If the cities of Bangkok, Saigon, and Phnom Penh were sisters, Bangkok would be the free-wheeling eldest sister, Saigon the middle child torn between identities, and Phnom Penh the shy youngest one expectantly waiting for its time to shine. Arriving by boat from Chau Doc at noon time yesterday, the quiet riverfront that greeted us as we disembarked seemed to say it all: “Welcome to Quietness.”
The Boat Trip. For $50, I quite expected The Blue Cruiser boat to be a newer and bigger boat and not look just like the Hau Chai boat that was half the price. . But at least the price included a light snack (a ham and cheese sandwich, some cakes, and water) and the passport control. Our guide took care of everything and even filled-up the immigration forms for us. He also encouraged us to all just pay the extra $1 so Cambodian customs wouldn’t go through our bags anymore. After hearing all those stories about the petty corruption at border crossings, we of course, agreed to this. We boarded the speed boat at the Victoria Chau Doc Hotel dock. An hour into the trip, we disembarked at the Vietnam border where the boat staff took our bags to customs for inspection and the guide had our passports stamped. We waited at a lounge where I had my least Dong changed into Riyel. After about half an hour of waiting, we boarded the boat again and 5 minutes later we were at the Kaam Samnor gate of Cambodia. Unlike at the Vietnamese side, we had to have our passports stamped personally. My line was kinda slow as the immigration officer really took time to go through the passport. The other line had these group of officers laughing out loud while holding on to the passport of a white chubby woman. I figured I was in a better line.
I imagined nasty thoughts of being detained and being sent to S-2 for being a trying-to-be-illegal migrant:
“Mr Jimenez. You seem like you want to stay in Cambodia forever. I will lock you up at S-2 and torture you until you want to go home.”
Or maybe they were going to suspect me of being a drug dealer:
“Aha! You have drugs! To S-2 you go!”
But the officer just went through my document stoically then stamped it. I was officially in Cambodia!
The ride from the Cambodian border to Phnom Penh was around four hours. Enough time to get some shut-eye.
Arriving at the Phnom Penh dock, we took a cab that was to bring us to Walkabout Hotel at St.51 where a lot of bars, including Heart of Darkness are. Our driver suggested Royal Highness Hotel saying that we wouldn’t get much sleep at Walkabout as it had a raucous ground floor bar. He spoke of being awakened in the middle of the night by drunk hotel guests. I knew he was gonna get a commission out of it but wasn’t forcing the hotel on us and even volunteered to take us to any hotels we wanted to see so we could compare. We were paying him $4 anyway so we checked out the location of Walkabout (too far from the riverside), Bright Lotus (not too clean rooms but nice location) then finally the Royal Highness Hotel which we did choose for its cheap price ($15), location (off the main street where the sights are), and big room. It was a different story in the evening when the room suddenly looked gloomy and the large empty hotel reeked of “The Shining.” I half expected Jack Nicholson to come out from one of the rooms. It seemed strange that there didn’t seem to be too many guests unlike next door The Last Hotel which had people chilling out in front. It seemed like a hotel fit for a Cambodian film noir set. So we spent the night looking for another place to crash. The Bright Lotus had been booked by then so we settled for Kok Hang which was just a block away from the Bright Lotus and had a really nice room ($20) and a shared veranda! So that’s where we are now. When the guy at the front desk of the Royal Highness asked us where we were going when we checked out this morning, I just told him we were off to Battambang. He was nice so I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Thankfully, they didn’t want to accept my offer to pay for the room in advanced. They’re probably used to guests just staying a night.
What I like about Phnom Penh is that its important sights such as the National Museum and the Royal Palace are in the center of the city and within walking distance of the tourist areas. The museum is a pretty red building in traditional architecture. Walking along its galleries, the collection of Khmer sculpture, art, and excavated artifacts were simply astounding. I especially liked the room with all the buddhas and images of vishnu and the female divinities. Large busts of Jayavrman II were everywhere. Heading to the Royal Palace, we took a wrong turn which led us around the entire block behind the museum. We didn’t really mind as it gave us the chance to explore the area some more. There were numerous art galleries and shops. We finally rounded off the block and was back at the other side of the museum. Then we realized, the palace was just right beside it. We hurriedly walked along the street between the walls of the palace and the park as we saw 3 men walking in a daze while sniffing rugby. It was a sad sight.
When we got to the palace, it was about less than an hour to closing and there was a long line for tickets. We decided to just return the next day.
It was pleasant to walk behind the palace as the boulevard to the Vietnam-Cambodian Friendship Monument was wide and pretty. It was a sight to see monks in saffron robes. “Monk! Monk!” Francis would excitedly shout while snapping pictures. It was as if we’ve never seen one. It is strange that in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, you see monks walking the streets. In Manila even in the provinces, you hardly see Catholic priests walking the streets. Hanging around near the monument, a scruffy bearded white guy approached us and asked if we spoke English. He then asked when we arrived. When I said,”just this afternoon,” he turned away and murmured something like, “it’s no use.” Francis conjenctured he might be a foreigner lost in drugs and unable to go back home. We did see him again at the Central Market the next day.
With nothing else to do, we headed to Sisowath Quay which was lined with bars and guesthouses. Reaching the far end, we decided to might as well head to Wat Ounom, the center of Phnom Penh. Following the Lonely Planet map, we passed by the Post Office and a tree that had bats roosting. We rounded a curve and came face to face with the wat. This was Kilometer Zero where all distances in Cambodia are measured from here. A stage was being erected in its ground for what seems to be a really big event, perhaps on NYE. The wat was small and not particularly pretty but had some interesting corners for nice photo ops. Dusk had arrived and we would have wanted to pass by the National Library and the Hotel Le Royal for some impressive French architecture, but I was disoriented and too tired already. We walked back to the riverside instead to look for dinner.
We Want Rice!
Since we wanted some Khmer street food which an English couple we met at HCMC was raving about, we decided to find some. If the price of the late lunch I had at the Khmer Boran Restaurant at Sisowath Quay on arrival the other day was to be any indication (almost $10 for a dish, a plate of rice, and dessert), we had to find a street stall to fill our stomach without emptying our pockets. I bought some flat fried dumplings filled with chives at a stall along the river to stave off my hunger. At one of the back streets we found a crowd of stalls with local Khmer eating. We bought some barbecued pork and hunted for rice. Mostly everyone were having some noodles and soup and there didn’t seem to be any rice. “Com?” I asked. One vendor pointed to a stall selling some sweets. “Com?” And the woman vendor nodded. I was horrified to see that the “com” she referred to was the sticky dessert rice that was smothered with coconut milk rather than steamed rice. At least, I got some dessert. We were resigned to a rice-less barbecue meal. On the way back to the hotel, we stumbled on a group of men seated on some tables outside eating rice! “Com? Where?” They pointed to a small open-air restaurant where lo and behold, there was an English menu. Opening it, I saw the two most important words for that day – FRIED RICE! Francis and I promptly ordered a plate to go for each of us.