A day in Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

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Make no mistake about it: Phnom Penh is loud. The sound of traffic along the main roads is constant. I can only imagine how dusty the air must get here during the dry months when there’s no water to hold down the grime. All the online guides recommend against walking here due to the tight squeezes you will find yourself in but Paul and I always ignore that advice. 

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Walking is the best way to really get a feel for a place. In a tuk tuk you rumble along to your destination: the museum, art gallery or other Lonely Planet recommended must see. On foot you are there immersed in the chaos and wonder of wherever you are. You are there with the Buddhist monk begging for alms. You are offered a coconut. The children buying balloons are walking around your knee height. And the tourists in tuk tuks roll past as if in another head space. Sure, we catch tuk tuks sometimes but if possible, we almost always end up walking. 

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Our walk today takes us past Nagaworld. We are drawn in by the fancy chandeliers and lure of air conditioning. Signs proclaim that it might be a duty free shop – but signs can be deceiving. Nagaworld is a huge casino and hotel. There’s plenty of ways you can lose plenty of money here: pokie machines, automatic roulette tables, black jack and other games. Chandeliers hang glittering from the ceilings, pokie machine music dingles away with mesmerising repetition, the tea and coffee are free, and glamorously bars areas allow you to spend even more money on alcohol. We put $2 through a pokie machine just to say we have. At 30c a press it doesn’t last long and we receive no return. But $2 is a drop in the pond compared with the thousands that the house must win. 

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Soon we reach the Mekong River. It is wide here where the Tonle Sap River joins it. Looking back it’s almost like it is opening to the sea, though that’s not the case at all. We crossed this river way back on the Thai, Myanmar and Laos border in January 2015, almost two years ago and now we are watching as its powerful waters push past us again.

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I am struck by two fishermen sitting on the banks. In all my travels since 2014 through some thirteen countries there have been some similarities: men fish on riverbanks and children feed ducks at ponds. And here again, men fish on a riverbank. How similar we all are. Skin colour, language, culture and food do not change us that much after all. 

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We meander along the river bank, stopping to take some photos and avoiding the scammers. First is a man who approaches and starts telling us things as though he’s our guide. We tell him that we are just going for a walk. He persists. I speed up to walk off. Paul manages to shake him shortly thereafter. Later a second man will try to strike up a conversation as we enter a wat (temple). He tells us he likes our shirts. I’ve read about this con and tell him we’re not interested. He becomes agitated and persists. We walk into the wat with purpose, dropping him. He calls out after us that he’s “not a tiger” and that he was “just being friendly” and that we should “not be so rude”. Cons are the same the world over too. 

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Wat Ounalom is one of the most important temples in Phnom Penh. Like Wat Lnagka the complex is large and contains lots of residential space. While the design of the temple building itself is similar to those in Thailand, the actual feel and use of the space is totally different. It’s more living religion than tourist attraction. That’s not to say those in Thailand weren’t spiritual places but the way the space was being used is different. Perhaps those in Thailand are places people come to for prayer while these here in Phnom Penh are places where monks live and train. I can say, though, that the temples here in Phnom Penh are calmer than those in Thailand – possibly due to the lack of people transiting through them.

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Kandal Market is not far from Wat Ounalom. It’s narrow lanes are packed with vendors selling meats, vegetables, fruits and flip flop shoes. Ladies sit in raised wooden stalls butchering meat on the stall floor using huge heavy cleavers. Others separate the various gizzards of chickens into different bowls. It’s loud and smelly but still pleasant. We are not of great interest to the marketeers because their primary source of income are locals so walking through here is quite easy.

That’s more than can be said for the streets around the market. These are home to the seedier side of Phnom Penh. Guesthouses boast rooms for $US3 per night. Ladies of the night sit drinking beer at bars while (usually) older white men chat them up or negotiate prices. Advertisements for Cambodia and Angkor beer abound. This is the side of tourism that offends me senseless. It happens all over the world in every major city and town. I can’t help but wonder what drives men to this level of desperation and feel a sense of sadness for them.

We escape the afternoon heat for a couple of hours in our hostel. We both fall asleep under the relieving air conditioning. Walking 7km (4.3 miles) may not be far but in this sweltering heat and non-stop noise it’s like running a marathon. A marathon in which we are constantly aware of the heavy traffic that we’re walking through because the footpaths are almost non-existent.

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Meal times are always interesting when traveling. Sometimes food comes easily because we’ve found a place we like or we know what we feel like. Other days it’s a challenge to want anything that’s on offer at all – home cooked meals being a luxury we don’t have while on the road. Today Paul mentioned that he wanted to check out the Chinese restaurant we passed yesterday where a man was making noodles by hand out the front. A check of Google Maps showed us where we had walked on our return from the museum so we retraced our steps. Sure enough we found the same restaurant and ate the fresh noodles. It tasted as good as it looked. Most importantly though, they served our favourite dish: chili garlic beans with a little bit of pork mince. We asked for “not spicy” so got it without the chili and it was even better. I am being cautious with food this trip after the last three trips to South-East Asian countries each saw me requiring strong antibiotics to settle some serious stomach bugs. So if there’s an option to avoid chili, dairy, deep fried foods or unpeeled fruit I am avoiding it. I never used to get sick but since my November 2014 trip to Indonesia my stomach has never been the same and I want to enjoy our fortnight here, not spend any days feeling like I’m dying. Hopefully writing this doesn’t jinx me.

Tomorrow we will take the bus to Siem Riep.


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