Or “Phnom Penh – Not really that interesting”
The last day in Taipei we had to change location and move to a more “luxurious” habitat closer to the airport, due to the fact that our flight was leaving at 06:00 a.m. the following morning. This is how we found ourselves at the airport Novotel, a 4-star hotel that had us feeling like celebrities, the feeling of luxury oozing from every part of the room. But it turned out that we weren’t used to this kind of hotel anymore and we felt a little out of place with our ragged clothes and slightly longish hair and beard...So we had our extravagant buffet and our lavish shower and tried to get as much sleep as possible before we had to wake up the following morning at 04:00 a.m.
Sleep deprived, junkie eyed, and wishing that some miracle would delay the flight by, oh I don’t know, ten hours, we woke up late at night (or early in the morning, however you want to see it!) we checked in our flight to Hong Kong and queued in line with all the other lunatics that wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep. Luckily for us the pilot apparently had his beauty sleep and got us in one piece to Hong Kong where we changed flights to Phnom Penh.
In the end we managed to get to Phnom Penh, weary but happy. It was only a little after 11 in the morning, but we were already exhausted and wanted nothing more than to get to sleep. The heat, which we hadn’t felt in a very long time (since Central America I think) was doing its thing and about half an hour after landing we already had a sticky back and experiencing our very first tuk-tuk ride ever.
After we had checked into our hotel we contemplated if it would be better to get some sleep or try and stay awake, but because we were so tired, the contemplation took so long that suddenly it was already afternoon and we decided to walk a little around the centre to get a feeling of Cambodian life and acclimatize a little to the heat.
We were quite central so getting to our first Cambodian experience didn’t take long. What we did find out in the first couple of minutes is 1)nobody walks in this town except locals 2)every couple of meters you get asked by a tuk-tuk driver if you might need his services 3) apparently the word ‘no’ has a different meaning to these drivers, as it seemed only to strengthen their efforts to get us on their ride.
We did however manage to get to our planned destination, Wat Phom, by foot, although trying to cross traffic turned out to be a very intense game of “chicken”, the various mopeds and cars barely slowing down as they approached us.
Wat Phnom was surprisingly empty of tourists when we entered, only a handful of them walking amidst the one and only hill in the city. For us it was actually the best way to ease into our South-East Asia experience.
Around Wat Phnom the locals sit and pass the afternoon, so we decided to join them. Little kids waved us hello, merchants came by to sell cool drinks and various snacks, and every now and again a fresh breeze would make us feel a little more like human beings and less like sweat-pumps. Afternoon rolled by and we started to feel the exhaustion of a long day, so it was time to return to our hotel and relax for the remainder of the evening.
It was on our way back that our eyes suddenly caught movement on one of the fences along the streets. We had to look twice in order to realize what it was – monkeys roaming about freely in the middle of the city. I think it was this sight that hammered home the knowledge that we were definitely somewhere where we hadn’t been yet!
After a very long good night’s slight we woke up refreshed and energized the following morning. We had decided that we would explore a little more of the city’s centre, especially since we had two full days ahead of us. Most people barely spend time in Phnom Penh, preferring Siem Reap with its temples over the hustle and chaos of the capitol. Although I must agree that Phnom Penh isn’t the prettiest of cities, it does have some gems of Cambodian culture and beauty on display, some of them right in the middle of the city. Although we knew that some of the country more gruesome past was displayed in the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge Museum we had decided not to visit these places. Not because we don’t think that it’s important, but more due to our wish to see the Cambodia that exists today, the hardships it faces, the people, the food, the culture.
In order to do that we walked along the Riverside towards the two places that showed the country in all its glory and beauty – the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. But as with every other place we had visited so far, we got side tracked. This is how we found ourselves entering Wat Onalom, a quiet oasis in the middle of the city’s chaos. It was also our first coherent experience with Cambodian architecture, their temples and places of worship.
Next in line were the gardens in front of the National Museum. The wind had picked up and as it turned out, I found it quite difficult to stand down wind without hair obstructing my eye sight.
The buildings were beautiful, unique and exotic to our eyes. This was entirely different to what we had seen so far. The rumbling clouds in the sky did add their own spice to the dramatic effect of the scene!
Although the entrance fee to the museum was a bit steep, we needed to pass the time until the Royal Palace opened its doors, and with the opportunity of some Angkor artefacts on display and the hopes of an air-conditioned museum we entered its gates. Unfortunately our hopes of air condition evaporated into the thick, steamy air, so we decided to call it lunch time and parked our sweaty bodies on one of the benches in the museum’s garden.
A couple of hours and another smoothie later we headed for the Royal Palace. Brochures had it advertised as a must-see and at a $3 entrance fee it should have been worth it. As it turned out, either the brochures were printed in 2009 or the place had experienced a 200% uplift. But we had already made it all the way to the palace, so we gulped the $6.50 entrance fee and hoped that whatever we would find in the inside would be worth it.
Ronni was already in the mood, as you can see by the adorable smile she has planted on her face :-)
The buildings indeed were quite amazing and exotic, their unique architectural structure quite defined. This was all still very weird and unusual for me, my mind not really able to comprehend what my eyes were seeing. I could, however, still admit that whatever weirdness I was feeling, the buildings were amazing.
After the Royal Palace we entered the Silver Pagoda which was a lot more demanding and exciting. Maybe it was the surrounding gardens, maybe the surrounding buildings, maybe the dark clouds above us, but suddenly we found ourselves more energetic, with the heat not as oppressing as before.
Wandering slowly amidst the structures my mind was slowly catching up, starting very slowly to grasp the idea that we were actually in Cambodia, a place I had wanted to visit for a very long time.
We were exhausted by now, the heat taking its toll, but before we left there was one special employee that wanted to bid us farewell.
His face practically says it – “What are you staring at??” Gotta love that faux-hawk though!
The next day we spent most of the early morning in our room, enjoying our air conditioned “jail” and searching for a decent accommodation in Siem Reap. Since the next week the option of being internet-wrecked was quite possible, we decided to use the day to do some last itinerary tweaking and then braved the afternoon heat to visit Phnom Penh’s two major markets.
The Central market was only a short stroll and dozens of “you need tuk-tuk” questions away. It’s major attraction is that it is indoors and to my surprise, quite civilized. A large yellow dome which harboured hundreds of stalls that sold everything from watches, to jewellery, to women’s clothing to men’s boxer shorts. We were on the hunt for some new short pants for me as my current two pants were somewhere in the livelihood between hobo and desperately poor, with food stains on one and ripped groinal parts in the other.
The quality of the goods was not top notch to say the least, but at one of the stalls I found adequate shorts, and after a short back and forth of haggling a price was agreed. I found myself slightly disinterested in the whole procedure, not giving the haggling its necessary concentration and therefore probably overpaying for pants that wouldn’t outlive the end of our trip.
Hopping onto a tuk-tuk we left for the Russian market, which at least in theory had sounded to me like THE place to go to find some knockoff shoes, watches and shirts. But when we arrived slightly after 4, some of the stalls where already closed and the rest where selling stuff that I wouldn’t even get for the homeless shelter. Wandering through the narrow alleys that didn’t inspire any of my shopping vibes, we left the market after only about half an hour, not knowing what the fuss was all about...
I must admit that Phnom Penh didn’t really do it for us. It’s polluted streets, at times greedy salesmen and the constant battering of “you need tuk-tuk” didn’t really make us like the capitol. Most people barely spend more than 24 hours here and now I know why!
Ah well, you win some, you lose some :-)
Tomorrow we’re off to Mondulkiri, which is only a short 10 hour bus ride away in the mountains of north-east Cambodia. Wish us luck folks!!