Sunday, September 5, 2010

Phnom Penh

(This post is a follow up from our trip around the world. I will be writing a recap for each place we visited during our 4 month trip. Prior to Cambodia we also visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore).

We tried to do a lot of overland travel since it's inexpensive and allowed us to take in the scenery. The bus from Siem Reap cost $11 USD and lasted about 5 hours - complete with a Jackie Chan movie for those that didn't bring a book. There was maybe one other tourist on the bus, but it was us and the locals heading to the big city.

- Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are totally different places. Oddly we picked the big city as a place to relax at beautiful hotel with a pool. As soon as we got out of the bus we were bombarded with offers from tuktuk drivers to take us to our hotel.

- While some prices are very inexpensive (like the bus trip), others seem more on par with US prices and higher in Phnom Penh than in Siem Reap. There was a great clothing store called Wanderlust, however limited luggage space didn't work in my favor. The French influence is definitely still a major thread through the city - from pastry shops to signage, architecture, and beautiful clothing.

- Our hotel (the Blue Lime) was a nice oasis in the middle of the dusty city. Once again they had plenty of signage and reconfirmation on acknowledging we were not visiting for sex tourism. They didn't have literature about it at the hotel in the rooms, but there was a sign on the front door to reiterate what an issue this is.

- Sadly as we would walk the streets I would always notice the older white western men walking around alone. They could have been there for business, vacation, or for humanitarian causes, but I found myself judging, guessing, and wondering. Hopefully their intentions are more noble than we gave them credit for.

- Having a beautiful retreat in the city was nice to come back to after days of intense heat and emotional exhaustion. It was also relaxing to have such a beautiful pool to enjoy. There were bananas growing on the trees and we could have breakfast poolside. I especially loved the fresh passion fruit juice.

- There is a lot of diversity in terms of visitors and foods. I get the feeling there must be a rather large expat community in Phnom Penh, most of whom are probably shop and restaurant owners from things we read. The luxury car of choice seems to be a Lexus SUV - the city is littered with them and they look very ostentatious against the surroundings.

- Lately I've read Phnom Penh isn't the safest of cities, however we thankfully didn't encounter any issues. It appears as though Western tourists are being targeted along the River area near the Royal Palace, especially at night or during the night markets. Bricks have been thrown from moving cars and people have been injured as a result.

- The traffic is also an area of concern since people don't always obey street signs. It looks like they get an early start on dealing with navigating the city without fear. I can't quite figure out how the little guys sitting on the bike seat while the other peddled were able to get on the bike.

- There are all kinds of smells on the streets - diesel, fuel from cooking, and rotting foods. On occasion there will also be wafts of fresh air or wonderful foods. Some days the air seemed so heavy that it felt physically difficult to breathe when combined with the heat.

- The pagodas like Wat Phnom tend to attract the disabled hoping for compassion. There were also a lot of children running around. At one point Stefan stopped to put on some sun screen. Two little boys gathered to watch him slather it over his exposed skin. He attempted to tell them what it was and what he was doing it, although the language barrier probably didn't help. I'm curious what they thought.

- Even with so much beauty to distract us we are still constantly confronted with the struggles that poverty brings and the cruelty people are capable of. There aren't too many touristy sites in Phnom Penh to visit, although there is a Genocide museum and the Khmer Rouge killing fields where I'm told bone fragments are visable in the dirt.

- As we walked down the street random tuktuk drivers would stop and ask if we wanted to go to the killing fields and the shooting range. We opted not to go. I don't understand making memorial sites into touristed places that even seem like a mockery. I can't understand why someone would want to shoot a gun after visiting a place where many people lost their lives, but this wasn't the last time we encountered this.

- The Royal Palace is probably the biggest attraction second to Wat Phnom. The grounds are immaculate with many Buddhist monks walking around. The architecture is very beautiful and seems to sparkle in the sun. Again, there were beautiful stupas and Buddhist accents everywhere.

- My favorite stop here was a restaurant called Friends. It's a training site to help Khmer orphans, homeless, or abused children gain experience in a restaurant atmosphere. They also have a school and store that sells articles they have made and teaches them about a variety of issues. The food was outstanding and we bought their cookbook with many of the recipes we tried so we could bring a taste of Cambodia back home.

- We went to the markets, which were definitely larger than expected. The Central Market and more local Orussey Market were especially large and sensory overload. The dark and dank corridors were filled with people selling every imaginable thing. It seemed to go on and on. The Central Market had tons of clothing, sunglasses, jewelry, and watches. There were even little ladies in the back sewing up special orders on the spot. Many of the streets and markets are organized by trades or products. It seems slightly strange to have everything in the same area selling the same goods, but I guess it keeps prices in check.

- We thought the Orussey Market was the so called 'Russian Market' (many Russians visited in the 1980's, hence the name) and wondered why many tourists would visit, however our questions were answered when we learned Orussey is actually the local market.

- After hitting up the main tourist sites we walked to the Independence Monument on our way to the real Russian Market and stumbled upon the North Korean embassy. That was a funny surprise.

- The Russian Market is an interesting place because they have many export seconds. There are quite a few retailers that have factories in the area (including Gap, Banana Republic, and Columbia). What is marketed as authentic merchandise* is sold at this market, because for whatever reason it's not good enough to sell in their stores.

*This is debatable. I've since read the book Where am I Wearing by fellow Ohio native Kelsey Timmerman. He states in his book that none of the clothing at the market is a factory second and is actually missing inventory from the factories. It's an interesting look into factories around the world and what types of people are working at the ground level for some very famous brands.

- It raises a lot of questions about the production of goods and how these stores develop business relations in these countries. Each of the stalls packs and unpacks their goods every single night. We found a couple t-shirts with Khmer on them. I made sure to ask the people at the hotel what they said. My favorite simply says 'Good Morning' both in English and Khmer, since I tend to be an early riser.

- We also stopped at the modern mall where it's said many country Khmer ride their first escalators. At the top was a beautiful panorama of the city and a bustling roller skating rink that the teenagers were enjoying. There was also a large shop selling bootleg DVDs. We saw season 3 of 30 Rock for $4, but we didn't want to support the bootleg economy.

We were very grateful to have some downtime and see another facet of Cambodian culture. Phnom Penh is a unique place where the pains of big city life are evident. People move there for jobs to support their families in the country side. They work in intense heat for low wages and often for long hours and the wealth divide is enormous. The textile industry is enormous and I always think about it when I put on an article of clothing with 'Made in Cambodia' on the tag.

Cambodia is definitely on my list of places I'd like to return to. It's a beautiful culture that has been through some difficult times, but the people seem determined and the government has a lot of support from multilateral donors.

Next stop... Vietnam.

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