Overcoming First Day Nerves In Phnom Penh
CAMBODIA’S CAPITAL CITY | Darrin Henry
All five senses are hit with a full frontal mugging by Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh; all five exposed to the thick humidity of this exotic street life as we step out to explore on our first full day in the country.
It’s 9am and already temperatures are well over 30 deg C, but we are stubborn in our determination to walk the 3km from the hotel into town, even though I’ve been suffering with a cold; (man flu).
The traffic is relentless and we can’t always find space to walk on the pavements, so we’re nervously trekking single file at times on the moped filled road clutching our bags tightly, conscious of warnings about ‘bag snatching’ motorbike thieves.
Regular advice in a new city is, ‘try not to look like a tourist,’ but two weeks into this south east Asia adventure we’ve given up on that. We know we look different, we stand out a mile, and dammit, I need to use this street map or I’ll get lost.
We’re looking at a half hour walk at least ahead of us. A tuk tuk is only $4, but we want the up close and personal experience. No problem really, but Phnom Penh’s lack of street signs means old fashioned map reading skills are being tested.
The street food scene is somewhat intimidating. It’s difficult to tell if these steaming pots and low plastic stools are pavement restaurants or families cooking lunch. I want to stop, examine closer but we’re just feet away and it feels intrusively nosey; rude. I’m not confident enough to take the camera out yet.
It’s easier to stare at the traffic, a never ending stream of creatively laden two and three wheeled machines.
Phnom Penh is eye-balling us, testing if we want to be here in the heat and noise and darting motorbikes; but it’s thrilling and as we approach the city centre without mishap our confidence is growing.
We stop in the shade of a street corner on Preah Sihanouk Boulevard to cool down and observe street food vendors serving passing drivers. It looks like a family operation; the women run the stall, the men contributing very little as they relax nearby sipping tea. The customers who stop are able to buy without leaving the seat of their mopeds. By now we have the camera out and the woman running the stall agrees to me taking her picture, if a little embarrassed as her friends are teasing from nearby.
It is still early and we see a number of tuk tuk drivers asleep in their vehicles. Perhaps they had an extra early start today? I guess it’s warm enough sleeping outdoors like this, even overnight. Again, I felt a little nosy to be looking, but Sharon, bold as brass, snaps a picture of one of them snoring away. Thankfully she didn’t get caught; I might have had to disown her!
With sweat pouring as the temperatures soar, we consult our tourist map and move on toward Neak Banh Teuk Park and the impressive, red stone, Independence Monument or Victory Monument as it’s known. It was built to commemorate independence from the French in 1953 but now also serves as a cenotaph to the country’s war dead. The monument sits in the centre of Phnom Penh’s largest roundabout and its dark colour against the bright sky must have frustrated many other photographers before me.
On the other side of the roundabout is the grassy, Neak Banh Teuk Park, dominated by a large statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled Cambodia from 1953 to 1970. The statue is new, not even two years old yet. The plaque includes the tribute, “Heroic King, Father of Independence.” For a while we have the park to ourselves before there’s an invasion by two busloads of camera toting Chinese tourists.
Easily outnumbered I surrender the space to the Chinese as now I have bigger problems.
Even though it’s still mid morning, I’m in danger of spontaneously combusting from the heat. My fancy ‘adventure’ shirt that claims to ‘wick moisture away from the skin’ is suffocating me slowly and my man flu is turning me into a whinging, runny nosed girl. (No offence girls)
Sharon is also feeling the heat so we quickly locate a café and order some cold drinks. My Coke over ice hits the spot and the air conditioning helps my thermostat climb down from the red.
Refreshed (and energised by the sugar no doubt) we move on, following our trusty street map through Wat Bottom Park to the Royal Palace, only to find it’s closed for lunch. Tuk tuk drivers have encamped outside the palace exit, an ideal spot it seems to catch tourists needing a lift home.
It’s a gauntlet fending off their constant touting. They must hate people like us who enjoy walking around the city. We are, however, charmed by one in particular, Nim Chantra, who speaks good English and breaks us down with his humour. (Please check out Nim’s story here)
Deciding to return after lunch we continued our stroll toward the Riverside, stumbling across the large open green space of Royal Palace Park, a natural focal point for locals and tourists to congregate. Across the road is a promenade overlooking the joining of the Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong River.
This area is buzzing; a great spot to hang out and absorb the culture. Musicians under the shade of a bandstand provide a backdrop for worshippers at the small Dorngkeur shrine who burn incense and practice the Buddhist tradition of setting birds free. And of course, the ever present street vendors with food, drink, souvenirs, incense sticks and flowers.
Like a scene from a Hollywood film, the reason for a large police presence suddenly becomes apparent when they impressively shut down the street of all traffic for a large official motorcade, which rolls through with red and blue lights flashing. The whole operation is slick and obviously well rehearsed.
North along the Riverside is an area dubbed ‘Pub Street,’ lined with western styled restaurants, bars and hotels. We choose a place with a balcony for lunch so we can people and traffic watch. The preferred currency is US dollars in Cambodia.
Afterwards it’s back to the Royal Palace in time for the afternoon tour. More about that in another post.
After the Royal Palace tour we explore the side streets a bit more, browsing the various stalls set up along the roadsides, marvelling at the bursts yellow flowers from the ‘golden shower trees’ and watching the tide of mopeds and tuk tuks carrying the end of the day commuters.
It’s been a long day and we are so tired. I’ve paid the price for spending the day in the heat in my tender condition. Sharon will need to get out her nurse hat tonight. We hail a passing tuk tuk and $4 later we are back at the hotel.
We both agree, Phnom Penh is an exciting and intoxicating city that we can’t wait to explore further.