First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.

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7 thoughts on “First Impressions: Phnom Penh

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