I had few expectations about Phnom Penh before we went to Cambodia’s capital to do a story for a travel magazine. I think that’s why I liked the city so much.
The images in my mind – of wide boulevards and ramshackle, French colonial-style buildings, dappled with mildew, and skirted by big verandas – were mostly from the 1984 film The Killing Fields. It was a touching movie about a tragic period of history that I’d seen at the cinema when it was released and had watched a few times since, and from those viewings I’d somehow managed to create an imaginary gallery of the city in soft focus in my head.
(Late one night, during our stay in Phnom Penh, we would see the movie again in our room at The Quay hotel. It had even more resonance watching it while being there, but that’s the subject of another post. Do see it, or read the book, before going to Cambodia. It’s helpful in understanding why and how the Cambodians, their history, and their present situation are different to that of neighbouring Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Too often travellers tend to lump them all together as being the same.)
Because we didn’t have a Cambodia guidebook and I’d read little about Phnom Penh beforehand, I hadn’t formed expectations of the place that could or couldn’t be met. I wasn’t strolling about the city feeling either smug or disappointed from the things I was seeing in a way one does when they finally visit a place they’ve always been longing to go. I was accepting Phnom Penh for what it was, and it felt good.
I didn’t even mind the irritating tuk-tuk drivers so much, although they exasperated us at times – “Tuk-tuk, madam? You want tuk-tuk, sir? Where you go?” was the song on the same old broken record that played every time we walked outside the hotel door, or went anywhere in fact. However, no matter how much the tuk-tuk guys annoyed us at times – mainly when we were hot and tired from lugging camera gear around in the heat – we understood their desperation and were sympathetic to their plight. It’s called poverty.
Instead of suffering, we found a solution. We hired our own tuk-tuk driver by the day, to ferry us all over the city and wait for us outside restaurants and shops where we needed to shoot or interview someone, and hope the other tuk-tuk drivers got the message.
We got most of our travel tips from local residents, in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (where we’d been in between two Phnom Penh stays to do research for another story), and from glossy little entertainment magazines we picked up around town. And, aside from one restaurant recommendation, the advice was all spot-on.
So, lack of expectations aside, what was it about Phnom Penh that appealed so much? At first glance, it felt like any other South East Asian city – it was frenetic and alive, it smelt like a combination of traffic fumes and smoky food, and it was colourful, everything in faded pastel hues.
Phnom Penh looked like a South East Asian city too, with its gritty streets, traffic gridlock, and roads chaotic with tuk tuks, cyclos and families piled high onto motorbikes. There were shimmering temples, busy markets, Buddhist monks, the occasional food stall, and the ubiquitous street vendors, including (heartbreakingly) barefoot children going from bar to bar selling souvenir trinkets to tourists from trays slung around their necks until late into the night.
What really set Phnom Penh apart from other capitals in the region was that it felt significantly smaller than Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. It is of course; the city centre can be crossed in fifteen minutes, twice that during peak periods, which we struck on our way to the airport. And so it felt much more laidback, more like a big town than a country capital.
And that’s something I really liked about it. Stroll along the waterfront around sunset, where locals do dancercise classes and couples sit holding hands as they watch the sky change colour over the coffee-coloured Tonle Sap, and you might feel you’re in a small riverside town.
But on closer inspection, we also discovered pockets of sophistication, a creative spirit, and a cosmopolitan vibe, evident in the city’s youthful population and international flavour (the city is home to countless NGOs), wide variety of ethnic restaurants, and chic hotels, boutiques and bars, that made Phnom Penh a fun city to hang out in for a while.
Phnom Penh has long been considered little more than a stopover by travellers making a beeline for Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, but we found there was so much more to the city, and much more to experience than the remnants of its horrible history (not to dismiss those of course; yes, you can do a tour to The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 14kms from town, where there is a mass grave of some 17,000 people executed by the Khmer Rouge, and a tower of skulls that serves as a memorial). Phnom Penh a city deserving of some serious attention and a longer stay than a couple of days. So that’s just what we gave it…
Which means we’ve got more Phnom Penh stories to come.
Our story on Phnom Penh is in Sept-Oct 2011 issue of Asia’s Lifestyle+Travel magazine. (That’s the one with Terence’s photo of Krakow on the cover.)