Sunday, October 5, 2008

Phnom Penh Part 1 - A New Introduction, A New Adventure In Cambodia


Phnom Penh has always intrigued me. The last time I was there was last November 2008. But after countless readings involving not-so-tourist-friendly encounters, I wanted to avoid Cambodia’s capital. And I did so – like the plague. Thus, when I set my sights on Siem Reap, I would have to pass through Phnom Penh from Saigon. Alas! Time worked with me. It only took me less than 3 hours, then I had my arse on a bus bound for Angkor Wat. However, upon my return home, I started to regret a lot of things. It was just plain silly to forego exploring Phnom Penh. So, I started setting my sights on the capital – again.

This time around, I shall take Phnom Penh with a vengeance! So far, my long haul trip that started in Hanoi – then Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Savannakhet, Mukdahan, Bangkok – will finally head to Phnom Penh. To save me time, I decided to forego with a tedious time-consuming overland border crossing that is fraught with horror stories at the Thai-Cambodian border. I earlier booked an Air Asia flight. I was excited to see Phnom Penh International Airport.

While Bangkok was still snoring her R.E.M’s, I set my alarm at 4:30AM, only to awake an hour later. It was an unpleasant experience, the thought of getting left by my plane. I was cursing myself! Fortunately, in the wee hours of this beguiling metropolis, the road to Suvarnabhumi was an easy 45 minutes away from central Pratunam. I even had enough time to look for a postcard then find the airport post office to mail it.I boarded my plane at 6:30 AM and we were airbound by 7. Exactly 1 minute after 8, I was in the capital of Cambodia, all stoked and charged for another adventure.


I find that there is always a degree of tension at each arrival. The element of uncertainty always robs me cold. It gets me a little bit scared, but without it, I guess there won’t be any excitement. It’s like singing on stage in front of a hundred people gawking at you. Petrifies you but somehow drives you to overcome the initial anxiety. It's a part of the heady thrill. And intoxicating, to say the least. As I walked towards the airport, I read some old signs: Pochentong International, the airport’s old monicker. I held my head high and prepared my passport and immigration card remembering some blog accounts of new arrivals getting shouted at the immigration counter for menial things like taking photographs inside the airport. I took note. When I saw the row of immigration counters, I practiced a smile. Not too wide and not too conservative either. Just an obvious reaction of being pleased to be there.

Phnom Penh International Airport - Baggage Claim Area.

When my turn came, which was brisk, as I didn’t have to fill in a lot, I muttered a tentative “hi” to the officer and handed him my passport and immigration card. He nodded and without much ado, let me through. That was it?! Haha. Well, there goes my wild imagination getting the better of me. Just a few steps from the counters, I saw baggage carts. Got my cam and in lightning speed fashion – Snap! Snap! Easy! The conveyor belts started to run. Soon there after, I saw my baggage which had grown from an 8 kg baby in Hanoi to a 14 kilogram monster after Bangkok. I went out to the front and decided if I wanted a tuktuk or an aircon taxi. There were a few touts in front unlike Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat or Hanoi’s Noi Bai. Air travel doesn’t seem to be the most popular mode of arrival in Phnom Penh.
The immigration counters at the foreground. Once you finish with the formalities, you find these push carts waiting. This is the baggage claim area already.

Touts outside the airport.

My readings tell me that a tuktuk should cost me a flat rate of about $7 (29,000 riel or PhP330) while a taxi would cost me $9 (37,500 riel or PhP424.50). It is a no-brainer really. I picked an old guy on a uniform. It turns out I had impeccable preference. Hehe. He was a nice man who unexpectedly gave me a free map of Phnom Penh. As my ride began trodding along, my driver started his overview on the city. During the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime which turned the capital into a proverbial ghost town, he scampered through the Bavet-Mocbai border and found his way into Saigon to seek refuge. While there, he worked as a policeman, but as the gruesome communist regime came to an end, he uprooted himself once again to return to his homeland. This was just 10 years ago, and he keeps finding himself awash with nostalgia and obscure nuggets of regret. He recalled how hollow he felt living alone in Vietnam – away from his family! He would thump his chest with his fist, and despite his spirited words, I could see his canthal folds moisten. Such anecdotes remain palpable in the contemporary lives of the Khmers. Their bloody history hasn’t quite left them and though they seem to be moving on, there is still an unmistakeable desperation of trying to escape their sordid past. This was a past that reeks with death, grieving and separations; a past that pilfered every nook and cranny of the city.
1,700,000 DEATHS

In the 70’s the Khmer Rouge pulverized and leveled to the ground every known infrastructure, every roads, every temples, every buildings, every fractured lives – in Phnom Penh. Those that did not belong to the red army became suspects and prisoners, and every soul that gets sent to the prisons are killed within minutes, unless the soldiers are overcome with the sheer number of people to be executed! In such instance, the said prisoners have to wait overnight for their very own executions the next day. Such was the gruesome reality that still haunts present day Khmers. If Europe had their Hitler, Asia had Pol Pot of the Khmer Rouge – killing their own kind – immortalizing what we now know as “The Killing Fields”. Pol Pot reigned for 3 years (until 1979). His death toll – 1.7 million!

