What Wat? Oh Wat Toul Tom Poung, that’s what wat.


Thanks to the wonders of Strava, I can pronounce the Wat we visited today to be the imaginatively titled Toul Tom Poung Wat.  Very fine it was too.

It’s been another morning of micro adventures here in Phnom Penh. So the alarm went off at 5.00 – more accurately my first alarm went off just before, and then my second alarm just afterwards.  I really do wish I could out-source the getting up bit of the day. It is always worth it once you are up and about, but seeing 5.00 a.m. in the dark anywhere in the world never feels like the best idea.  I pootled, drank the cold coffee I’d had the foresight to make last night and leave in the fridge and then ventured out along the dark passageway.  My neighbour had expressed an intention to join us, but I got no reply when I knocked on his door. I did so tentatively, I could see only darkness through his security spyhole, so I really don’t think he’d surfaced.

I had an initially abortive attempt at leaving. The security gate on the stairs was locked so that meant taking the lift.  I walked across the dark vaulted car park under the building towards the enormous iron gates which had been pulled firmly across.  The security guard was fast asleep facing them.  I tried to sneak out without waking him, but those iron bolts are not silent to move.  You can probably imagine just how silent a poorly co-ordinated and half asleep westerner would be yanking open a rusty iron gate the size of a small country .  Poor guy, he was terrified and bemused in equal measure to see me breaking out at this unearthly hour.

It was dark.  I got to the rendezvous point on my street corner to see my other companions already waiting and off we skipped (ish – i.e. not really at all) to the Olympic Stadium.  I was wearing my tomtom for the novelty value really, but hadn’t thought to charge it up properly so it was more in hope than expectation that it would record our jaunt.  On arrival, we were initially a bit perturbed.   An exercise class was most definitely taking place in our spot, but where was our feisty female instructor or her highly toned twerking male counterpart?  We joined in any way, but it wasn’t as good as usual (I know it’s only our third visit, but I still feel qualified to make comparisons). It didn’t seem as friendly, and no familiar faces in the group.  We wondered if ‘our’ instructor had maybe been moved off her patch, or whether there is some unspoken code of who gets to operate where, like buskers on the tube in London.   We joined in but it lacked the humour and exuberance of previous weeks.  Also, less informality.  A rather austere woman came round to collect cash AND it was a steep 1500 reil as opposed to our usual rate of 1000 reil.  I did wonder if she was charging us more as we were not local. Then, to add insult to injury, the class finished after about 10 minutes, and everyone vaporised.  We were a bit nonplussed.  One of us went off to explore if ‘our’ woman was actually operating a nearby patch.   Whilst she was gone a wonderous thing happened!  Our fiesty female appeared over the horizon – or more accurately up the stadium steps.  Oh joy!  I was so excited to see her I clapped, and she smiled warmly back. I actually ran after my travelling companion to share the good news, and we sprinted back to the class inadvertently holding hands much to the merriment of local people who saw our enthusiasm but had no idea what it was for!

So our class started with the now usual shenanigans as we spectacularly failed to get most of the moves.  A woman standing next to me desperately tried to coach me through some of the moves, but on the whole this was to little if not actually no avail!  She looked slightly annoyed.  I felt bad for my ineptitude.  ‘How many times have you been?’ she asked, using passable English and hand gestures to communicate the question.  ‘Three times‘ I said, smiling. She did not look impressed.  Was she thinking I should be better by now, or was she thinking it’s no wonder I don’t ever improve if I’m not ready to commit to daily attendance!  I had a brief (and passing) moment of clarity, when I saw things from the perspective of my students who only attend CWF erratically and make lamentable progress when they do. I agonise over what I can do to make my teaching technique more irresistable and compelling so they will turn up, I worry that they will not progress and will become demotivated by perceived failure.  It occured to me that maybe they are like me at this Khmer aerobics and dance offering. I just enjoy the experience when I’m there.  I have no ambitions or expectation that I’ll ever get beyond the most rudimentary level, but I’m happy enough to get stuck in and give it a go.  My attendance or otherwise has zero to do with our instructor, and everything to do with whether I can face a 5.00 a.m. start or fit it in to an already crowded day.  Maybe I should stop over-thinking and second guessing my students’ motivations.  As long as when they are there they appear engaged, are using English and having a good time, anything else is a bonus?  I’ll mull it over, meantime, which way am I supposed to be facing in this hot chillies routine again?

A highlight though was finding ourselves doing one Khmer dance routine to a Khmer version of ‘achey breaky heart’ which I have decided I would like to have played at my funeral.  You cannot hear this and not experience joy!

