Phnom Penh: a chaotic 48 hours of adventure
Phnom Penh is bustling, vibrant, crazy, smelly and completely filthy.
It’s a mishmash of city and slum, with a vibe that simultaneously excites me and sets me on edge.
We’ve only been here two days, but it feels like a week. A mostly good week.
Thursday was a day of introductions, lessons, exhaustion and overwhelming Phnom Penh experiences.
I was ripped off the moment we landed, being charged extra for a “normal” visa rather than the tourist visa I was supposed to be receiving. I made sure to tell Felix to specifically ask for a tourist visa, so he avoided my mistake.
From the Phnom Penh airport, we exchanged some money, changed into cooler clothes, and jumped on a tuk tuk. I think we were overcharged again, but it’s hard to know what something is supposed to be worth, so we went with it and tipped him anyway.
Tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh, I had been told, often don’t know where they’re going, and don’t use google maps, so I showed him our host’s phone number and he rang her up and had an animated discussion before we set off.
The traffic in Phnom Penh is INSANE. I don’t know why there are lane markings, because NOBODY bothers with them. Huge trucks, large cars, thousands of tuk tuks and millions of motorbikes weave around one another, honking, pushing in front of oncoming traffic, going the absolute wrong way, driving on the sidewalk (when there is one, which is rare).
Our Airbnb host met us, smiling, outside her house and showed us in. She gave us free bottled water, a map and guidebook, and some advice on what to do on our first day. It was only 9am, so we had plenty of time to before it would be acceptable to sleep.
First, her neighbour, the tuk tuk driver, took us to Wat Phnom, a temple on a hill in Phnom Penh. It was overwhelming for a couple of overtired westerners, but beautiful anyway.
The sparrows you saw above were in a crowded cage. It looked horribly cruel to have so many birds in one tiny cage, with no food or water.
Apparently, that was the point.
As we walked around Phnom Penh, I kept seeing overcrowded cages of sparrows near stalls of flowers and other religious offerings, so I had a bit of a google.
It turns out, the birds are a part of a Buddhist ritual, purchased from neighbouring villages for ‘sale’ in the city.
Buddhists, tourists, or anybody else can purchase their freedom for a small sum of money. Once the money is paid, the birds are allowed to fly away. This is usually done in pairs, and signifies ‘buying’ a bit of personal merit through a gesture of compassion.
It’s interesting, but very sad, as the cage bottoms are often littered with dead birds who were not lucky enough to secure their freedom.
After walking around the city for quite some time looking for the Central Market, we eventually found it.
Filled with completely overwhelming smells and noises, we saw every possible kind of food (mostly raw meat hanging on hooks or still-wiggling fish and lobsters flipping out of pots and onto the ground).
It was confronting, and intense, but eventually we located a cooked food section, and sat down with a bowl of noodle soup from a particularly persistent vendor. The bread was excellent.
We also tried some strange sweet pastries which we weren’t terribly fussed on.
Then we walked and walked and walked and walked and walked until I couldn’t walk anymore, and sat beneath a coconut palm with the bodies of a number of unlucky ‘blessed’ sparrows.
The Sisowath Quay is Phnom Penh’s main riverside walk. It’s alive with the sound of those poor birds, the honking of crazy traffic, and the screaming of street vendors. It’s quite pleasant, but also simply exhausting, so we hopped up and went in search of a cafe or bar where we could while away the next few hours. It was still way too early to go to bed.
We stumbled across the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC for short) which used to be the meeting spot for foreign journalists covering the deadly Khmer Rouge regime back in the 70s.
Now, it’s a busy tourist spot with a delicious range of coffees, wine, beer, cocktails and food, with an incredible view of the river. We ordered a double espresso each and then poured over the cocktail menu.
Everything from the FCC was extremely good.
While sitting at the bar, we noticed a couple of ships that seemed way too low in the water. Then the exact same ship, sitting where it looked like it was supposed to be sitting. We asked a staff member what was going on.
It turns out they’re carting sand from the banks of the Mekong River for use in making concrete and for other construction purposes.
The locals are upset by this, as it’s causing horrible erosion, with some houses just falling into the river.
I was also curious about why everyone seemed to be wearing long sleeved clothing despite the intense heat and humidity.
“People want white skin,” explained the waitress. “They protect it from the sun.”
An answer I wasn’t expecting. Imagine the heat of Australia, but still wearing jumpers and gloves.
We drank a couple of unusual cocktails and then walked a long way through the city in search of a safe looking restaurant, but found our way back to the FCC for dinner.
Pepper and chilli infused vodka with passionfruit in the foreground. Dark rum and some other stuff in the background.Walking out of the building after our meal, I wasn’t feeling great. A very sore back and slightly queasy stomach had been bothering me for awhile, and I wanted to go back to the Airbnb.
We booked the first tuk tuk driver that approached us, and headed on our way.
The traffic was ten times more chaotic than it had been that morning. I can barely believe, despite having seen it with my own eyes, that traffic like that can function without constant collisions. But we haven’t seen one.
Finally, after a long, long ride, we were back in the vicinity of the Airbnb. But the driver dropped us off in a funny place, and grabbed my arm to ‘get me out of the way of people who might want to steal my wallet’.
I tipped him, and we went on our way, scaring the hell out of the family eating dinner where I thought our Airbnb was. We were on the wrong street.
Eventually we figured it out and, with great relief, fell asleep after one of the most intense days of our lives.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I realised my wallet had been snatched during the arm-grabby moment of the evening before.
Yesterday, with the adventures of Western Union, emergency cash, the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum, is a story for later.
Today is a day for a massage and a bit of relaxing.
Until next time.