We’ve ended our “inspircation” in Southeast Asia in the city of Phnom Penh. I’ve fallen behind on the daily blog, but not because we’ve been more busy—ironically, it’s because we’ve slowed down a bit and have been taking it a bit more easy.
We arrived her via bus from Siem Reap. We actually missed the pick-up from our hotel by the van that would take us to the bus depot, so we had to jump into a tuk-tuk and race across the city. At one point, our driver suddenly pulled over and passed me the phone. Turned out it was the hotel calling, saying that they had forgotten to charge me for one of our tours that we had booked through them (at about that exact moment I had been wondering why our bill was so low). So we had to hurriedly arrange payment, then we were off again. We managed to catch our bus to Phnom Penh, though just barely.
The drive between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is a leisurely four or five hours, with obligatory stops at markets and restaurants. The company we book through, Giant Ibis, has comfortable buses, fully air-conditioned and supplied with internet. We enjoyed watching the Cambodian countryside roll by—seemingly endless rice fields, herds of cattle, and massive flocks of domestic white ducks.
Once we arrived in Phnom Penh, we gathered our embarrassing amount of luggage, hired a tuk tuk and he took us through the city towards our hotel.
I have a former student living and volunteering in this city and, prior to our arrival, she had warned us it would be pretty wild. But we have cut our teeth on cities such as Bangkok and Hanoi, so we actually found Phnom Penh quite sedate by comparison.
To begin with, there is only 1.5 million people here (compared to Bangkok’s 8.3 million and Hanoi’s 7.5 million). There is no constant honking by the traffic and we wonder if this is at least partly due to the fact that there are a lot less scooters here. Cars are more prevalent. Don’t get me wrong—there are a lot of scooters here; it’s just nothing like Hanoi.
Once we settled into our hotel, we met up with my old student, Dona, and we got caught up while wandering the city. Dona was worried about how we might do crossing the traffic—but once again, it’s a breeze here compared to Bangkok or Hanoi.
The city has a very modern feel to it, especially at night, when all the lights are pulsing.
As you can see by the above photo, there is lots of space for pedestrians on the wide walkways between the avenues.
The next day, we met up with Dona again and checked out the city by natural light. I’ve found it to be a mixture of French colonial architecture, dilapidated buildings, and sheik modern architecture . . .
The people themselves are incredibly friendly and most everyone in the service industry (that includes people selling at the markets) speaks excellent English.
We spent the first part of the day exploring the Russian Market, which is a giant beehive of stalls and stores and, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with Russia whatsoever. You can buy all sorts of good there, everything from sprocket wrenches to clothes. And, of course, food!
We bought some fruit on the street, including some that I’ve never heard of. For example, here’s something called “snake fruit.” It’s aptly named; just check out the husk:
It reminds me of one of Daenerys’s dragon eggs in Game of Thrones.
After the market, Dona expressed a desire to try a Cambodian photo shoot. We decided to indulge her, so made our way to a studio and arranged a shoot for that very day. Marcie and Dona were instantly whisked away to a make-up room where a pair of women began clucking away and working on their hair and faces. I didn’t get any such treatment—I just had to watch!
After this portion of the process, we were escorted to another room and dressed up in our costumes. Unfortunately, by body is decidedly not designed for traditional Cambodian clothing. The attendants had to make many adjustments to make it all fit.
Eventually (and by “eventually” I mean an hour and a half), we were ready for our shoot. We were positioned against a white background and the photograph began posing and positioning us and clicking the shots.
Afterwards, we were taken to the computer lab to see our shots and to select from the options. Here’s the final photos we chose, and how they turned out . . .
The removal of the costumes and the make-up was a lot quicker than the set up. In fact, Marcie and Dona showed their remnants for the rest of the night:
We had an amazing dinner in a restaurant situated on the Mekong River, and while the boats trundled past, we talked about art, literature, film and about Dona’s experiences living in the city and her attempts to learn Khmer. (For the record, I think her Khmer is pretty good!)
The following day, Marcie set out to visit Choeung Ek, the best known and most-visited site of the Killing Fields. I want to save a discussion of our visit there for a future post, but for now I just want to say that we quite enjoyed the tuk-tuk ride there and back, as it afforded us a closer look at the daily city life of the people.
Similar to Hanoi, the traffic we zipped in and out of was a mixture of modern cars, scooters, bicycles, and other tuk-tuks. Some people were laden with traditional wares, such as this banana peddler:
Other wares, are a bit less traditional:
As we left behind the city, the roads became less busy and we saw the humble homes and shops of the people, as well as a lot more children and old people, cycling about, engaging in their daily activities.
The thing we found the most heart-breaking about the countryside is the level of garbage. It’s everywhere. And I mean everywhere.
The above photo is just a typical sight that greeted us as we rode along in our tuk-tuk. It’s hard to imagine the level of effort it would take to clean-up this amount of garbage. It’s a typical aspect found in developing countries, but it still makes me feel despondent.
On our way back from the killing fields, we encountered rush hour traffic. Here’s a shot from the back of our tuk-tuk. Our driver was facing a wall of cars and scooters and he had to turn left through it all, against multiple competing streams of vehicles.
He handled it far better than we did.
Once we made it back to our hotel, we refreshed with a drink and dinner, then met Dona again, this time to see some traditional Cambodian dancing. I always love to see this type of cultural expression when we’re in a new country, as it is so deeply connected to the ancient lore and legends of a place.
The Cambodian dancing did not disappoint. We were mesmerized by the costumes and the way the female dancers’ fingers gently bent backwards in an arc.
In particular, I really enjoyed the enactment of the story of Hanuman, which I knew from my study of Indian mythology. Turns out, it migrated to Cambodia, and the dancers performed it with great aplomb—especially the actors who portrayed the monkeys. They wore colourful masks (reminding me a bit of the flying monkeys in 1939 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz film) and nimbly leapt about the stage and even into the aisles of the audience.
The next time I blog, I’ll post our experiences at the killing fields. To be honest, we’re still digesting it.
4 thoughts on “Our days in Phnom Penh: culture, creativity, and a lot more cars”
Love looking at your journeys!!
You are doing so much that will leave imprints in your memory for your writing and art!!
Thank you, Linda! Yes, it’s been very inspirational!
Very much enjoyed the photo shoot. We’re you going for a Lara Croft Tomb Raider scene or more of an Indiana Jones Temple of Doom vibe in the one where you are fighting over artifacts?
Ha! In that one, I’m afraid it’s just spur-of-the-moment “us” vibe. The photographer told us to do “free-style” and gave us literally five seconds before he started clicking!