Hola my lovelies! I promised I’d bring you a much happier post to offset your depression from the last one, so hopefully this fits the bill. I had heard from other travelers that Phnom Penh was more suited for a quick stop rather than a long stay, but I wound up loving my weeklong adventure despite the prices for everything giving me major sticker shock compared to Vietnam. The street I was staying on had quite a few suitable cafes within walking distance for working on my laptop, though they definitely lacked the quirkiness and uniqueness of my previous location – they felt much more sterile, chain-like and “Western” (Tim commented on Skype that one I was in looked like a Wendy’s). I had gotten accustomed to paying around $4 for coffee and lunch, but found myself spending nearly twice that in PP which was especially disappointing as the coffee didn’t even begin to compare to my sweet, sweet Vietnamese drip.
But aside from the work logistics, the city itself was far more charming and interesting than I’d been led to believe. Other travelers seemed to shrug it off in favor of Siem Reap, but I absolutely loved exploring the various markets, temples and monuments within my vicinity. Taking the open-air tuk-tuks everywhere was a blast – in Cambodia the tuk-tuks are basically just nice carts with seats attached to the back of a motorbike. They go rather slow but for $1-$2 per ride (after having to haggle down from $3-$5) I could get pretty much anywhere in the city so it was well worth it. I actually wound up becoming buddies with the tuk tuk driver that took me to the genocide museums as he typically hung out across the street from my Airbnb. It was fun to say hi and talk to him every morning, he was just the sweetest guy!
Returning from my tangent, the architecture all around was so vastly different than anything I’d experienced previously in Vietnam, and the recurring theme seemed to be gold, gold, and more gold. The Royal Palace was an especially wonderful, glittery sight to see in the sunshine; I’m so happy I decided to kick my week off with a Vespa tour of the city.
This time I went with Vespa Adventures, which turned out to be another majorly awesome decision thanks to TripAdvisor. I wound up being the only one on the tour again due to low season, and was accompanied by two wonderful individuals: Sokhea, a sweet, softspoken student who drove me around on the back of his Vespa, and Sophea, a bubbly, fun dude with the best laugh ever who guided me around the different sights with his seemingly endless amount of knowledge and jokes. Our first stop was Wat Phnom, a gorgeous temple on a hill in the heart of town close to the large, French Colonial post office. Wat Phnom is the symbol of the city and its namesake. Sophea told me that according to legend, in roughly the 14th century a woman named Lady Penh discovered a large, hollow koki tree with four statues of Buddha inside. As it was believed this was a sign from the gods, she built a shrine around them to protect them and it was expanded on throughout the years into the grand monument it is now. The hill that that wat sits on is manmade because it is believed that commonfolk should not stand at the same level as the gods – people show respect by looking up towards the heavens at them instead. Both the inside of the wat and the surrounding area was filled with beautiful paintings, statues, vendors selling everything from incense to small souvenir trinkets, more vendors parading around with an uncomfortable amount of finches in gold cages that you could pay to have released, and tons of people praying at the temple for success in their school and business endeavors. Sophea remarked that it’s a pretty popular spot for local students to come just before they take their exams.
There is a beautiful park at the base of the wat featuring a massive clock constructed out of lush greenery. Back at the post office Sophea had mentioned something that stuck in my mind for the rest of the tour: the fact that during the Pol Pot regime, every single citizen of Phnom Pehn was removed and the entire city became a ghost town for four years. So as I stood in front of the clock, which was bustling with people, chatter and the sound of motorbikes whizzing by, I couldn’t help but imagine just how eerie it must have been to enter this city on a similar sunny day in the late 1970’s only to be met with desolate streets and complete silence. When what was left of the population eventually returned to the city, since the death toll was so high and entire families were decimated, people simply walked into whatever random apartment or house they could find and claimed it as their own. Crazy.
Friendship Bridge & Street Art
We then crossed the mighty Mekong river via the massive Chroy Changvar (Cambodian-Japanese friendship) bridge, which offered incredible views of Phnom Penh’s small but cute skyline. At one point we passed an eye-catching statue of a gun with a twisted barrel, I was told that it was made from melted-down firearms and serves as a symbol of the country’s crackdown on guns and strict firearm laws.
By far my favorite place we visited was an area near Boeung Kak (I believe), which I was told used to be a popular backpacker area but since declined pretty heavily due to the drug trade. It was definitely fairly shady, but what made it unique was the loads of incredible street art covering every fence, house, and wall. Sophea told me that foreigners are the ones who typically do the painting and that most of the locals love having the artwork displayed on their houses. Not quite sure if the artists need some kind of permit or if they just ask the resident, but the beautiful illustrations definitely bring a lot of color and life to what would otherwise be a defunct area of town. As we walked Sohpea looked around pensively and told me with a grin that he sees a lot of homeless foreigners begging around here and that most of them “aren’t right” (from the drugs, I’m assuming). I could tell that a lot of people didn’t come to this area without a guide, and I had to laugh nervously as I spotted a Westerner in a passing tuk tuk looking decently freaked out. Gave me those inner city Chicago feels for sure.
