Experiencing Phnom Penh

June 30, 2016

The past few days, our agenda has been to explore Phnom Penh in the mornings and head to the Prek Eng Asia's Hope campus after lunch. Since we have a couple weeks here, we've been able to maintain a very relaxed pace, and I'm convinced this is the only way to properly experience a city.

How often do tourists try to fit as much possible into trips, frenetically trying to do and see everything? Seven countries in ten days! Itineraries with every minute jam packed with tourist attractions and tours. Rarely, it seems, do people just slow down to absorb their surroundings. When they are always worried about getting to the next thing on the schedule, they simply don't have time. Truly understanding and engaging with a culture requires creating some space. Slowing down. Savoring moments. I'm so thankful to be able to experience this city within the context of a group that is here to learn and to understand. Hitting all the highlights of a city in a day or two is nice, and certainly better than not traveling at all, but how much richer of an experience is it to settle in for a while and spend time not necessarily doing, but simply just being?

Starting tomorrow, we will spend some time as more typical tourists, digging into the museums and historical sites. I won't lie - I'm not exactly looking forward to it. I do want to see all of these things, and I know they are important to understanding this country and its culture. But I also know enough about history to know it will be heavy and dark and depressing.

But so far, Phnom Penh has been delightful. Our weather has been pleasantly cooler than expected, with temperatures in the high 80s to low 90s, accompanied by occasional welcome cloud cover and soft breezes. A period of rain each afternoon keeps the temperature down. But, of course, the humidity still soars, and we’re constantly covered in a sheen of sweat. I have a few blissful moments of feeling clean each morning before layering on sunscreen and insect repellent, which later mingles with the sweat to make me a giant, sticky, frizzy-haired mess. But I’ve gotten used to it.

Our first morning, we walked to a beautiful café for breakfast, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of a new place. Many of the restaurants have beautiful outdoor seating areas, which are kept remarkably cool with their open, airy design and giant bamboo fans. Lush greenery lines the streets, providing both shade and a beautiful view. We sipped our Café Americanos, watermelon coolers and mango shakes overlooking a grassy promenade at the base of Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument. It’s fun to just sit and watch the traffic zip by, motos darting and weaving between cars and tuk-tuks. Traffic laws, if indeed there are any, seem to be mere suggestions, so the street scene is rather chaotic, but the drivers actually seem to be polite and accommodating, even as they randomly cut each other off, make sudden u-turns and frequently drive the wrong direction.

Walking here is apparently uncommon, and we are constantly bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers offering rides in their moto-drawn carriages. And walking is a challenge, as the sidewalks are littered with obstacles ranging from street vendors selling their wares and makeshift moto parking lots to broken, missing bricks, construction zones, and actual garbage. Building codes are apparently non-existent, and the streets are lined with nests of powerlines, tangled with trees and dead branches. Safety regulations, too, have not yet found their way to Phnom Penh, and it’s not uncommon to see a moto drive by carrying a family of four or five, with a bare-headed infant tucked in between the parents and siblings. I’ve also seen motos loaded down with goods like tires, furniture, and even live chickens as people move to and from the market. We commented that it’s as though this place is simply a few decades behind the western world in many ways, and while it’s chaotic, it’s also quite charming.

 

When I’ve traveled in the past, I’ve generally tried to blend in as much as possible, particularly in Europe. It’s unusual for me to be in a place where I’m the one who stands out as a clear minority. And stick out, we do. The average height of an adult Cambodian male is 5’4”, so most of our group towers over the people here. But they are warm and welcoming, with easy laughter and beautiful smiles. There are a significant number of American ex-patriots living here, so they are accustomed to westerners, and most people I’ve encountered speak very good English, which is a relief, since I’ve managed to learn only a polite “hello” and “thank you” in the local Khmer language. The American dollar is their standard currency, though small change is returned in the Cambodian Riel.

The food we’ve sampled thus far has been nothing short of amazing and will be the subject of its own post later.

All in all, for as foreign as it is to us, Phnom Penh seems like a surprisingly easy city to navigate, though that may be due, in part, to Jeremy’s expert tour guidance. It’s been wonderful to simply settle in, acclimate to the time change and get a real feel for the city for a couple days, and I look forward to diving more deeply into the richness it has to offer in the coming weeks.