My introduction to the city of Phnom Penh is much like every other introduction has been during my time in South East Asia, whizzing by in a clapped out old bus…followed by a clapped out old shoddily-negotiated tuk tuk. This time I am arriving from Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with (increasingly ill) travel buddy Buffie.
We check in at Eighty8 hostel which touts itself at the ‘flashpacker’ market, those willing to pay an extra dollar or two for increased luxury. After the rat infested beachfront pad on Koh Rong, we feel we owe it to ourselves. This is the glamour to which we have not become accustomed.
Named after the street it is on, it’s in the north-east of the city around 5 minutes walk from Sisowath Quay where the boats arrive from Siem Reap. So exploration starts with a long walk through the city from north to southern tip.
Wat Phnom is the first item on the agenda. It’s the hilltop sanctuary from which the city takes its name. Cambodian legend has it that a wealthy widow called Daun Penh (try saying it without thinking of Sean Penn) found five bronze and stone Buddha statues in 1372 during a walk along the Tonle Sap river. As a mark of respect, she built a sanctuary on the top of a hill to house them. It became known as Phnom Penh, translating as the hill of Penh. Over time, it became the shorthand for the city that sprung up around it.
With $1.50 ticket in hand, I ascend the stunning naga staircase passing bronze carvings of battle scenes and Apsaras dancing, replicated to look like those at Angkor Wat.
The sanctuary, or vihara, at the top was rebuilt in 1926 and little of the original building remains but it is very close to the heart of the population here, so it’s worth spending some time at the summit surveying the city or cross-legged in meditation inside the Wat itself.
The inside is beautiful, vibrant and colourful.
Behind it, a stupa has been built to honour Daun Penh.
Not unlike neighbouring Laos, the Cambodian people also release birds from cages at the top of the hill to invite fortune and good health.
Offerings are left inside the wat for the statue of Buddha; some of food and some of local currency the Riel.
Continuing south, at the crossing of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, I see the Independence monument which has the dual role of commemorating independence from the French in 1953 but also stands as a cenotaph to those who have died in war.
On display around it are the riches of various parliamentary buildings, in stark contrast to the poverty I’ve seen elsewhere in the country.
I swing into Mali’s for lunch and a couple of Kingdom beers on nearby Norodom Boulevard. It’s a grand spot, if a little formal.
After lunch, I set my internal compass for Psar Toul Tom Poung (the Russian Market) but I seem to be following a slightly fraudulent map. I’m still walking 90 minutes later…but many of the sites along the way have kept me in good humour.
Despite this, I swiftly come to learn two key facts about Phnom Penh:
1) It is nigh on impossible to cross the road. You’ll find many of your restaurant/shop/sightseeing decisions are led by this.
2) As a visitor, you’ll be offered a moto taxi or tuk tuk approximately three times per minute. It’s not at all irritating.
Eventually, (273rd time’s a charm) I grab a moto taxi to the Russian Market, so-called as all the goods would have originated from there, Russia being the only country to provide aid during the Vietnamese occupation. Browsing through the ramshackle tarpaulin-covered market, I find it’s the usual miss mash of textiles, hand-carved artefacts…and knock off electronics. Dr Dre was kind enough to reduce his speakers to a mere $3 here. What a philanthropic gent.
But there’s no show without punch…
Back into the tuk tuk
and (via the petrol station) I’m headed north again.
Street number 240, just behind the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, is where you’ll find the craft boutiques and book shops. After a browse at D’s Books on 240 and Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, I bag a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ before scooting back to the hostel to scoop up a much less peaky Buffie.
We head out to Bopha Phnom Penh, a beautiful outdoor restaurant on Sisowath Quay.
Despite this being the site of our initial hoodwinking when we first arrived in Phnom Penh ($5 to tuk tuk 25 steps) we still manage to enjoy the lights twinkling on the Tonle Sap river and the Apsara dancers defying the laws of joint capability.
They accompany our Fish Amok curry washed down with a house speciality cocktail made with their local spirit. Game.
We dart across to the Flicks 2 on 136 which is a comfy, cozy cinema that regularly screens movie The Killing Fields.
It seems a fitting way to mark visiting Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) the day before (see previous post.)
The next day, we swing by Friends which is a not-for-profit cafe that supports the training of young chefs and servers in the hospitality industry.
There is so much to compute at the end of our trip to Cambodia. We do so with outstanding falafel burgers and raspberry rum cocktails.
Afterwards, we cross to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club to watch the world go by below.
And I watch my final sunset over the Mekong (on this trip at least.) It’s how this trip started back in Ventiane so it seems right and proper to end it that way.
The last supper is Pad Thai alongside numerous Pina Coladas and Angkor beers.
The next morning, we trip out to Psar Thmei (the central market) to pick up some gifts to take home. It is much more glamourous than the Russian market, housed in an actual hall with art deco arches stretched above.
The art of the oversell is not lost here, and it is a fittingly frenetic final experience for my time in Cambodia.
To balance things out, we head out to the local Wat and are blessed by Buddhist monks. We are ceremoniously soaked by litres of water thrown over us as the monk chants his blessing.
It’s a strange sensation, but there is certainly something very peaceful about it. Blessed, and soaked, we tuk tuk back so I can pack for the flight home to London.
You might remember that when I embarked on this trip, it was after a fairly grim few months. South East Asia has helped me draw a line under that, with aplomb.
My tuk tuk ride to the airport is insanity personified, and with joy in my heart and tears in my eyes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And the soundtrack was:
Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’
The Antlers ‘Familiars’
Him Sophy ‘A Memory From Darkness’
Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’
Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’