So here I am! I awoke in the small hours, with my body clock completely confused, and then did that being absolutely fast asleep when alarm actually went off. We hadn’t made any rendezvous plans for breakfast as such. I went down to eat just as the others were departing. I felt a bit bereft, I’m not over-confident about exploring Phnom Penh on my own, but didn’t really want to impose on the others if they were wanting to do stuff independently, plus, they were clearly ahead of me in terms of being up, fed, awake and ready to go. Oh well. In the hotel there was a cook at the ‘egg station’ who made omelette on request. I’ve seen this in Vietnam, but don’t know if it is actually an Asian thing, or just that it is only in Vietnam first, and now Cambodia I’ve stayed in hotels posh enough for this to be a thing. Anyway, the Cook made me an omelette, and let me take a photo too, which must seem weird to him, but some things need noting! I saw the ‘others’ leaving en masse through the window. OK, so I’m on my own for the day. Eek.
I’m still garnering confidence about how to get around in Phnom Penh. I began by sneaking a couple of photos through the hotel restaurant window.
Then I opted for a quick turn around. Chances are everyone would be heading in the direction of the nearest and impressive Wat Phnom – reception it would be about a 15 minute walk, getting out there is the only way to build confidence, and soak it all up. You only have to step out onto the street and it is like entering a strange parallel universe. Right outside our hotel there was a wedding marquee being erected, men up ladders manoeuvred on them using them like giant stilts to effortlessly reposition them so they didn’t have the inconvenience of going up and down the ladder over and over again. Look up, and there are cables and wiring twisted everywhere like overgrown vines. It is true that construction is all around, Phnom Penh is being recreated second by second. Blocks powering up everywhere. It is an assault on the senses. Unfamiliar sounds, petrol, fumes, cooking smells, smoke from fires are really common, stench of rotting veg and bad drains is also everywhere. Sometimes in comes in waves, sometimes you are in the midst of a particularly focused assault. At one point I walked along a long graffiti covered wall that can only be described as pee city. It was particularly unsavoury, the stench was overwhelming, I politely ignored one man who was (perhaps impolitely, or perhaps with practical pragmatism) mid-pee up it, contributing to the urea overload. (No, I didn’t take a photo of that). Other impressions though. So much to take in! You don’t have to be an expert in Cambodian politics to raise an eyebrow at the extraordinary concentration of expensive four by four monster vehicles parked bumper to bumper the whole way along the lavishly appointed anticorruption building. Loving the llama mart – doesn’t sell actual llamas as far as I’m aware. but then I never actually went in to check, so you never know.
I don’t know how, because I wasn’t going particularly fast, but just as I got to Wat Phnom, I caught up with some of group. I was relieved to see them, it’s definitely more fun exploring with other people. According the Lonely Planet guide-book, this wat is built on the only hill in Phnom Penh. Local people do go, but it was pretty touristy. I initially stepped over a low rope by mistake, not realising that there was an entry fee to get in for tourists (locals are free), it’s only a dollar, I looked suitably contrite, and we all paid our dues and then went round wat together.
It was hot, at the Wat. Very hot. It was a lot to take in, and I wished I’d had the foresight to bring a guide-book with me, although maybe it’s good sometimes just to soak it all in. The architecture is impressive. We also saw a few, monkeys and (slightly bizarrely) some domestic rabbits. There was a lot of incense burning, and that made me sneeze, plus lots of photo ops – a local wanted a shot with all of us which was entertaining if unexpected. There were many birds in cages to be released. I seem to remember in Thailand many years ago being told that people pay to release them to get good karma, but then the poor creatures are so thirsty, they end up flying back into their cages in search of water, so it’s horrible really. BEing in a relatively cool and quiet green space was lovely but I didn’t really know what I was looking at and at times felt a bit uncomfortable being in this space gazing around with naive incomprehension whilst some were there making offerings. Then again if they charge admission that surely constitutes a visitor attraction so maybe it was ok to be there. I did wonder if the two Australians should have been more modestly dressed, but no-one passed comment, so maybe that was OK here. I would have covered up personally, and indeed did so.
Hot and increasingly bothered, we briefly marvelled at an enormous clock laid out in the grounds. It seemed to even show the correct time which was pretty impressive.
We wandered back towards the central market. It does indeed have everything in a circle. No real hassle but everyone wanted customers clearly. We agreed to separate for an hour I went in search of Sim – was proud of myself for succeeding in this. You get used to people calling out ‘tuk tuk’ or ‘sim’ or whatever and so up to a point just walk on by. HOwever, on this occasion on hearing ‘sim, sim’ I thought, ‘you know what, that is indeed what I want’ so went to investigate. Upshot was that I bought a sim card ($3) and $5 top up. Not convinced it worked, I couldn’t phone out but the guy showed me it worked by dialing his own mobile. Oh well. I subsequently found out that to get a new sim I should have been asked to produce my passport apparently. What? This is what happens if you go to a ‘proper’ shop. Oh well, glad I went to an improper stall, way less hassle!
This mission accomplished, I then I walked in circles, giddy tired and feeling the heat and dehydrated too. I decided to stop for an iced coffee and made new best friend Khomalene Sao, I sat on one of her red plastic stools and had coffee whilst she was happy to chat. She has one year old child, it takes her 1.5 hours to get to work but the coffee bar where she was working is in fact her own business and just 2 months old. At 1.00 pm she will go to her actual job at a call centre until 9.00. p.m. Blimey. She was good company – taught me some more Khmer, told me where to visit and asked to be friend on Facebook. Plus acquiesced to a photo – wanting to be in it too which was fine and fun. warned me about fake cheap coffee on sale elsewhere too. I felt really cheered. It’s cheesy I know, but having a chat with a local person about what they do, made me feel more confident about living and working in Phnom Penh in just a couple of weeks’ time. It just normalised things I suppose. I want to get to know local people, not just hang out with expats.
I went in search of others, and it turned out we’d all got to the rendezvous point early, feeling a bit on the verge of heat exhaustion. We wound our way back to hotel and then stopped at fab training restaurant project almost directly opposite our hotel. The Romdeng Restaurant Phnom Penh, which is actually one of a chain of ethical training projects across Cambodia, so that was good. A sanctuary of green, even a pool fab food – tarantulas and crickets on the menu! I had yummy tofu and veg also mango and mint smoothie. It was a real moment of calm.
I took a couple of photos of the stock of a roadside pet shot just directly opposite our hotel. Bizarre. It is all so very local, like you’d nip to the shops to get yourself some toilet paper and a white dove. As you do apparently (only not the toilet paper obviously, that is more a western indulgence I’m guessing as it isn’t available everywhere you try, though it is very gettable if you try again).
Then found I was locked out of my room for some reason, so I was a bit late for rendezvous and drive to killing fields. My that was something. More of which later. For now, let’s just say today was a day of two halves. Nothing equates to the experience of visiting the Killing Fields and S21. A separate post on that will follow. Not something I’m looking forward to writing about to be honest, but is a story that needs to be told and retold.