Puttering Around Phnom Penh
ABBA music was blaring as our bus pulled out of Siem Reap headed to Phnom Penh. To be precise it was a bootleg copy of the movie Mamma Mia! that was skipping as the bus sped through the Cambodian countryside. Minus Pierce Brosnan’s laughable singing, it was actually a pretty pleasant drive and a quick lunch break in the middle of the trip made the 4.5 hour trip go by quickly. My colleague and friend in Jakarta, Christi, had lived in Phnom Penh for two years so she gave me a list of places to see. She suggested spending some time at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. We whiled away a few hours and watched the sky change over the convergence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.
I really enjoyed the days we spent in Phnom Penh. Things move slower, probably because it is a much smaller capital city than Bangkok and Jakarta. It was easy to walk everywhere and the mix of old colonial buildings was right up my alley. I even got to see a housemate from college who has been teaching in Phnom Penh. It was fun to go out with her and her boyfriend to a less touristy bar and catch up.
Locals hang out and work out next to the river:
We strolled through the laid-back city and did the pretty typical tourist itinerary as well.
Royal Palace: When I am on vacation I like to take it slow. The Royal Palace staff likes to lunch between the hours of 11 and 2, so this meant I had to speed up my morning routine. It was worth seeing the palace with its ornate buildings and gifts from French royalty. Oh and then there’s that gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds, no photography of course.
Also, I decided I must some day have bushes shaped like elephants in my yard:
A mini Angkor Wat:
Anyone know what these flowers/tree/bush is? I thought they were really beautiful.
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Museum: Early one morning we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us a bit out of Phnom Penh to the Killing Fields. The same emotions of deep sadness, not much of desire to speak, and general ‘why are humans so horrid to each other’ came over me much like it had at a concentration camp in Germany and a town in Western Ukraine obliterated by the Nazis and Soviets. It’s odd to tour a place where horrible things once took place. We listened to the well-made audio guide tour and grimaced as we walked and read signs:
Many prisoners were bludgeoned to death to avoid using bullets. I won’t go into the history here, but I think the sight is worth a visit.
Following our tour of the Killing Fields, we returned to Phnom Penh and went to the prison informally known as S-21 where many were held before being taken to the killing fields. I had read a lot during my work year about the ongoing trials of the Khmer Rouge leadership. Needless to say, it’s a complicated and messy process that began many years after the horrific human rights crimes they committed.
Less than 10 people were found alive when the Vietnamese liberated the prison.
Russian Market: Also known as Psar Tuol Tom Pong, this was a fantastic labyrinth of a market. Lonely Planet tells me the Russians liked to shop here back in the 1980s so that was how it got its very un-Khmer nickname.
Hard bargaining is a must here and you can often get two or three items for the original price of one:
The Haircut: Outside of our hotel a few street barbers had set up shop. Victor was in desperate need of a haircut. When we came out of the hotel only one barber was working. When he saw Victor was interested, he called over a tuk-tuk driver (yes, everyone has more than one useful professional skill). Then he pulled out a long straight edge and got to work. Both Victor and I were really nervous and I was praying he wouldn’t get nicked. In the end, all turned out fine and the barber/tuk-tuk driver probably got the biggest tip of his life.
Close to our hotel was a charming street, 240 to be exact, which was lined with nice shops, restaurants and cafes.
Before we knew it, we had to head to the airport, where our flight on Laos Airlines was not listed on any monitors…
Where to Stay: Pavilion Hotel is a centrally located boutique hotel. We decided to splurged in Phnom Penh and paid $75 a night. This was one of my favorite hotels I stayed in while in Asia. Worth it. Did I mention the complimentary massage?