On arrival, Phnom Penh could be any one of a score of cities in Asia. I recognise the elements of population density, standard of living, cleanliness, infrastructure, pace, the general behaviour of drivers, traffic control systems. Here, many of the signs are in Chinese or French. Hotel names, restaurant names, clothing stores, cafes might be in French.
Jewelry stores, electronics, mobile phone stores, hardwares and housewares might be in Chinese. Otherwise, the markets look the same, though here I did see live chickens about to meet their fate right at the market vendor’s stall.
My hotel is in the older part of the city, near the Tonle Sap river, within easy walking distance along the busy narrow streets to the National Museum, housing bronze, statuary and carved stone for the 8th C. on,
the spectacular Royal Palace,
Wat Phnom (a large Buddhist stupa), and other cultural attractions. It is all a juxtaposition of traditional life in a family owned and operated small business, evidence of modernisation in the proliferation of technical hardware and the trendy boutiques huddled near equally trendy high fashion and open air restaurants, especially in the European-Flavoured riverfront area. There seem to be quite a few tourists and many ex-pats as well. It’s not as clean or as wealthy as Thailand. But more people speak english here and…you can choose what currency you get from the ATMs, dollars or rials. The exchange rate is about as simple as it could be. One dollar=4000 rials. Except that certain restaurants actually charge you 5% for using Cambodian currency.
(painted murals at Royal Palace)
Phnom Penh started growing on me quickly. In fact, when I first landed in Siem Reap almost two years ago, I remarked at how immediately I felt like a mark, hit on by every fast-talking youngster intent on separating me from my money. I have felt none of that here. Sure, shopkeepers and tuk-tuk drivers all want to get your attention. But they are not insistent. They don’t follow you down the street after you say no, thanks.
Traffic through the older parts of the city moves through intricate and seemingly endlessly creative interpenetration through intersections absent of any signs, lights or police. And largely without any of the incessant honking found in India and Nepal. At least in the less traveled areas, everyone is observant of the one rule: no rules.
There also seem to be far more restaurants here catering to European tastes than in northern Thailand. Asian and Cambodian specialties are barely equal offerings. That’s not true of southern Thailand, certainly not in Phuket where I spent the previous week. And, whereas I heard Russian wherever I went in Phuket, here I have heard none.
Today is Chinese New Year. Cambodia has a much greater presence of Chinese than I have seen anywhere else I have been. They’ve been here for generations, or longer, have integrated into Khmer culture and thus many families will be part Chinese, so the occasion is felt everywhere. Businesses are closed, many people wearing red, families partaking of shared activities, gathering for meals on the sidewalk in front of their homes/businesses.
Apropos of nothing, I am noticing more upscale cars here, Rovers, Lexus, Audis, BMW X5, Toyota SUVs, even a few Hummers. But after all, this is the national capital, so there’s the diplomatic corps, all the government ministries. I am not noticing the downscale mini models of Suzuki, Mazda, Honda, Nissan. I’ve even seen a few Prius and other hybrids. But otherwise, it’s motorbikes (families on motorbikes, nursing babies on motorbikes, roast pigs riding passenger…and the ubiquitous tuk-tuks. Prices for everything are quoted in dollars and there isn’t much negotiation.