It was good fun, though we don’t seem to have improved.  I was taken by my friend – the older guy who has previously tried to coach me – who was this week taking part wearing a red raincoat.  For local people this weather must be genuinely cold. I still find that impossible to process!  It ended all too soon, and then we had to pay again.  The economic model of these dance/ aerobics classes is to me entirely mysterious.  I have no idea which instructors work with whom.  Oh well, it was hardly bank-breaking, especially not for me as someone else paid a dollar to cover all of us.

We actually had a plan for today, which was to visit the local Wat from whence all the many monks emerge daily in search of alms.  En route though we stopped at a very chic looking coffee bar place which has set itself up with fake grass and a smartly black painted storage container as an impromptu cafe.  It would not be out-of-place at Covent Garden. The baristas were all smartly dressed in logoed black and white T-shirts.  The coffee was really, really good and for 6000 reil ($1.50) one of the cheaper ‘proper’ coffee outlets I’ve been to in Cambodia by a country mile.  We settled down and had wide-ranging conversations taking in teaching, New Year’s Eve adventures and trying to work out what are the seven wonders of the world and then realising delightedly that we could really ask Siri and s/he knew!

We lingered quite a while, and then realising the day was pressing on, we made a move.  It was fun just exploring.  Our nurse went off on his own wanting to get back to attend to business but we two wandered on. Our explorations taking in plenty of sights including a very fine hair salon, a pizza shop clearly intended just for me, and a fabulous ‘no littering’ sign, surrounded by so much litter I’d have needed a wide angled lens to get it all in shot.  Such are the delights of the streets of Phnom Penh. It is worth being up early just so you have a sporting chance of seeing some of it on foot without being run over – though to be fair, by this time the traffic had surged again, and we nearly got run over quite a lot – less so on the side streets.

Eventually, we arrived at the Wat local to the Russian Market.  It was very beautiful, though in places pretty shabby and unkempt. It is a pagoda rather than a temple in that monks live there. There also seemed to be a school on the site.  It was a bit unclear which were public and which were private spaces, so we erred on the side of caution in our explorations.  There was an impressive central building with steps we could climb up (we removed our shoes first) and walk around the perimeter where there were a mass of closed large doors. Below seemed to be an open space with a shrine.  There was an open door, but we felt it looked like strictly monks’ territory so we didn’t venture in.  The external area was a bit rubbish filled, and there were piles of seemingly discarded snake heads, though we worked out eventually there was a cement mould amongst them, so maybe they were actually casting new ones and possibly even restoration work was in progress.  I honestly have no idea. What I do know, is that from our vantage point on high we got some great views across the city and the temple site, which was pretty extensive with living and working areas and a multitude of subsidiary shrines and an older – possibly abandoned bit within.

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There seemed to be a huge gate centrally placed at each of the four sides of what I’ll call the inner temple, though I have no idea if that’s what it actually was.   Each gate had a different animal atop it.  A cow, a turtle (which I particularly liked) a rooster, and I can’t remember the other one.  It was very surreal, we pretty much had the place to ourself, maybe the monks were all out and about alms gathering.  A couple of people taking a short cut through greeted us I did a ‘Jim reap sewer’ greeting to an older guy, and got one back, which was unexpected, as I was the one trying to give  him respect – I think maybe he was just rewarding my attempt at courtesy.  It was a really good morning out and about.

So back outside this area, and we looked around a bit more, we gazed at the abundant shrines.  At a few people paused by and kicking off their flip-flops, made brief bows and placed burning incense.  I wonder why some people choose some shrines over others. There were plenty about. There were nuns praying under cover in one area, but we stayed away from that not wanting to be disrespectful.  Then we found another area which I presume was graves or memorials around the perimeter.  It is good to explore, but somewhat strange that we had so little idea what we were looking at. We were a bit cautious in case any area was sacred or out-of-bounds, but honestly, the way local people moved through I got the impression that it is pretty much a public space.  Areas that are more significant are clearly demarked but steps or boundaries or just the little pile of shoes outside them in most instances.

Having said that, around the graves and shrines were obvious signs of improvised dwellings. One person had a hammock up within a memorial block, he seemed to be living there.  Whether he had chosen it because he had a connection to the deceased, or whether he had just appropriated it as a reasonably tucked away spot within the relative calm of the Wat I have no idea.  Elsewhere people snoozed around a buddha statue under trees.  A sleeping mat was laid out under a mosquito net, and signs of the raw materials for livelihood were abundant – carts for collecting rubbish or recyclables.  There was a lot of rubbish around, but I’d say people were living here for sure.  We felt we were intruding and didn’t explore any further.

We left and it was just a short walk to the Russian Market.  Considering how very near it is to where we live and work it’s surprising it’s taken us this long to explore it.  It was fun going down new streets and finding whole parallel populations, an enormous school with parked up bikes and scooters as far as the eye could see.  We went our separate ways. I finished my morning with a reflective breakfast at Yejj with the Phnom Pehn Daily.  Falafals.  Yum.


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