My little hotel in Battambang booked me on a locals’ bus to Phnom Penh – for the first time I was the only tourist! I was just fine with that, it was air conditioned and we didn’t make a ton of stops. Regardless it took us about 7 hours to go the 160 miles. I’ve now learned to add two hours on to any time estimate given for ground travel in SE Asia! I didn’t mind the length of the trip too much, and we were treated to an amazing thunder storm in the last couple of hours. The rain pounded down in sheets and the thunder struck in waves of multiple quick flashes – nothing like the wimpy storms we have in California! The funniest part of the bus ride was the Cambodian music videos blasting over the A/V system. My spotify selections playing in my ears couldn’t drown it out completely, so I ended up listening to an interesting mash-up (I found that Disclosure actually pairs pretty well with Cambodian pop).
Getting into Phnom Penh I forgot that I’d mentally settled on a place to stay during my online searches, but didn’t make a reservation to have the information at hand after the long journey. So I went to what Lonely Planet called “The Golden Mile” since they made it sound promising. It was far from it (thereby cementing my distrust of the guide). After checking out a few places and seeing they were all equally crappy, I settled on the Golden Gate hotel, since it was a nod to SF and the young guys at the front desk were really friendly and spoke very good English (the first time in a long time I wasn’t speaking simplified English for the benefit of my local listener). They helped me get my Vietnam visa before the consulate closed for a few days for a national Vietnamese holiday and pointed me to a good dinner spot. I can stand one night about anywhere, so no biggie.
The next day I changed to the place I originally wanted to stay – the Artist Guesthouse. It is a real gem. Friendly staff, cute modern room, and walking distance to some good restaurants and bars. Although there’s not too much to “see” in Phnom Penh I really liked the vibe there. While some told me not to bother giving it much time, I was glad I had a few days to bum around. The city is busy enough but not too crazy, has a nice riverfront, some good food, and a decent nightlife.
I travelled by foot, car, tuk tuk, motorcycle taxi, and even cyclo. Getting around was so easy! Actually sometimes there were too many tuk tuks waiting to take you around (calling out to you everywhere “tuk tuk, tuk tuk”?). I went back and forth between saying “no thanks” and just ignoring them to create some peace (because sometimes any response, even a “no,” got me a long list of question “where you going…where you going tomorrow, you need driver…you want to see killing fields…?”). But if I wasn’t walking, I’d usually opt for the motorcycle taxi, since they charge you 1/3 the price and were less pushy. Most of the time it’s very efficient getting around this way, unless of course the moto driver claims to know where you want to go when he really doesn’t. I had one ride where we had to stop twice to ask directions from other drivers waiting on the side of the street – this is when having access to Google maps really saves you! You’ll eventually find someone who can read the map or, if the data is working well enough, you can actually try to communicate to the driver where to go (which also doesn’t always work)! But not being on any real schedule, I found that adventure pretty entertaining. And since I always agree on a flat price first, there is no real down side to getting a free tour of the city.
I also love how much of life is lived on the street here. Even in a bigger city like Phnom Penh, it was common to see the sidewalks being used from everything from a cobbler’s workspace to a barber shop. The sidewalks are not for walking here, they’re for eating, parking, lounging, plying your trade, and just about anything else you can think of. This is why most of the time you end up walking in the street, trusting that you won’t get run over by the many variety of wheeled vehicles zooming about.
I met several French ex-pats living in PP. One place I stumbled into was owned by a French guy who’d married a local and had three adorable young kids running around. There was so much love and joy in that little bar that it felt right to just hangout for a while. Funny enough, when I asked them what to see on my last day in PP, neither of them could tell me – they don’t get out to tour, they said. I realized that they had everything they needed just where they were. They were happy. And that isn’t something I see every day.
I joined up with the Aussies I’d met in Battambang to visit the killing fields and the old high school converted into a prison by Pol Pot (Tuol Sleng Museum or S-21). It was a very hard day. On my two-day cruise on the Mekong in Laos, I read a book by a woman who was a child living in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took over (First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung). It gave me some good background on what it was like to live through that time and made me feel a bit more prepared for visiting these sites. But really what can prepare you for seeing the evidence of mass genocide? Nothing.
In the book the author also painted a picture of her life in Phnom Penh before the forced evacuation. Her descriptions made me want to ride in a cyclo and try crispy fried insects – I did both! I also visited the huge central market – of course, markets in Asia are one of my favorite things, they are so lively and crazy. I decided to look for a t-shirt or something there, so I could change out of the one I was wearing. Turns out black is not the perfect travel color for humid places. I noticed white spots on the front of my shirt (right where the strap of my bag goes across) and realized it was salt stains from my sweat – gross! But there is no way not to sweat here, no kidding! I’ve now come to the conclusion that grey is the best neutral color here. White doesn’t stay white and black, well I just mentioned why that’s not the best! So I ended up buying a cute little striped dress at the market. I thought the woman was saying it came in “three size[s]” but then realized she was saying “free size,” i.e., one size fits all…well, all Asians – it just barely fit me, and was much shorter than I’d expected!
While by the time I left I did feel ready to get on with my Vietnam adventure, I surely could have been happy lingering in Phnom Penh a bit longer.