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.

The Travel Bug

One of the big tourist destinations that you just have to see (or so I’d been told) when you are in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. Even if temples aren’t really your thing, this one is so spectacular that its supposedly the one everyone has to see. But having studied mediation under the guidance of a Buddhist nun during my last few years of high school, I would definitely say I have an interest, or at least curiosity, in Eastern spirituality, and a certain sense of awe for their places of worship. So after seeing having seen some of the party destinations that are frequented by tourists, I decided I would begin this week by exploring some of the more traditional cultural attractions that Bangkok has to offer.

The Grand Palace is located towards the west of central Bangkok, on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River. Since the palace is the official residence of the Thai royal family, the inside is not open to the public, but the monastery compound that houses various shrines, temples and monuments is usually considered the main attraction anyway. The temple that houses Emerald Buddha, while being a popular sight-seeing spot among tourists, is also still a frequently used place of worship for both the Thai royal family and local commoners. Therefore, respectful and modest clothing is required before tourists are allowed to enter the compound within which the temple is located. This means no exposed shoulders or knees, no singlets or shorts, so I made sure I packed my jeans into my backpack to change into once I got there. The midday sun was scorching and the heat and humidity had basically drenched my whole upper torso before I’d even made it inside the gates, so actually wearing long pants the whole day was definitely not a valid option.

Once inside, it was easy to see why this place was considered a “must see” destination – the intricacy of the beautiful and delicate designs is absolutely breath-taking.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The beautiful hand painted murals that line the outer perimeter of the temple compound.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The murals depict the story from an epic poem in Thai mythology.

The cloisters that run along the inside perimeter of the compound are decorated with exquisite hand painted murals that depict the storyline in a famous epic poem from Thai mythology. Princes and princesses, armies of soldiers, monkeys, demons, giants, gods, temples, palaces – the detail is incredible and the work is flawless. Much of the subjects within the murals are laced with gold, and the walls glow and shine, beautiful and incredible works of art. Within the rest of the compound there are dozens of other structures the are wondrous to behold, with glass, jewels, gold leaf, mother of pearl, and a score of other materials decorating them in a way that lets them command the reverence they deserve, as such sacred and holy monuments. Some of my favourites were the golden statues of the mythical creatures that were half animal and half celestial beings, crafted with the finest, most precise detail, glowing magnificently in the sunlight.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

One of the golden statues of a creature from Thai mythology.

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi - one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Phra Sri Ratana Chedi – one of the shrines covered in gold mosaic

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

Myself standing in front of Prasat Phra Thep Bidon, the Royal Pantheon

The highlight of the compound, however, is the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Built on consecrated ground, all who enter the area are required to remove their shoes. I slipped off my sneakers, ascended the stairs onto the outer platform, and entered into the temple. The walls were vast and tall, decorated with beautiful murals similar to ones on the outer walls, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha, as well as other concepts of Thai mythology. Though it is the shrine in the centre of the room that truly captures your attention. Mounted high atop the shrine, on a golden throne made of gilded-carved wood, is the tiny Emerald Buddha, actually crafted from green jade. He is sitting in a stance of peaceful and relaxed mediation. The statue is hard to make out at first, such a small idol atop such an extravagant display, but the sight of the entire shrine is impressive, golden and glittering amongst the glow of they prayer candles, and for me it did feel like quite a spiritual experience. Perhaps it was because you cannot take photos inside the main temple, so being there really feels as though you are witnessing something truly special. I made my way past the standing tourists the where the prayer-goers were situated, and kneeled among them while I gazed up in awe at the shimmering golden shrine. It had been quite a while since I’d practiced mediation on a regular basis, so I sat there amongst the prayer and worship, absorbing the sacred presence within the temple and taking a moment to reflect on my own personal spirituality.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

View from outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Myself  in front of the Grand Palace.

Myself in front of the Grand Palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

The guards are apparently favourites for taking photos outside the palace.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

Some marching guards that passed me on my way out of the palace grounds.

After spending some time within the temple, I emerged to continue the rest of my tour around the grounds of the Grand Palace. However, after wandering around in the sun for a couple of hours, I’d become quite exhausted, and so decided to make my way home. After wandering the streets looking for a taxi, and now avoiding basically every tuk tuk I encountered, I finally found a taxi rank for motorbikes. They asked me where I was going and named a price – it wasn’t too dissimilar from what I’d paid in the taxi in the way over that morning, so I accepted. Motorbikes also had the advantage of being able to weave in and out of places that cars and tuk tuks are unable to, making them a convenient choice for peak hour traffic. Knowing that my mother would possibly have a field day when she heard eventually heard about this, I climbed onto the back of the motorbike and we took off into the street.

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace - taken before I was on the motorbike!

Monument that serves as a roundabout near the palace – taken before I was on the motorbike!

It was such an exhilarating rush. Sitting with my arms pressed heavily into the sides of my driver, we weaved in and out of traffic, between lanes, cutting in front of cars and tuk tuks, zooming through the streets among the pack of other motorcycles. The wind was flying through my hair, as the driver was the only one who had a helmet, and while I know that’s incredibly dangerous, I had a weird sense of absolute trust in this driver and his knowledge of the roads. I’d had some other locals say that driving in Bangkok isn’t scary or unsafe at all, and that only driving out in the more regional areas is something they hate or refuse to do, with city driving being considered relatively safe. I hadn’t believed them at first, but as I zoomed through the open air and soaked up the scenery as we weaved between vehicles, I think I finally understood what they meant. The city almost operates like a well-oiled machine – except in the traffic jams, where a little oil mightn’t go astray – or a living organism, where no matter how hectic or chaotic the environment may seem, everything is aware of and in sync with everything else. I’ve yet to see a single accident on the roads of Bangkok – plenty of what we would call “near misses” back home, but sometimes it feels as though the drivers of Bangkok know their roads so well that they can intentionally come so close with a much lower risk of accident. A tight-knit, well-oiled machine.

Towards the end of our trip, my driver even mounted the footpath and weaved between pedestrians to get me on the right side of the road and home as quickly as possible. When I paid the driver and slipped off the back of the motorbike, he smiled at me and placed a hand on my chest, and waited a moment before chuckling to himself. I must have had a rather puzzled look, because he proceeded to mimic the action on himself, then beat his chest a coupe of times with the palm of his hand. He repeated action on my chest, and then I realised what he was trying to communicate – my heartbeat. Placing my own hand on my chest, I felt it pulsing at a ridiculous speed that I hadn’t even noticed myself. Perhaps I was still a little high from the adrenaline of soaring down the tiny streets and open roads alike on the back of that motorbike, but it wasn’t until he drove off that I realised just how much of a thrill the simple trip home had been, and how much I had really enjoyed it.

It was a short walk home from where I’d alighted the motorbike, and I skipped off down the street with a new spring in my step. For perhaps the first time during this trip I finally felt like a traveler – not just a tourist, running around trying to see the cities greatest hits, but a real traveler just taking pleasure in the simple activities and cultural quirks that my new temporary home has to offer. I’d had a few difficulties getting used to being on the road and settling into my new, inconsistent lifestyle, but it was only a matter time before the travel bug finally kicked it, and I’m now more eager than ever to see not just the rest of this sprawling city, but to keep moving and behold the wonders that this country, this continent, and indeed this world, has to offer.