Updated: Nov 12, 2018
The streets of Phnom Penh. The sights, the sounds, the smells and above all the people. It was Saturday, so the roads were a bit emptier than when we arrived, but it was still amazing to watch the street life. Thousands of mopeds of all different shapes and sizes and adaptations mingling with street sellers, food vendors, the out spill of retail stores, pedestrians, tuktuks, buses, trucks & more than their fair share of very big, expensive western SUVs. There is wealth here, for sure, but it is limited to very few. Most make their way earning a few meagre dollars a day, but nevertheless do it with a smile. At lunchtime we sat in the Foreign Correspondents Club enjoying a drink or two as we were free of the bikes for a day, simply watching the street below. The FCC is situated overlooking the river, at the point where the Tonle Sap meets the Mekong. Two mighty rivers colliding, or it looked more like colluding today as there was nere a ripple. Another form of street life, the river traffic proved just as fascinating. At first I thought a long barge was sinking, but it was so heavily laden, the water was lapping over and around the front and back, just the raised cargo hold walls keeping the river from engulfing it. We watched it’s slow progress with bated breath. But as it disappeared, another appeared just as heavily laden, so it wasn’t a mistake. One came downriver but it was suddenly much much larger, or appeared so because it had obviously dumped its cargo & was returning for more. They carried on like this all the time we were there.
So we decided to stop in Phnom Penh for the day & ride on tomorrow. I had to look around my old city to see if I recognised anything or if it brought back any old memories. We took a tuktuk to the northernmost part of the city we intended to browse, to Wat Phnom, the ancient temple after which Phnom Penh was named. Except not so ancient as it was completely destroyed in the bad years & rebuilt in the 1990’s. They did it well because I was not aware of this fact until after I had seen it & I could not have faulted it. It is actually one of the most serene & calm and understated of Wat’s I have been in. Surrounded by well manicured grounds, it sits atop a knoll that is actually a very large roundabout. From there we headed south on foot, much to the chagrin of the tuktuk drivers who are obviously not used to seeing foreigners walk around their city, or don’t want to become used to it anyway. It is not an easy city to walk in, as we found out last night, because pavements are generally non-existent, there is not a flat & even surface anywhere except on the roadway itself (sometimes) & the roads are completely crowded out. However, adopting the same principle as if we were riding, you simply strike out with confidence, move when you absolutely have to & make the smaller stuff move around you!
We went to the central city market next, which is massive & the stalls encircling the main interior space are crammed. Everything is available, if you are happy to navigate the maze. I was looking for some lightweight trousers & came out with some Bluetooth headphones - go figure... I was also looking for some adhesive to help glue the sole of one of my motorcycle boots back on. Only partially off, it may have to survive the ride to Seam Reap tomorrow as I didn’t find any. I have a feeling if I simply handed my boots to one of the stalls they would have been fixed in a jiffy, so it will be tomorrow by the roadside probably.
It was lunchtime & too early for the Royal Palace which opens at 2, so that’s when we headed for the FCC. The main area is on the second floor & completely open to the street with a bar & stools running along the outside. So we sat & street watched. I was accosted by an American who was convinced I was ‘Michael’ simply because I had a “camera with a big lens” who was supposed to be giving him a tour. It was tempting to change my name & make some travelling cash by showing him around, but how to choose between that & my gin & tonic? When you are at a bar in this part of the world, they inevitably put down a dish of nuts for you to nibble on. Presumably to make you thirsty so you drink more. The FCC took this to a new extreme by adding chillies to the nuts - it only takes one handful!
The Royal Palace I do remember (in parts) from my time here before & it is a magnificent collection of buildings in beautifully manicured grounds. You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside two of the main buildings, which is a shame, but there is plenty more to focus on. Of course, a picture from there would seem a logical choice to head up this blog, but for me, the sleeping tuktuk driver on the streets is much more the real Phnom Penh than the fancy roofs. There were the inevitable coach tours that spewed into the palace grounds, like ants escaping from an anthill, but we luckily got there just as it opened & went the other way around than the arrows & the tour guides, so we managed to see more than half of the area without many people.
Taking a tuktuk, we then moved on to the sad part of Phnom Penh’s history (although the rebuilding of the Wat & reconstruction of some parts of the palace are reminders), going to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The ‘museum’ is actually the real site & buildings of the imprisonment, torture & execution centre during the Pol Pot regime. It was originally a secondary school & in 1975, the Pol Pot regime transformed it into S.21, Security office 21. It was the source & feeding pool of the ‘killing fields’ of which the main ones are about 15Km outside the city. We sat & watched a film, where 3 survivors (2 inmates and one guard) are interviewed in detail about their stories. Heartbreaking. The fact that Pol Pot’s own people were also regularly ‘disappeared’ means that it was a tragedy for all sides. Everyone had to play the part they were told to play or they were tortured & executed. Extermination is the only word that covers the extent of the genocide. But it wasn’t just the brutal torture & killing; nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population died during Pol Pot’s years due to overwork, malnourishment & general mistreatment. So you were at just as much risk of dying working in the fields... The sheer insanity & total meaninglessness of it all is depressing. We walked back to the hotel afterwards, mostly lost in our own thoughts. We aren’t going to travel to the ‘killing fields’ tomorrow. I’m not interested in subjecting myself to more misery here & I think we’ve already seen the source of that finality. I don’t need more huge piles of skulls to drive the message home :(
Had to have a long, long shower after that & luckily this hotel has got one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of standing under. For dinner, in contrast to our fine dining last night, we opted for a Trip Advisor recommendation for a good Indian restaurant. It happened to be 50m from our hotel. They did say that the decor wasn’t up to much, so sharing our table space with a couple of mopeds next to the street, while Simon observed a rat running up and down the street behind me fulfilled that expectation! It was a family run restaurant, we read, & everything is cooked fresh to order, so don’t expect fast service. We didn’t expect & we didn’t get. But when the food arrived, I think it is one of the best curry’s I’ve ever had. I had a real Chicken Korma, not the insipid, plasticised version you get on the North Shore, but a real, slightly spicy, wonderfully tasty dish, accompanied by perfect rice. The best bit? Our meals, with 3 beers and a large bottle of water was US$16... I’d go back, like a shot!
Now because I had my camera in hand all day, I took rather a lot & I know I’m going to go mad in Seam Reap over the next couple of days, as Angkor Wat is sort of the central point of this trip for me, so you may have to wait for the gallery to catch up over the next week. It also might start to get rather large - I’m completely hopeless at culling my own work - so I may end up splitting it up into several galleries. Just warning you! For now, you can find RiKsRovingRant Gallery live now.