I arrived in Phnom Penh with the name of a hostel and a screen shot of a few back-up options nearby. I was hopeful that my “it will work out” mindset would continue to prove right. The tuktuk driver knew where the hostel Me Mates Villa was so at least that was a step in the right direction.
We wove through Phnom Penh’s streets surrounded by motorbikes, cars and other tuktuks and I had a giddy moment of awareness of the vehicle I was riding in. Tuktuks became standard to me during my time in Cambodia, but this first ride was exciting in the way that new abroad transportation can be: I’d heard about these, I knew they were coming, but I was finally in one. Being towed around in what is more or less a motorbike-driven golf cart took some getting used to. I felt like I wanted to be up on the bike with the driver, and the four posts that made up my carriage provided a false sense of security. Really I was no safer than the motorbike, probably less safe actually since I had no control over this vehicle, and a car could crush me. Once I got past those thoughts though I was able to just have fun in the tuktuk. Plus when something has the name tuktuk how could you not enjoy it?
Phnom Penh has a palpable energy. I felt it instantly while whizzing through the streets. I arrived on a Saturday night, so naturally I wondered if I would meet people at the hostel and experience the rumored crazy nightlife. I got to the hostel – they had a bed for me, so it did work out – and did meet people but had a very different night than expected. I ended up with a Russian, two Brits, and a handful of Aussies playing multi-player pool the whole night while drinking 75 cent beers at the hostel. Not quite the nightlife I was thinking but a fun night nonetheless.
The next day I set out with the goal to see the highlights of the city. I went right to the Royal Palace and discovered it was closed until 2:00 pm because it was Sunday, something the guidebook did not mention. I was accosted by a tuktuk driver offering me a tour of the city for $15, something I wasn’t willing to pay for, so I tried to find the next site on my list on foot. I quickly discovered that normally busy Phnom Penh on a Sunday is even busier and attempting to walk to everywhere I wanted to see in the heat was pretty uncomfortable. I backtracked to the museum to see if it was open yet and the tuktuk driver found me again. We agree on $8 and set off around the city.
My driver ended up being more of a tour guide than I expected. He hit all the places on my list and some that weren’t. Along the way he told me about the history and culture of Cambodia, from religion to politics to social concerns. I appreciated his candid opinion on the current situation in Cambodia, its Prime Minister, its relationship to other countries, and what it’s like to live there. There’s no better way to learn about a place than from a local.
He also protected me from a scam I knew nothing about. A woman from the Philippines approached me as I was looking at the statue of the King, politely complimenting my outfit and asking if I was just visiting town and if I had a tuktuk with me. As soon as I said yes and pointed in his direction she backed away, and as soon as he saw her he ran over yelling. He explained that these women pretend to be your friend and invite you over for a drink, then they kidnap and rob you. He threw more curses in her direction and warned another tuktuk driver who was passing by with a quad of tourists. I would go on to tell other travelers this story as a word of warning.
Some of the highlights of my morning tour of Phnom Penh included Wat Langka, a Buddhist temple, and Wat Phnom. Wat Langka was our first stop. A complex of beautiful, ornate design, it was a great introduction to the richness of Cambodian architecture. I wandered through the different buildings and was in awe of the interior decoration of the temples, as well as the individual stupas.
Wat Phnom continued to build upon this positive impression. After climbing up a long flight of stairs I was rewarded with another pretty building. No spot of interior was left undecorated. Visiting on a Sunday was particularly interesting because the temple was packed with people praying. It reminded me of my experience at the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, and just like then I was happy to have seen this Wat in use.
My driver dropped me off at the Central Market. I thanked and tipped him and went in search of some local lunch. I ended up with a Cambodian noodle soup that was somewhere in between pho and ramen, and of course I made it extra spicy. I have to say the incredibly fresh roasted chicken was delicious. Having spent just $1.75 I was full and satisfied. I wandered the market a little before hopping on a motortaxi back to my hostel. I still had some time to kill before 2:00 and needed to decide what to do.
My morning had been up and down: frustrating at first with the palace being closed and giving in to taking around a tuktuk, but improved once I got to see all that I wanted with an informative and friendly driver, but again lowered when he tried to convince me to pay another $15 to go see a local kickboxing match, raised by the food and lowered by the aimless wandering that led to a motortaxi. And on top of all of this I still hadn’t decided whether or not I would go see the main attraction of Phnom Penh, which still felt strange that it was the main attraction – the Killing Fields.
I called my sister. I needed to talk this out, and not only did she know me well enough to get why I was feeling conflicted but she had visited the killing fields a few years ago. I wanted to learn about Cambodian history but felt like I had seen enough of Phnom Penh to be ready to go to Siem Reap. Was it worth staying in Phnom Penh another day just to get out to the Killing Fields, knowing I was stressing about the cost of the excursion before I was about to drop $40 on Angkor Wat, and knowing that I was still a little emotionally and mentally off? Traveling alone I usually can make these decisions, but once in a while it helps to be able to talk it out with someone. At the end of our conversation I felt a million times better and had made my decision: I would go to Siem Reap tomorrow.
I know the Killing Fields are important and the decision not to go was a hard one that lingered with an unfortunate feeling for a little while. However I had told myself upon leaving Vietnam that I would not go to things purely because I “should.” I made the same decision with whether or not to visit the palace that afternoon, the main site in town I “should” see. I wanted to go to the National Museum of Cambodia more, so I went there instead.
I breathed a happy sigh as soon as I walked into the museum. The Art Historian in me was thrilled that I made it there as I strolled past statues depicting Hindu and Buddhist icons from a range of centuries. There was even a short video portraying what Angkor Thom may have looked like when it was a functioning city, which was awesome to see right before going to see it in its current state. The building is also gorgeous. I sat on the edge of one of the four lily ponds in the courtyard watching someone feed the koi, listening to a monk talking to a traveler nearby. In here the sounds of Phnom Penh disappeared. It was my sanctuary for the afternoon, the place I came to accept and be happy with my decision to leave in the morning.
Before I left I had to at least visit one of the must-see bars, Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC). I sat overlooking the mayhem of rush hour traffic below me, sipping on my Anchor beer. Another solo traveler sat down next to me. Turns out he’s from LA. We ended up having the night that I thought Saturday would be. We started with drinks at FCC followed by a delicious Cambodian cuisine dinner at a restaurant that is associated with Friends International, Romdeng. The employees are former street children and their teachers, and the decor is their artwork, so it’s dining for a good cause. We had deep-fried tarantulas. They are not disguised at all, this is clearly a tarantula. Spiders have always been my biggest fear (although the Amazon helped lessen my fear a bit), so in trying to pick up one of these to eat my hand would not listen to my mind. I played a jumpy game of almost picking one up and pulling my hand back a few times before finally going for it. My companion went for the all in one bite approach, but I bit off just the head. Not bad. I tried a leg alone. Crunchy. Then the rest of it. Surprisingly, deep-fried tarantula is actually kinda tasty. Not saying I’d want it all the time, but I didn’t mind it so much once I got past the appearance.
We celebrated our daringness by going to one of the shadiest bars in town, Walkabout, followed by another just-as-seedy bar where we distracted ourselves with a game of pool. The blatant prostitution industry was harder to stomach than the tarantula. Everywhere we saw scantily clad Cambodian women talking to elderly white men and it felt so wrong. We called it a night there, not needing to push through to any more bars or clubs.
In the end I was in Phnom Penh for about 36 hours. A day shorter than the original plan, if I had any hesitation about leaving my fantastic experience in Siem Reap washed it away. Timing is everything, and it felt like every move I had made thus far led me to the right place right time of Siem Reap.