My taxi driver was a good man. These things you can tell within minutes of acquaintance. He didn’t even ask for anything when I offered to pay for the free map he handed to me. That surprised me. Another kindness from a stranger. I was headed towards the Sisowath Quay, the capital’s answer to Manila’s Roxas Boulevard. This avenue is also the main backpacker’s area and rightfully so. Old colonial buildings dot each corner - with open air cafes and hotels. Just across these structures, runs the Tonle Sap (“Great River”), a huge tributary of the Mekong that reach all the way up north to Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat temples. I was to check in at the DV8 Guesthouse, another Lonely Planet recommendation.

A view of a corner cafe just across my guesthouse.


The DV8 Guesthouse is located at a side street of and some 20 steps from the Sisowath Quay so it is well placed. The entrance is through a bar which ,at 9 in the morning, is deserted. The lady owner greeted me with a very warm welcome. They seem aware that they have etched a certain reputation from Lonely Planet. I insisted on paying for my next few days of stay. Might as well get it over and done with. My room was medium sized, with a huge bed and bathroom, television, ref, a split type aircon and stacks of Khmer magazines. To my left was a wall-to-wall curtain that opened to a see-through glass giving me direct view of the second floor’s pool hall below my room. I was at the 3rd floor. I was given an option of taking the 4th floor instead, but I refused. I am certain of the possibility it might get noisy or rambunctious in the evenings when these halls get filled up with customers. On the wall are written friendly reminders: “If you encounter rude people during your stay, report to (the owner) and we will deal with them accordingly.” Gosh! How can you not feel special? LOL. I ordered breakfast and decided to sit outside, facing the upscale Hotel Castle (which heavily caters to Japanese and Korean tourists) from across the street. It was just french toast, 2 sunny side up eggs and an orange juice – and a bit overpriced at $2.50 (10,400 riel or PhP119), but I understand the economics of staying at a good location.

--> Little did I realize the gravity of my location until much later, late in the evening. It was a bar where most customers were Caucasians, and there were girls in their skimpiest lining the rows of tables and chairs. As I made my way back to my room, the pretty bar girls would radiantly smile at me, according me their courtesy. They were obviously forewarned that I was to be treated well. But make no mistake, this was a bar where girls were picked up for a good time – although it was clear that these girls and such shenanigans weren’t allowed in the rooms upstairs. Nevertheless, though I know I was safe, the thought of being there made me uneasy. And thanks to the Lonely Planet for such recommendation! LOL

Phnom Penh’s canvas becomes clearer to me. It’s a city wallowing with grave history, grim deaths from the distant past, Buddhist temples gilded in gold, nights teeming with bars and a hundred desperate girls, tuktuk touts in every corner and transient backpackers on their way to Siem Reap! That is Phnom Penh in a nutshell!

A view from my breakfast table at the DV8 Guesthouse.

A block from my guesthouse is a day market.

A child sweeping the stairs of the Tonle Sap riverside.

Boats for hire along the Tonle Sap. Some of these would travel all the way up north to the city of Siem Reap - for a price.

A view from my room (number 8), DV8's second floor pool hall. At night, I get to witness cavorting caucasians and their bar girls.

Sisowath Quay - Phnom Penh's answer to Manila's Roxas Boulevard.

Independence and Liberation Monument at the city center.

Outside the Phnom Penh International Airport. (above and below)

The Khmer flag through the Independence Monument.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Next up: The Killing Fields


Anonymous said...

hi. is it advisable to fly to phnom penh rather than an overland crossing from vietnam? i'll be visiting these places this november and feel a little anxious about it.

Twin said...

hey eye, you're a peeping tom pala hehe :)

Unknown said...

nice vantage point from where you took the market photo. parang ang sikip sikip.

andiboi said...

imagined yet real, I would say...
for me, an immigration officer experience is always a nerve-racking one; every time I cross a border or pass through airport immigration, I know my trips are usually for leisure but it always crosses my mind/imagination that because of the passport I'm carrying they would always ask me whether I would be working illegally in their country (even Cambodia) ;D LOL... funny but grimly true hehe

eye in the sky said...

hey sachia. it really depends on a lot of things like how much time have you got, or whether you plan to spend a lot of days in Phnom Penh or just as a passage to Siem Reap.

