time round we’d have a 22 minute wait (I know, very specific) so we decided to just go with a conventional tuk tuk. Also, we weren’t altogether sure we’d all squash in one of the little bubble tuk tuks.
Anyway, the upshot was that we hailed a tuk tuk and soon found our way bouncing along through the night of Phnom Penh. It was fun. No question, even though we all had a deeply held suspicion we were going in entirely the wrong direction. We decided we’d just see where we ended up, as our driver was purposeful, and maybe we’d end up somewhere even better on our magical mystery tour. Just imagine! (See what I did there? I’m on a roll).
Almost disappointingly, we ended up at the heaving junction of the Independence Monument, sooooooooooooo much traffic, all squashed up together. Our diver took us to the outside of the huge casino, which to be fair was where we’d asked to go as it was the only place he understood that was near by. Then, the more assertive and capable of our trio, jumped out and after approaching a number of bystanders, finally found another tuk tuk driver with better English, who was able to explain where we wanted to go. We could see the bright lights of a ferris wheel ahead, it does look like a magical fairy land from afar. You could hear music pumping out, and see an enormous outdoor stage with some sort of mysterious concert performance going on. We couldn’t wait to get stuck in. In fact, it was obvious once we arrived, that we could have walked from the Casino, as it’s nearer than it looks. That ferris wheel, it isn’t far, far away, it’s just very small. We paid $4 for the tuk tuk from the Russian Market area, we actually negotiated three, but it was all a bit stressful for our driver towards the end, plus he ended up stuck in a bottle neck on Diamond Island, so that seemed fair.
Well, what to do, with so many bright lights and shiny things to look at! We wandered around in general wonderment. It was so much to take in. The rides do have a certain samey-quality, and were all in children’s sizes, I mean, I know Cambodian people are generally small, but even so. There was a line of side-stalls, which at first looked enticing, but you come to realise are all essentially identical. The game is that you are given a load of darts, which you throw, and see how may balloons you can burst. You win a prize according to how many you hit. We got 20 darts for .. actually I can’t remember, but it was more expensive than expected. It was however good fun sharing them. We were generally hopeless, but it was fun trying. The best bit though, was that in the midst of our dart-hurling, a HUGE rat, ran across the top of the whole display, and it was like when you see those gun shooting ranges, where they have a fake duck or whatever transverse the range as a target, only a real one! It trotted across in clear view, then made a swift exit towards us, across the display of prizes and into the night, accompanied by a loud chorus of screams and laughter from all around. It was a seriously big rat. Enormous. Trust me.
Our efforts hit 6 balloons, and we were directed to what we could choose. For reasons that now escape me, but were mainly that the other two of us thought it would be funny to land the third with a completely impractical item for the journey homeward, a cuddly toy of some sort was duly chosen. Then we posed next to the enormous cuddly toys we might have aspired to win, that it seems are ubiquitous at fairgrounds the world over.
We walked onward, past giant floating pink swans, and circling miniature aeroplane rides. Our next stop though was the ghost house experience. Pricey this, at $2 but so much fun. There was an impressive exterior, and once we paid our fee, we queued up excitedly with some patrons already there. After a bit, a door was opened and we entered the warehouse. It was pitch black. And I do mean pitch black, health and safety has not made it here. The premise is simple, but surprisingly effective. It is an on-foot experience. A guide at the front led, we visitors all clung to one another in a human chain ( I was going to say like a human centipede, but I now know that reference is very dubious, so think of your own analogy). As we walked, people behind curtains rushed at us whooping, occasionally a fabric or a feather dusty or similar would be poked at you or dropped on you from above. That was basically it. There were no special-effects, but it did kind of work with people who really wanted to be scared and be up for it anyway. The main scary thing was having a wall of screaming people behind me on my tail as I went round. In the final few metres, the staff at the attraction literally ran at you from behind and grabbed at you chasing you out of the warehouse into the night, impressing passers-by with how scary and horrific the attraction must be as a dozen or so shrieking adults spilled out onto the forecourt as if being pursued by zombie furies – which basically we were! It was hilarious. I don’t think you’d get away with it with a more sophisticated clientele, but it was a just perfect adrenalin high here!
Next stop, some ambling about. I think from here we went to explore some of the retail outlets. These were unusual, in that they were fixed priced stalls under cover, with bright lights and an extraordinary range of products of uncertain connections. Sort of the miscellany of things you’d get in a pound shop, but on a larger scale and with a wider spectrum of prices. We delighted at the unknown products. I was taken by the bath/ shower whitening gel featuring a goat on the packaging. Goat scented-bath oil? Why not indeed.
Somewhat unnerving about this browsing/ shopping experience, was having a small boy in a red shirt and wearing a walkie-talkie accompany us around. Not to provide help, but to monitor us in case of shop lifting. He would literally lean his head against a shelf staring at us, as we browsed the contents. It was really bizarre. I also spotted a picture at the end of the aisles, which showed photos of the security staff, alongside mug shots of sad-looking individuals. I presume this was some sort of trophy cabinet indicating all the shop-lifters previously detained. It was both amusing and disturbing. This morning I’d been again to Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, and seen the rows and rows of faces staring back of victims of the Khmer Rouge. It had echoes of this. Fearful people, staring out. Lost. I’m not equating being caught shop-lifting with ending up in S-21, but even so, it made me shiver. It seemed to be people without power in both sets of images.
