"Meet me at 8:30 AM," that was my instruction to Sem, my tuktuk driver, but it seems he had plans of his own. At close to 9, I finally decided to get another. And like clockwork, Banh, the other tuktuk driver drove in front of Europe Guesthouse. "There are 5,000 tuktuks all over the city," remarked Seng, the amiable owner of our guesthouse, "Why should you wait for him. You don't have all day." So true. I requested Seng to just inform Sem to meet me at 2PM for his payment. I was going to give him half of the $20 sight seeing tour we agreed upon, but for now, I had to go.
ITINERARY FOR BANH
I liked Banh. He has this really kind face which is quite rare. And you just know he wasn't going to "take you for a ride", so to speak. Unfortunately, he hardly spoke a word of English. I asked what his name was, but he didn't understand me at all. I once again asked my hotel owner if he could enumerate my planned itinerary - National Museum, Royal Palace, Independence Monument and Wat Phnom. I'm actually going back to all these places I once saw - and I was very excited.
RELICS OF THE PAST
The Cambodian National Museum sits right in front of a park - a lawn - overlooking Sisowath Quay where a couple of well visited lakeside temples are frequented by locals offering incense and tulips. It is such a beholding presence, with its reddish roof and graceful curves. Unlike most sites in the capital, the museum is exactly as I remember it.
I readily paid my $3 entrance fee. What used to be camera fees has now been incorporated into the $3 ticket.
The rubbles found all over the Angkor temples have mostly been preserved here, thus the artifacts found within the museum have familiar names of where a specimen has been found or retrieved. This is a favorite place for me despite the fact that photography inside is disallowed. However, you can do that at the garden right outside the four corners of the exhibition hall. If I had the luxury of time, I could spend my whole day going through each relic and inscriptions.
Before leaving the museum, I inquired about "stone rubbings". These are paintings done on a special piece of paper employing stones from the Angkor Temples, rubbing their color on this canvas. The good news is, they're just $1 for medium sized painting; $2 for bigger ones. The bad news: most people in Siem Reap, where they should rightfully be found, don't have any idea what a "stone rubbing" is. So it's a little ironic that I have to find the painting 314 kilometers south of Siem Reap. I also found some peddlers selling the same at the foot of Phnom Bakheng in Angkor, but they were a bit crumpled and I wasn't sure of their quality.
Intricate carvings on a frieze on display at the museum. This photo only courtesy of www.chocolate-fish.net.
The Royal Palace is just a stone's throw away from the National Museum. I paid my $6.25 entrance fee and got inside this amazing complex of exquisitely designed buildings where the present king, Norodom Sihamouni, resides. I was once in awe of this royal palace, and it's understandable why. It's simply a visual masterpiece of pomp and pageantry. Let's take, for example, the Silver Pagoda that bears a golden buddha (pure gold) studded with some 2,000 diamonds; a flooring made of tons of silver. This is how Imelda Marcos would have preferred to live, i.e. ostentatiously, had she been queen.
The present king is curiously single and pushing 70. Yet he still looks like a movie star, very fair, with shaved head and lean frame. A guide I overheard said that the reason why he hasn't married was because he's very religious - "like the monks". Other tourists snickered when they heard that the king used to dance ballet. And the rumor mill starts wagging.
From the palace, Banh, my tuktuk driver, stopped right beside the roundabout where the Independence Monument stood. You really can't do much here except gaze at the Vietnam-donated structure (it signifies the supposed Viet-Khmer Friendhsip, and victory over Pol Pot's regime) for a minute or two. Going closer to the monument is not allowed.
From there, it was a 15 minute ride going north - to Wat Phnom, a temple perched on a hill. Though not particularly "pretty", the hill and its buddhas have historical significance to the people. After all, that's where they got the city's name.
A LADY NAMED PENH
Long time ago, 4 buddha statues were set adrift the lake, and they eventually lodged on the hill where one of the buddhas now rests. A lady found these buddha statues. Her name was Penh. Since then, a "wat" (temple) has been erected for the buddha - Wat Phnom. And the name of "Phnom Penh" has been bestowed on the capital in honor of the lady who found the buddha up the hill - "Phnom" (hill/mountain) of "Penh" - Phnom Penh. It's a beautiful anecdote actually.
I paid a $1 entrance fee (no ticket was given) then leisurely climbed the easy stairs. The amputee who begged by the stairs, a fixture since I can remember (this has been my 4th return in the city) wasn't there anymore. In fact, the whole complex has been sanitized. You hardly find the ambulant vendors that once populated the grounds.
Temple devotees were offering food, even "lechon" (roast suckling pig), flowers and other goods all around the complex. There were 2 temples up there, small ones, mostly visited by locals. I went down the other side (where the giant sundial was) and found the elephant that's been navigating the park since forever. With wrinkly epidermis and tentative strides, he was such a gentle giant - and quite hungry too, eating on his bundle of bananas and deleafing the sugarcane sticks. He would grab the sugarcane sticks by his snout, then beat their leaves against the ground (imagine someone sweeping the floor in violent strokes) before taking them inside his mouth.
Finally, it was time to head back to my hotel for my check out (12PM). I took my bag to the counter, paid my room, then looked for somewhere to eat. Seng, the hotel proprietor, recommended Restaurant 126 which, earlier in the day, was so congested. It had customers overflowing to the sidewalk - an indication that (a) it's not expensive and (b) it's a good one too. I was glad to have gotten my BBQ Pork Rib with Rice there - at a measly 6,000 riel ($1.5).
Phnom Penh used to repel me. It was a rotting capital that made perfect poster child for urban decay - a city beleaguered by societal maggots; that which wallows in dire poverty and desperation. But these days, it has gradually transformed into a vibrant new city. Poverty still abounds, but there are conscious steps for face lifts and breathing spaces. The once dingy, hooker-infested promenade has come alive - locals enjoying the breeze from its Mekong tributaries; old people doing their terpsichorean maneuvers disguised as physical exercises; best of all, there are children running around, laughing away for what seems like a brighter tomorrow.
There is hope even to a people enveloped by a harrowing and vicious past. If all this hopefulness persists, the future can't be anything but inspiring.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
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