As we left the area I was once again thrown into a coughing fit from the obscene levels of dust I came to expect when riding just about anywhere in Cambodia. The roads are far less developed and the tuk tuks and motorbikes kick up clouds of dirt – most locals wear the cheap surgical masks to prevent inhaling it. I was wishing I’d been smart enough to invest in one, especially after my hour round-trip to and from the Killing Fields which probably resulted in a nice layer of grime on my lungs.
Markets & Monuments
We eventually made it back to the city center and to a sprawling local market (I want to say it was Orussei Market but I could be wrong). I saw very few foreigners while I was there and Sophea led me through the labyrinth of stalls, schooling me about local fruits and vegetables as we squeezed through the aisles. With his signature loud, joyful laugh he warned me that the fish market on the other side was especially unpleasant smelling so I should brace myself. These huge local markets all around Asia have since quickly become my favorite places for observing local culture in its purest form; the booming, echoing chatter I can’t understand, the smell of delicious spices and baked goods that permeate the hot air, and the staggering amount of goods crammed into tiny stalls that fill every square inch of real estate, sans teeny tiny aisles for “walking” (and by that I mean shoving). I gaped at some freshly cut pig heads as some woman shouted at me about buying kichenware, but just then Sophea beckoned me to come try some sticky rice. Yummy! We walked across the street to an area of the market that stocked what seemed to be every medicinal herb and natural remedy under the sun. I was told that Cambodians prefer natural medicines both because of a strong cultural belief and because of their low incomes; most of them avoid getting proper medical treatment unless it’s an emergency.
After that wonderfully crazy experience it was back to some tourist staples, the first being Independence Monument. I had walked past it about a hundred times already since my Airbnb was just down the street and it sits in the middle of a busy roundabout, but as usual it was nice to hear the history: Sophea told me that it was erected in 1963 to celebrate the independence of Cambodia from the French in the previous decade, but that it’s also a memorial to Cambodia’s fallen patriots. An enormous, green park spanning the length of the road sat just behind (or in front?) of it, and besides housing practically no trees for some torturous reason, the park also featured a huge monument memorializing the late King Norodom Sihanouk. He guided the country during the French occupation, the Japanese occupation during WWII, and the Vietnamese occupation during the Vietnam War but then was essentially coerced into backing the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to retain his power (all while being held prisoner in his palace). Cambodians still admire and respect him considerably – the statue was only just recently built in 2011.
Royal Palace & Wat Ounalom
There were just two more quick stops before I had to bid my wonderful guides farewell. The first was the Royal Palace, which was far more magnificent than I imagined – and you guessed it, layered in gold, gold gold. Built in 1863, the palace currently houses King Norodom Sihamoni (Sihanouk’s eldest son) and the rest of the royal family. Inside the palace grounds there are multiple temples, monuments and stupas but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to visit. The outside provided more than enough visual stimulation, though – bright yellow paths at the entrance wound through an expansive green garden, and we must have had good timing because there were very few tourists wandering around. With a huge grin Sophea shoved me into place for a photo op, which resulted in me jumping into the air for a good five minutes and us still managing to not get any usable shots. Oh well, haha. Some Korean tourists nearby got a good laugh out of it at least.
Finally, to cap off an already packed tour in style, we visited a monastery that is considered to be the headquarters of Buddhism in Cambodia: Wat Ounalom. Originally constructed in 1422, it once housed an epic Buddhist library of over 30,000 titles but most wound up being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Aghhh, all those poor books…talk about a stab to the heart. The top monk of the country lives here along with various other monks that study, pray and go about their daily lives. I was lucky enough to visit on a day that they were setting up for a charity event, so I got to see many of them outsidein their bright orange garb chatting and milling about on their phones (which is still an amusing sight to me). To say this place was gorgeous is an understatement, which seems to be par for the course for most everywhere I go in Asia. Greenery and flora framed the beautiful golden buildings and towering stupas, and Sophea explained some Buddhist history to me as I looked around in awe. So peaceful and quiet considering it was just off a loud, busy road.
And with that, sadly, my morning of fun came to an end. Not going to lie, I was more than a little excited to stand in a cold shower and wash my sweaty nastyass body (I have probably taken more showers this trip than my entire life combined I swear to Christ). I’m still wondering when all this supposed nonstop torrential rain during rainy season is supposed to get here. Aside from a couple days of full on storming here and there, the most I get is an afternoon shower and then clear, beautiful skies for all three countries I’ve visited so far. Definitely no worse or different than Florida. But of course now that I’ve said that I probably jinxed it completely…
I am so very behind on these blog posts, but at least I’ll have something to keep me occupied when I’m back home and dealing with reverse culture shock. Drinking water straight from the tap is sure going to be a strange experience. So will straightening my hair and not constantly looking like I have a perpetual disaster afro. It’s also going to be nearing winter in Colorado, so not only will it be cold, but all the nice moisture my skin has retained from the humidity is going to be sucked bone dry. Chapstick, where art thou?
But until then I still have 4 weeks of rad adventures to have…where the fack did the time go?! Just one more post about Phnom Penh and then onto Siem Reap for some magical temple action, so get excited.
Until then – catch you all on the flipside!
Phnom Penh: 8.19 – 8.27, 2016