Phnom Penh

Mon, 26 May 2008 11:41:07 +0000

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh Index To Vietnam

I must admit, there's a certain thrill to writing about my stay in "Phnom Penh", a name that I grew up with as being inextricably linked with the phrase "...our correspondent in...". In fact Phnom Penh is something of a bijou capital cityette, and I haven't ventured outside what is a distinctly tourist zone, at the waterfront. Nevertheless, I think this is adventurous enough to be going on with.

One worry: when getting into bed last night, I noticed a couple of blood spots on the sheets. Bed bugs! Panic! I wore pyjamas and socks and insect repellant, and I don't seem to have any bites today. I still have no idea if this is because the precautions worked, or because there are really no bed bugs anyway. Every slight itch I felt today (and with weather like this, there's plenty of itches) had me paranoid that I'd suffered another attack. But it looks like I'm OK. That's good, because I have a second night in this place.

In the morning I had to get my laundry done, so I waited until a sensible time, 8:00, to get going. The first bit of touristing was the royal palace. Even though it's a bare 100m away from where I'm staying, and even though it was only 8:30, I was still sweaty by the time I got there. I was clearly going to have to pace myself today. When I went to pay the entrace fee, my $5 note got handed back to me as being unacceptable. And I have to admit, the lady had a point: the right half was covered in a big yellow smudge, it was clearly a forgery.

I didn't have any other cash with me (I had stupidly amalgamated my emergency $20 note into my wallet and then spent it: I won't make that mistake again). So I had to find an ATM and come back. I was really sweaty and pissed off by this time, and on the verge of hitting the next tuk-tuk driver who pointed out that he was, in fact, a tuk-tuk driver, and willing to take me to a destination of my choice if I had the necessary fee. I really, really hate tuk-tuk drivers now.

Anyway, I wasn't in a mood to appreciate the royal palace, which is a bit of a shame. It's pretty spectacular, especially on a swelteringly cloud-free morning like this one. But it's only nineteenth-century after all, and built by the French to boot.

The pagoda with the floor made of solid silver tiles is pretty remarkable, I'll give it that. But what captions there are turn it into something of a royalist propaganda trip, which makes me wonder what the CPP thinks of it.

I briefly went back to the hotel to cool off. I tried to book a bus ticket to Ho Chi Minh city at the front desk (read: "bar"), but apparently I had to wait until the boss arrived in the evening.

Next attraction was the national museum. This subscribes to the "big rooms packed with old stuff" school of museum design, and isn't really ideal. It does have some very nice artefacts dug up from Angkor though, and even the occasional useful English description.

There are women who issue you with flower bud wreaths to plant in front of selected buddhas for "good luck". I don't even know if I was supposed to pay a fee, but after the first I just refused. I'm already lucky enough. I wandered around vaguely, and even listened into a German-speaking guide for a little bit. But man, I'm glad I didn't have a guide dragging me around that place.

For lunch I thought I'd try out a cafe on the corner that looked rather civilised. I got a baguette with some complex filling involving various kinds of smoked meat and tomato chutney. The baguette was the chewiest I've ever come across, which made it practically impossible to bite through. I eventually figured out a technique involving biting from alternate sides, but it was a messy business. I also got a pineapple and coconut tart, which was stale. Not a particularly successful lunch really.

I had a couple of things I wanted to do with the afternoon. I had to post a postcard, which involved a trip up to the north part of the waterfront. But then I realised it was Saturday, and the post office would be closed. I wanted to have a look at the independence monument, but in the end decided it was too hot for such a long walk. So there was nothing for it but to waste the afternoon having a nap and watching TV.

As I was halfway through my second episode of The Wire, I realised that it was blowing quite a thunderstorm outside. So in fact it was a really good thing that I'd spent the whole time in my hotel room. When I eventually ventured downstairs to see if I could get a bus ticket to Ho Chi Minh city, the street was completely flooded. Even with my boots, wading through that would be a nightmare. So I resolved to continue my laziness in my hotel room.

Around seven I did go to pick up my laundry. They were just finishing ironing my t-shirts. That was painful, watching them iron the pathetic collection of rags that passes for my wardrobe at this point. My two white long-sleeve t-shirts have, alas, reached the end of their lifetimes. Those stains just aren't coming out.

At this point I was a bit concerned that I was leaving it rather late to get my bus ticket booked. But this time, when I asked, it turned out that it had in fact been booked this morning shortly afer I'd first asked. That's nice. And they'll pick me up directly from the hotel again. The only thing remaining was to book a hotel room in Ho Chi Minh city, which I did over the phone without trouble. So I'm all set for Vietnam. I have four nights in Ho Chi Minh city, which is quite a lot, and I plan to spend at least some of that time being as lazy as I have been in Phnom Penh.

For dinner, I was determined to have something Cambodian, in particular a beef dish called "Lok Lak". This I got at a place called the Jungle bar. It turned out to very, very delicious. Particularly interesting was a condiment which came with it, which was extremely sour. I asked what it was and was told something unpronounceable in Khmer, which might have been "umprak". Who knows, maybe it'll be in my Asian cookery book.

Just before I was served, we were plunged into darkness as a blackout hit, something that happens quite regularly in Phnom Penh, apparently. The same natural laws as elsewhere govern these things though: the lights came back just as the waitress finally got my candle to stand up.

So now I'm going to have a shower, wrap myself up in my anti-bedbug regalia, and prepare myself for another bus journey.

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh Index To Vietnam