If you are budget conscious and wont mind a 6 hour bus ride, then i would recommend taking the bus from saigon. The SAPACO buses are great options, comfortable too, and you dont have to change buses at the border.

However, if you dont have a lot of time and still want to see Phnom Penh, and a few hundred dollar isn't a problem, then by all means fly.

I'd still say, a 6 hour bus ride is a very acceptable option. It's a great way to see the countryside too.

Unless you hate Khmer karaoke playing overtime...

I had worst experience: Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" being played dozen times over and over again! LOL

eye in the sky said...

hey twin: there were moments you get annoyed by all the noise downstairs while you are trying to catch up on sleep coz you've been out all day. i couldnt help peeping through the curtains a few times - especially when you hear "weird" noises.

eye in the sky said...

hey lucy girl, i got that photo from the second floor veranda of my guesthouse. it was a great place to stay - except that it almost feels like a brothel - though saying that seems a little unfair.

eye in the sky said...

hey andiboi, same frame of mind here. border crossings and going through immig counters are NOT my favorite parts of any trip! regardless of how much i travel, it never guarantees easy passage although so far, they're all my imagination working overtime, but i always try to expect the unexpected.

pinoy travelers are always at a disadvantage when traveling. it's cause we're thought off as possible illegal immigrants - and i can't say i'd blame them. BUT - it is rather unfair for those who enter borders or countries legally. anyway, the pinoy trail is slowly but surely being blazed by independent travels. i have a feeling backpacking will become en vogue among pinoys. who knows, we will be known as world class backpackers in 20 years' time. haha

escape said...

the place looks so simple yet so busy.

Anonymous said...

thanks for a prompt reply. the excitement is already killing me, but a part of me is anxious. is the visa processing onsite (at the mocbai border) easy? would you advise that i shall get my visa from my country of origin? sorry for the series of questions. i hope you dont mind. lastly, is phnom penh worth spending a few days instead of just heading straight to angkor wat?

eye in the sky said...

hey dong, yeah, that area you saw is a bustle of activities but there is not much that qualifies it as a metropolis just yet. unfortunately,much of their historical infrastructures have been leveled to the ground during the reign of the khmer rouge. as in "pinulbos sa lupa" everything that was there in the 70's. a really grim history.

eye in the sky said...

hey sachia, dont worry about your questions. you can ask me as much as you want, and i'll try to share what i so far know. i'll tell you when i dont know the answer.

unfortunately, you havent mentioned your nationality. if you are filipino, then no need to get a visa since pinoys are visa-free. if you aren't (which i have a hunch is your case), then a visa is necessary.

my idea on the matter is that it is always way way easier if you get your visa while your still in your country. it saves you a lot of hassle and inconveniences; it further limits your level of anxiety. however, if you cant get it from your country (time constraint or distance from your place), then visa application on site is very much accessible and possible. it wont take you more than 15 to 20 minutes at the border counter, and if you are traveling in daytime, then everything should be a breeze since you will be doing it with a lot - i mean, A LOT, of other backpackers who get their visa from there. dont worry too much. it will be fun.

is phnom penh worth visiting instead of treating it as just a transit? i'd say, keep watch of my succeeding posts coz they will be all about phnom penh - and you judge for yourself.

i personally enjoyed my stay in the capital and id never regret spending a few days there. had i missed it again, i'd have regretted it BIG time.

just ask if you still have more questions. you're very welcome.

jepayuki said...

hello there eye! once again, another "lonely planet" masterpiece =) cambodia is quite familiar to me and maybe close to my heart, my aunt worked as a UN Program Coordinator and was assigned there, then my elder sister went there too for a vacation last year. All their stories made me aware too of the dark history that its people have.

eye in the sky said...

hey jepay. thank you for your very gracious compliments. appreciate it.

you should visit cambodia then, especially angkor wat!!! then you can write your experiences there too and i can enjoy reading about them.

i've met a few pinoys in saigon who were on holiday (during the tet) from theire work in cambodia. they were from an NGO. ive also seen a family of pinoys at the royal museum in phnom penh. i wanted to say hello but ive had some unpleasant acquaintances with pinoys during my travels and i have since learned to steer clear from our kababayans. im usually very friendly - and needy of pinoy conversations - but, oh well... long "stories". i'm sure you probly have an idea what i'm talking about. :->

jepayuki said...

hi eye, i told my sister i wanted to go there and be a lara croft of sorts haha! i would love to see the angkor wat =)