I can’t remember quite what got bought here, plastic plate and bowl I think, but not the $3 i-player, tempting as it was. The next shop was even more fun. This one had female security guards, who were much friendlier, and seemed amused by our presence. One was high up, balancing on a wobbly clothes rail whilst she dusted over head. It looked more than precarious, it looked like a cry for help. I asked if I could take her photo and she smiling and giggling agreed, even posing a little, which scared me even more as she wasn’t concentrating on the job in hand. We had a hoot traipsing round, trying to find clothes that might fit us, and imagining ourselves in matching outfits. Alas, not possible, nothing came anywhere near our western frames. I was hoping to get some matchy, matchy pyjamas but they were not to be had. We had fun though.
Exhausted by our shopping labours, we went across to the sort of promenade that overlooks the filthy waters of the river. It was suddenly very dark. I started to notice we were the only non-locals there. This doesn’t seem to have made it as a tourist destination yet. It was good fun. People were a bit curious about why we were there, we got a few sideways looks, but most were either pleased to see us (i.e. amused by our incongruous presence, not grateful for it) or indifferent to it as they went about their own joyful exploits.
We turned our attention to the rows of eateries, very western. BBQs and American Steakhouses. We stopped at a turkish ice-cream seller, where we bought salted caramel ice cream in scoops and sat in the tiniest little red plastic chairs ever, wishing we hadn’t bought the icecream which was glue-like in consistency and deeply unpleasant. I’m really hoping our gales of laughter as we each in turn tucked in were taken as enjoyment though, I wouldn’t want to cause offence. We were having a lot of fun. The chairs were funny though, even by Cambodian standards they were miniscule. Or maybe we’ve just grown? I felt like Gulliver in Lilliputia or Alice in Wonderland or possibly just like a gargantuan westerner in a land designed to accommodate a smaller frame.
Ice-cream consumed, the next stop was back to the fairground rides. My favourite was next. For 2000 reil a head, we got to go on a horsey carousel! We watched some children shrieking with laughter as they whizzed round on their bucking horses. We gestured to the ride manager if we could go on. He raised an eyebrow, and laughed, indicating ‘by all means, if you are foolish enough to want to do so!’ We each raced to our chosen steed and clambered aboard – which was harder than you might thing, they swung around precariously, and didn’t feel all that sturdy. Some seated onlookers pointed and laughed in joyful appreciation at our forthcoming display. It was brilliant. Astride the horses you realise they are designed so if you grab the handles and thrust your hips back and forth you can make your ride buck and rear, adding a frissance of quite possibly real danger to the ride. It stopped quite quickly. I was initially disappointed, but it turned out this was only to let another person on. She was a petite Cambodian, who very demurely sat side-saddle on her pony which was the same colour as the dress she was wearing. Whilst we whooped and waved and shrieked and laughed, she sad still and expressionless throughout her ride, with almost joyless dignity. We must have been quite a contrast. My it was fun. It was fun, but then it went on a bit toooooooooooooooooooo long. Like the twist dance at the Olympic Stadium, it’s always fun to begin with, but you do start to flag keeping up that smile after what feels like three days of downward twisting!
We tumbled off delighted, and went in search of the pink floating swans. That turned out to be $2 each or something, which seemed too much. It was basically a paddling pool, and looked dull beyond the immediate photo top.
Instead we went for our aeroplanes. The choice was between open or closed airborne transport options. Of course we went for open. As we approached the ride was in darkness, but seeing us hone in, the ride manager had it splutter into life in front of us. We were warmly welcomed to each choose our very own plane – 2000 reil each, and another family also clambered aboard. The planes started to circle, we did have steering wheels, but they didn’t allow us to break our orbit. This ride just went round in circles, that was it, but did offer great views across the whole of the theme park, its lights and commotion. It was truly grand. Also, lots of opportunity for exchanging joyful waves. To people on the ground, to people on other rides. It was joyful indeed.
This flight completed, photos taken, by mutual agreement we all seemed to appreciate we’d had just about all the fun we could imagine for one evening. We therefore clambered into the first tuk tuk whose driver approached us, and back to Tuol Tom Pong/ Russian Market area, from where we could all find our way home.
Great ride back through Phnom Penh, it is ironic that the city is suddenly feeling comfortable. It was such a good day of adventures and extremes and interactions with locals. Making this a home seemed possible – that is a fantasy though, the heat and pollution is more the day-to-day reality. However, this evening was a holiday. A dive into a parallel universe of unbridled theme-park induced joy. The lights of Phnom Penh city at night are mesmerising, the dense traffic, near misses with motor bikes, and general sights and sounds of life as you pass it by in a tuk tuk is its own adventure. I hope you get to travel this highway too one day. Of if not, find your own mini-adventure in travel elsewhere. Sometimes for me, all it takes is stepping out of my door, and out of my comfort zone and following my nose with a smile and an open mind and an adventure awaits. It’s alarming how easy it is to forget to do this though. That’s why it’s good advice (sort of) to do something that scares you everyday. As long as it isn’t actually illegal or likely to result in certain death or cause harm to others. You get the idea I’m sure.
Oh, the location of Diamond Island is here by the way and also, this place was the backdrop to a film t.hat did well at the Cannes Film Festival last year (2016) too apparently. So that’s good to know. It was the imaginatively titled ‘Diamond Island’ by Davy Chou. I’d like to see it one day, even though the reviews are a bit average, the cinematography is apparently not.
So enjoy your lives living dangerously. Bye for now