Our journey from Borneo to Cambodia was one shrouded in the melancholy that comes with bidding farewell to a new part of the world that had only just become vaguely familiar and comfortable. Again, the exciting but anxious prospect of another new country was upon us. As far as pleasant places to arrive, however, Phnom Penh wins no prizes. The place had an unusual customs procedure, new to us, which required submitting our passports to a roaming fellow bedecked in a quasi-official looking uniform besot with tassels and gold braid. The problem for us is that he spoke little English and his gesticulation to pass over our documentation came with no meaningful sense as to what procedure our credentials were about to undertake. We grudgingly passed along our papers and then a yawning great unknown opened in our minds with worse case scenarios of expensive payoffs and extensive explanations swirling in an irrational jumble. We eventually settled down into steady breathing when we observed that the busy and diminutive fellow collecting passports was doing so for all new arrivals, meaning we had not been selected for any unusual procedural hijinks. After about half an hour of waiting in a large sitting area among dozens of other foreign visitors, and after parting with $30 US per person, we finally received back our passports, now sporting a nifty Kingdom of Cambodia seal.
We then emerged into the arrivals area blinking and looking a bit dazed. We were pretty sure we had arranged airport pickup via our hotel so it was a bit unsettling that our family name was not plastered on any of the dozens of small signs being waved in our direction. It eventually dawned on us that perhaps our comprehensive planning efforts might have broken down a bit and that we might have neglected to secure a ride. Overcoming that hurdle first required determining how to acquire a SIM card, as we needed to call our hotel and sort out ground transport. We were confronted by a choice of four brightly coloured kiosks positioned about twenty feet from the arrivals area, each trying to entice our eyes and dollars with flashing signs and gesturing personnel. Paltry information combined with too many options, a language barrier, and a badgering sales force all added up to decision making fatigue on our part. It took us an inordinate amount of time to plunk down the required dough to access the national cellular waves. Our two handsets require different sized SIM cards, each fit into small slots located in hard to find recesses in the phones. This alone took ages but then each could only spring to life after extensive poking of digits and screens by the young people who inevitably operate these high tech stalls.
Set up complete, phone cases put back together and google fired up, we called our hotel and discovered that indeed we had not arranged a pick up but that it should be relatively easy to secure passage from the airport. We imagined that like most airports, we only needed to stroll to a line of waiting taxis where a sturdy looking chap would nod in our direction, fit our luggage into various crevices of a gleaming vehicle and off we would go knowing a well maintained and faithful metering system was sheltering us from overt larceny. However, this being a slightly less regulated environment, the moment it became clear we were not being chauffeured off of the premises, a steady stream of drivers began verbally encouraging us to have them convey us to a destination of our choosing. Again, not usually a problem but in this case several complications emerged. First, few of these fellows were speaking English or French (the two languages we have some basic familiarity) and we were literally being buffeted between quite a large number of eager young men many of whom had already begun pulling our baggage along toward their wide array of vehicles. Also, it was not clear if these guys were insisting on fixed prices or if they would meter the ride. Added to the uncertainty was the fact that although Cambodia has a currency, the riel, it is usually only used as pocket change and the nation actually relies on US dollars as the functioning script. We hadn’t a clue what fair rates were or the prices expected. When we casually scanned the lines of waiting vehicles only a small percentage appeared to be of this century while many others were an open carriage design suspended in some elaborate fashion above a three wheeled chassis and revving motorcycle engine. All of this had us feeling anxious but finally one enterprising lad convinced us that his price was right and he quickly had us trailing him in search of his ride. When the four of us and our collection of two 70litre packs, two rolling carry-on bags and four small backpacks arrived at his vehicle it became painfully obvious his tuk tuk would be overcome by our biological and material mass. It was doubtful the four of us even only carting wee bags of popcorn would have been able squeeze into his modest sized three wheeler. Heaven knows how he anticipated getting us and all of our gear in! Off we went, down the line of waiting service providers to the head of the proper taxi line, over curbs, through puddles and debris, over uneven slabs of concrete making it to our next taxi attempt. Many more minutes expired communicating information from our Maps.me app to the old school, memory dependent driver who rarely if ever viewed the sprawl of Phnom Penh from the aerial perspective offered by snazzy map applications. His was a much more tactile relationship with the vibrant pulsating city and he felt confident that he could get us to where we wanted to go without computational aid. It was only about a 40 minute ride but what a dazzling trip it was.
Even by the standards of Bali, Phnom Penh is frenetic. Arriving late didn’t lend an aura of calm either, because as with many tropical lands, night affords much more comfortable temperatures and urban life is energetic from 8pm to midnight. We wove our way through the expanse of the city, passing by every sort of shop one can imagine. People were everywhere, talking, dining, walking, riding and laughing. It was all a cacophony of sights and sounds and a bit overwhelming to fully absorb. So it was with real relief that we were finally dropped off at our new digs and warmly welcomed by the young pleasant staff and quickly installed into our comfortable room. We were looking forward to the next day, when after some needed rest, we could explore the top sights in town and come to a fuller sense of what made the city tick.
We had several really fun outings to markets while in the capital, likely the most intense of these was a visit to what the locals call the Russian market, named because of the number of Russian expats that frequented the place in the 1980s. The capital abounds with local and mass produced goods of every sort. This results in a medley of local people seeking out day to day items, mixed in with groups of tourists searching for handicrafts and souvenirs. Food stalls and grocery items dominate the outer areas of the market while the stifling hot interior spaces are the domain of the hardware, auto-parts and household goods vendors. We arrived to the market by auto rickshaw and were immediately blown away by the bustling nature of the place. It was incredibly dense with tiny pathways between stalls heaped with goods. The sellers were never pushy and everyone we spoke with and purchased from was friendly and smiling. We stocked up on fruit and poked around the quieter corners in search of small souvenirs. The kids really seemed to enjoy cruising between aisles, inspecting a wild assortment of potential purchases. It was amusing watching their faces as they confronted some of the more exotic items found at the market, body parts of various animals and some very strange looking fruits and vegetables topping the list. They were wonderfully curious though and taste tested a few of the new fruits when offered by the patient sellers.
After the market, we took a stroll near the royal palace taking in the regal opulence of the gold gilded official residence and its ornate gates and doors. We really enjoyed watching the fun family atmosphere of activities in the parklands running along the river away from the palace grounds. There were throngs of kids and parents enjoying the cooler evening temperatures, playing, eating on the blanket strewn lawns and generally enjoying time together. We ducked into one of the side streets to find a quiet place to eat, and eventually selected a family run place that had a great Cambodian menu plus a few international favorites. The highlight of the meal was when we met two boys who were selling small woven bracelets. We were in the market for these very items as we were trying to acquire small keepsakes from every country we visited. We were happy to strike a deal and purchase four from their small inventory. Immediately Gabe struck up a conversation with the lads, who were about his age, and the kind-hearted fellow who worked at the restaurant allowed the three boys to dash up to open room above where there was a pool table. The boys had fun challenging each other’s skills and gently mocking clumsy shots. We got back to our hotel later that night, quite tired from a big day out in the city but looking forward to the next day where we had plans to introduce the kids to both some of the wonderful aspects of Cambodian culture but also some of its important, albeit disturbing, history.