Phnom Penh, the name conjures up something quite exotic, but sadly fails to fill that expectation. It is big, busy, built up but somehow lacks the same buzz that Saigon exuded or the crazy, faded French charm of Hanoi. It maybe it’s recent turbulent history that has failed to give it the spark or personality to take it to people’s hearts.
Phnom Penh sits on not one, but two large rivers, both the Mekong and the Tonle Sap meet in the centre of the city and flow on into Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. The busy riverfront area is popular with tourists and ex-pats and full of good establishments to cater for food, drink, massage and even the odd brightly painted coffin.
Amongst the cities jewels are the National Museum, which is a stunning traditional terracotta building with a stunning and serene courtyard that houses some of the best examples of Khmer sculptures and treasures from the Angkor region. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda sit close to where the two rivers meet on the riverfront and include many other ceremonial buildings set in lush, immaculate gardens (they do seem to like their formal gardens). The 5,000 silver tiles that clad the roof of the pagoda shelter priceless Buddhas, one made of Baccarat crystal and another in solid gold studded with over 9,000 diamonds.
What trip to a South East Asian country is complete without a trip to a market? We ventured by tuk tuk to the Central Market, which is a stunning sand coloured Art Deco structure that is equally impressive from the inside. Natural light is cast over the centrally placed jewelry merchants, shimmering off their already unfeasibly shiny goods to illuminate the arena. There was a sense of relief as we entered to find that eager traders looking for our last bucks were not surrounding us. A lot of the stalls actually looked abandoned, but on closer inspection traders were actually asleep amongst their goods, comfy for those selling silks and cottons, not so for hardware and toys. On the few purchases we made, it was very easy to get sucked into the patter and end up with six items instead of just one. Let’s hope Singapore Airlines are sympathetic to our extra 10kg.
We had an hour to kill one evening and took a sunset cruise on the Tonle Sap River. It was only $5, and sadly not really worth that. The clues were there if we had bothered to take them in. On a board by the quay were four pictures highlighting the points of interest, which included a half built hotel and the upper most part of the Silver Pagoda. The other two were random non descript views of a flat skyline, so from that perspective we couldn’t really be disappointed with what we got. There was an eclectic mix of about 30 passengers, everything from packpackers, businessmen, single women and a monk deep in conversation with a guy in an Arsenal shirt. We drifted passed the sites, while booming out Asian disco from the deck below, sadly even the sun was not playing ball by disappearing prematurely into the smog.
Back on terra firma, the walk along the riverfront offered plenty of entertainment. The world came out to play badminton, football and even partake in a Zumba class all in the relative darkness, lit only by the bars across the road. It was one of the few places you can walk in the city as pavements are generally covered in motorbikes and rubbish, making the busy roads the only means of walking about.
Knowing this, tuk tuk drivers are alert to any foreigner movement, usually before you even leave your hotel room. They will ask you incessantly ‘tuk, tuk?’ they will generally back down after the third or forth refusal for their services. We did have one optimistic driver ask us if we needed his chariot as we climbed out of a taxi by our hotel. We soon did resort to this mode of transport regularly. Despite having to negotiate a price every time, it was a nice way of seeing the city.
As you drift passed all the shops and markets, it strikes you that there is an awful lot of goods available, far more than the population would possibly need or could even afford. This was true of Vietnam where whole streets would be full of shops selling exactly the same goods and in such abundance. With this in mind, there was also an awful lot of waiting to be done and I mean a lot of waiting, much of it sleeping. Tuk tuk drivers were a good example of this as some would not get a fare all day, so when they did get a customer they would quite often offer to wait to bring you back later, be it 10 minutes or ten hours.
Our journey was now at an end and we spent our last few dollars on a massage to prepare us for the long journey home. The last three weeks have been an amazing experience with some great memories forged indelibly into minds. The thing I will miss the most is the everyday goings on of people going about their lives. Even on the way to the airport, eyes were still out on stalks at the crazy way life is conducted every day from people in pyjamas to pigs on motorbikes, what a place!