Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh will arrive with a whisper more than a bang. More and more structures will begin to appear along the road and before you realize it, you’ll be passing a university on your left and proceeding straight to city proper.
If you’re on the Sapaco, it will drop you on what looks like a main road, but quite far from the market where you’ve likely plotted your course. Do take the tuk-tuk – it’s around 4km to get to the riverside and the Palace. While a healthy person can walk it, the trip on foot won’t be very relaxing and the bag you’re likely carrying will get heavy quickly.
There are two areas to stay in Phnom Penh. The first is by the riverside. You may want to try the houses furthest from the Palace first as these do not fill up as quickly – the Indochine is one of these. The concierge showed us a single room with a large bed first, and after some embarrassing explanations about not being together, Jonathan (the opinionated Brit whom I had met on the bus) and I got the last two $10 rooms. The ceiling was a bit low and the bathroom a bit cramped, but it had an air-conditioner, hot water, cable television and complete privacy. I had the best sleep of the trip so far in that room.
The second is near the Boeung Kak lake, but it isn’t recommended – the lake has been filled in for development and the accommodations while cheap are a bit dirty. It should be good in a couple of years.
The river ferry was unfortunately full to sinking, so the Indochine arranged for a bus to Siem Reap for me leaving the next day. I showered and went out to look for Jonathan who was nowhere to be found. I avoided another smooth-talking tuktuk driver who had a laminated map and tour package. I may be paranoid, but like Phong the scamming Cyclo driver, he seemed a bit too prepared for me. I walked back to the guesthouse and found a nice Khmer restaurant along the river. They had view seats outside, and I watched life go by while enjoying a rather tasty Pork Amok. Its pork stewed in coconut milk with egg, some curry, a kaffir leaf and quite a lot of chili peppers. I then washed it down with a tall, cool Angkor beer and decided to take a nap.
The nap was so good in fact that I woke up ten hours later. I decided to see a bit of the city before I left. Jonathan was sound asleep in the next room, the grunts and crashes leaving no doubt he’d found the seedy side of town. After leaving a note for him with the front desk, I went on my way.
Phnom Penh is a wonderful city. It’s not dirty, there’s not much crime, and the beggar army is manageable. They’re actually downright charming if you know how to talk to the children, but if you’d like to be left alone you’re better off taking a seat deep inside a restaurant and not the table with the riverside view.
At night, it does crawl with prostitutes, but most of these are Vietnamese who for some reason or another think they can make more money in Cambodia. “No money, no honey” is the old watchword, followed closely by “Get laid, Get AIDS.” If this is the kind of thing you’d like to do, bring protection. Like an AK-47.
At around six or seven in the morning, all the orange-robed monks come out and begin their day. They converge on this one point in the city, one block to the right of the park before the Palace if you’re facing the river. You’ll see them sitting in vans in that side street, having breakfast. After that, they go about their duties in the city in threes with pots.
I even say my first working elephant! It was walking majestically up the road under the gray sky. Its unhurried pace was simply regal and its bulk dwarfed almost everything else on the pavement.
Phnom Penh is a city being healed. Massive beautification projects have been instituted and seem to be about done – the incessant sound of construction no longer saturates the atmosphere and the last few sites like the riverbank before the guesthouses seem to be well on their way.
I was there on a Saturday, and there is activity everywhere. People jog, play Sepaktakrau or take walks, and the river walk fills up in the mornings.
There is a huge park behind the palace with a tall monument and a Sarimanok – it’s a great place to see monks and joggers side-by-side.
There are many ATMs along the riverbank hotel and guesthouse row, and all tourist establishments take U.S. dollars as currency. Avoid Riels as the currency is worth very little outside the country.
Establishments are fond of pricing things in fractions e.g., US$ 2.50 for a meal. They then take your dollars but give Riel in change. Just take it in stride, and keep the KHR2000.00 – you can give it to the next establishment that needs 50 cents.
You can rent bicycles or scooters for around $2/day, but be warned – the traffic will not adjust to you. A Cambodian driver will weave around an obstacle rather than stop for it, and this has resulted in a disturbingly large traffic accident rate. Don’t add to the statistic.
You’ll have to judge gaps in traffic and integrate yourself in the flow smoothly. On the larger roads, two wheeled vehicles are safer near the curb as the cars and buses stick to the center lines. If you’ve any doubts, just don’t.
The city also isn’t completely safe. There’s a bit of crime in the areas the tourists frequent – mostly petty theft like pickpocketing, bag snatching and the like. In 2008 however there was an increase in violent encounters. Vietnamese gangs would harass tourists physically not so long ago and although the local law seems to have addressed that concern its still advisable not to walk alone down dark alleys.
The victims who got the worst of it were reportedly western women traveling alone. A French lady named Aurelia Laroix was dragged off her rented motorbike in 2007 while she was driving along. She was thrown to the road and perished from her injuries. Now, as a rule, tourists aren’t hurt and there is a visible police presence around the city.
Much of the flavor of Cambodia comes out in their architecture. The roofs are almost always crowned with the distinctive ornamentation unique to the country. Even the lightposts are pretty. Like their food, there is a passion and a spice to there creations.
I ended my stay in Phnom Penh as the day before – at the Andak restaurant on the tourist strip along the river. Not with a beer, but with some noodle soup and a fine Khmer smile from the waitress.