Phnom Penh was certainly a city of surprises, in many different ways. On the one hand, you’ve got the desperately poor people, and the horrifying relatively recent genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. On the other, you’ve got a city which is rising up from the ashes and changing from what seems like a small regional centre at first glance, into a worthy capital of Cambodia. There’s a great sense of change here, with roads being reworked everywhere, paths being laid along the riverfront, and piping and drainage systems being improved. The people are embracing the increasing levels of tourism too, with the tourism industry obviously being a major contributor to the local economy.
We spent four nights in Phnom Penh, and after the initial shock on the first day where we witnessed the result of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, we spent a bit of time viewing the present state of the city, and our first glance at modern Cambodia. Starting with a walking tour of the city, we did many of the major sights in our second full day. The National Museum was definitely a worthy start to this, with an impressive array of Khmer statues representing the Khmer Empire’s history of association with Hinduism and Buddhism – with the Hindu statues being similar to (but with a different angle to) what we’d seen in India. A really interesting exhibition, and despite the age of some of the statues and other items, they were in great condition.
We also visited Phnom Wat, the only hill in town – and it is barely a hill, not high at all! Still, on top of the hill was a Buddhist temple complete with monks playing a strange percussion instrument but producing some very soothing sounds. There were also a few monkeys up there, and apparently there are elephant rides around the base of the hill – but I didn’t see any elephants and I’m not sure the hill was big enough to make an elephant ride around it worthwhile!
In addition to this, we did a quick sweep through a shopping centre (to feed my new-found interest in shopping) and checked out the train station – a nice building but it looked completely abandoned. Apparently the only trains in Cambodia are freight trains, and the railways are in such an awful condition that the trains only travel at around 20km/hr. No doubt, given time, they will be upgraded.
The following day we also spent a few hours at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The palace is the permanent residence of the reigning monarch of Cambodia, so there are parts of it which are cordoned off, but we did see what I think was an impressive throne room, and some beautiful gardens.
We also saw the Silver Pagoda – a large building in which the floor is covered in thousands of silver tiles (many carpeted over to protect them), but you can see a few thousand on display in a cordoned off area. The pagoda also contains Buddha statues, some covered in extravagant diamonds and other jewels. The courtyard was also very beautiful, containing several Buddhist shrines. We came across a group of monks, who were very keen to have a picture taken with the two of us. They look very serious for pictures, but as soon as the camera is off they are full of smiles and jokes – all the monks I’ve met so far have been really friendly and light-hearted – not nearly as serious as I thought they would be!
We’ve spent more time sitting around having coffees and other drinks in Phnom Penh than anywhere else. There are a lot of very comfortable cafes and restaurants along the riverfront, and a lot of them offer free wireless internet connections for customers – handy when you want to get online while you have your coffee! Restaurants along the riverfront and beyond offer a wide range of food – both Khmer (Cambodian) and other Asian, but also a large variety of Western food for those who want it. We’ve been trying the Khmer food – so far, I’ve enjoyed it all – sort of a blend of Thai and Chinese I guess. The market and street stalls are very interesting too, but I haven’t seen too much that I would want to eat on them. There is a lot of meat on offer – roasted sparrows, frogs, sausages and other things which I could only guess at. However, getting smaller you’ll also find roasted insects – namely crickets, cockroaches and spiders – I’ll pass on those!
The people here are the friendliest we’ve met, and everyone smiles (even when they try to rip you off). It makes walking down the street a little bit nicer, as people walk up to you offering their wares (often children offering books), but they’re really sweet about it and you can’t help but smile at them while saying no. The children are especially sweet, with big smiles, and I’ve found myself carrying sweets to give them rather than money for when they beg. On the other side, there is a certain degree of sleaze – you see a lot of older foreign gentlemen courting young Cambodian women and treating them to meals out etc. While I know the women wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t need to, and they’re probably getting a good deal of money out of it, it does feel like exploitation on behalf of the men, whatever their intentions.
On the whole I’m really enjoying Cambodia and have enjoyed Phnom Penh very much. It seems like there’s a lot to see here, and transportation is not as much of an issue as I thought it would be. On the other hand, the recent history of the country really tugs on the heartstrings – you can’t help but feel for the beggars and the many poor people of the country, knowing the misery that probably put them in the situation they’re in, or the misery experienced by their parents and families. No doubt there will be a lot more of the good and the bad to come, but I’m looking forward to it either way.
A little video until we get the pictures sorted: