The bumpy ride that is Phnom Penh

Thankfully after our first night in Cambodia, things started to look up. After a questionable buffet breakfast at the place that should not be mentioned again, we were on the mission to secure a Vietnam visa for Tom. We managed to dodge the tuk tuk driver who had led us astray the night before (yes, he had shown up the next morning and waited for us) and gapped it on our own. Unfortunately we weren’t able to say goodbye to our kiwi travel mates so if you’re reading this- safe travels! We still owe you $2!

After one incredibly disheartening ‘no’ from a travel agent who had been recommended online, emotions were running high. Luckily the next place we tried were able to sort us out by 5pm for a reasonable fee. Still, until that precious bit of paper was in our hands we couldn’t really breathe easy. So what to do with a day to kill in Phnom Penh? You jump in a tuk tuk and ferry yourself around the tourist sights. Or at least that’s what you do when you haven’t a clue what else to do there.

Our first stop was the Royal Palace where we purchased a very overpriced but somewhat decent copy of a Lonely Planet from a disabled man. Afterwards we were attacked by another man who we had refused to buy from moments earlier. Apparently the argument of ‘but you have legs!’ didn’t translate well and we were followed by a constant moaning of ‘oooooow why you no buy from meeeeee’ all the way to the entrance. Once there, we were refused entry for two reasons. One – I had my shoulders out (amateur mistake) and two- we didn’t have enough money after the book purchase. One thing is for sure – your buck goes much further in Vietnam.

After a quick tuk tuk ride to an ATM (which interestingly only seemed to give out US dollars) and an open air wardrobe change in the backseat we were back at the palace. We lasted around an hour before the heat took us down. It’s definitely worth visiting as the architecture and gardens are beautiful plus it is so incredibly serene considering that it’s in the middle of a chaotic city – just go early before the sun heats up.

Whilst sheltering in the shade we consulted our new friend Mr Planet for accommodation options. After the occupants of the ‘hotel’ the night prior, we decided that a family run guest house would be a safer option. We were not disappointed. I would actually recommend guest houses over hotels when you’re travelling in Southeast Asia. Unless you’re going to spend the big bucks on a four or five star, then you can’t beat a simple, clean and friendly atmosphere all for around $12-$15 a night (or much cheaper if you’re game enough). I’m sure there are dodgy ones out there but so long as you stick to the family run businesses you should be ok.

We stayed at the Royal guesthouse in the Centre North area of town (91 St 154) and fully recommend them. It cost us less than half the price of the hotel for a beautiful clean, large room on the top floor (so nice and quiet) plus they were able to book a bus home for us including a pickup in the morning. Bonus is that they sell Chang beer downstairs which we haven’t been able to find anywhere else but Thailand so we had to ferry some back across the border. They were also against prostitution in the building so we were very happy.

Feeling more relaxed after finding a nice place to stay, we wandered the neighbourhood searching for some Cambodian food which I had heard so much about. There is quite fierce competition between Vietnam and Cambodia in regards to who has the best food. I can’t comment seeing as I’ve only had a taste of Cambodian but my god, it was good. We went to a quaint little place, originally named ‘Asia café’ and started pointing at pictures on the menu (none of which was in English). Soon after we were presented with beautiful juicy beef cubes served with rice, French fries (?) and salad. This was followed by an amazing green mango salad with dried shrimp and to top it all off, we had a delicious herby omelette thing. Fair to say we were satisfied.

Nothing makes me happier than a good feed so I had a skip in my step after our amazing lunch. This was not to last however as our next stop was Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I knew this was going to be hard but knowing next to nothing about Cambodian history, the visit was overwhelming to say the least.

Nothing can prepare you for the sadness that envelopes you when you step through the entrance of the museum. The air is heavy with an unidentifiable feeling that impels you to be quiet and contemplative as you walk around what feels like a wasteland. The signs that state ‘no smiling’ are unnecessary to say the least. The building was once a school which gives it an even more eerie feel and some of the cells still contain the devices used for holding people making it sometimes unbearable to be in there.

There are many images burnt into my brain from that place.  One is of a little girl’s dress hung in a wardrobe of actual victims’ clothes. I couldn’t help wondering what crimes against the government a girl who could fit into such a tiny outfit could possibly have committed. If you go, make sure you time it around one of the movie screenings as the tragic love story of Bophana (a beautiful young woman who unfortunately could not escape the Khmer Rouge) and her husband is unforgettable.

There was no time for us to visit the Killing Fields which I think at that point was a good thing. We may go there at some point but I will have to steel myself for the anger and sadness that we will no doubt feel.

By that time it was nearly visa-o’clock so after a quick refreshment stop at a dirty little street joint with terrible service but delicious beer, we made our way back to the travel agent with bated breath…..and SUCCESS! We had the visa. Now it was time to celebrate.

We headed straight to the riverfront for the ubiquitous Southeast Asian happy hour. The place we went to (FCC- the Foreign Correspondents Club) is set in a huge colonial villa on the waterfront and we were entertained by the biggest lightning storm I’ve ever seen – needless to say the views were incredible. We ended up ordering far too many pre dinner snacks so skipped dinner and went straight to dessert. Turns out this was not the thing to do as the plate of colourful, gelatinous goop we were served happened to taste pretty average.

It was leaving the restaurant after a night of indulgence that I began to be hit by the sadness again. That’s the thing about Phnom Penh, it has come so far but there is still this cloud of despair hanging over the place that the more you learn of the history, the more it affects you. After leaving my dessert plate half full I had to step over a mother clutching her small children as they slept on the pavement. I felt like a piece of shit. Why was I born into this life while others still have to suffer? I guess it’s a pointless question to ask and doesn’t achieve anything but it plagued me for the rest of our short time in Cambodia.

As you can see, our first experience of Cambodia was a series of highs and lows and it seems that that’s just how the country is. There is great beauty and great sadness all in the same place. Now I’m even more compelled to go back there. I can’t wait to see the magnificence of Angkor Wat and yes, we will be back to experience more of the sad history of Phnom Penh because the least those lost souls deserve is to be remembered.

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