The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, is a modern thriving city geared up for tourists to spend money while retaining all its genuine, ‘local’ feel.
We arrived hot & sweaty to the usual furore of tuk-tuk drivers outside the coach looking for business. We negotiated our way down to the impressive river front, where all the main hotels and guesthouses are and perched ourselves & bags in a bar, while Ben did a recce of the surrounding places we’d picked out as potentials. As has become customary we opted for a hotel that was neither in the guidebook nor one we’d researched on the net, but the Indochine II suited us perfectly. Clean, wi-fi & breakfast for $22 a night.
The river front
The river front illustrates modern Phnom Penh perfectly: early evening as the air cools it’s the locals promenading opposite the western restaurants, the kids playing football and ladies joining in the group aerobics; just around the corner from the pizzas and pasta are bustling markets with locals picking up their food shop.
There is a good selection of Khmer and European cuisine to choose from along the main strip, as well as several bars providing happy hours – one of our favourites was the Foreign Correspondents Club, where you can get great views of the river & promenade from the roof-top bar, escaping the constant hassle of the hawker street children for a while.
You have to definitely have your wits about you when tackling the street children – they speak very good English, with a well-practiced sad, zombie drone. You buy bracelet. You help me. Very cheap. You buy 1 I give 9 free. They know all the phrases and tricks in the book and it takes a firm ‘No’ three or four times and a smile to get rid of them (although 2 minutes later another appears).
Ben managed to make a bet with one child, who was selling books – if the child beats Ben at pool then Ben would buy a book from the kid. Ben takes it easy at first and lets the child pot a few balls but then decides it’s time to win. However when potting the black – disaster! – the white drops too. The child celebrates with dancing around the table and shouting and Ben has to now buy a book. Much negotiation ensues – the child not wanting to give up a book for $2 (the price paid the day before when purchasing another book elsewhere). After a heated debate Ben finally buys two (!) books for $6 – both bootleg copies with faded print but otherwise readable. A ‘new’ Lonely Planet for just $3 isn’t bad though.
As the kid leaves we see he has a mobile phone – not what you’d expect from a child working the streets. We were told by the waiter in the bar that 99% of the children aren’t orphans or homeless, they are sent out by their parents to sell books & jewellery because tourists are more inclined to give to children. After that Ben stuck to losing at pool to adults.
Things to do in Phnom Penh:
- Phnom Penh’s biggest tourist ‘attractions’ are associated with the Khmer Rouge’s genocide 30 years previously – this is covered in a separate blog post about The Killing Fields and S21 Prison
- The Royal Palace makes for a worthy visit – a collection of 19th century temples and buildings (many off-limits to tourists) that are not just pretty but really quite special. Highlights include gorgeous frescos, a silver-floored pagoda (err…covered by carpet) and a large courtyard with nice gardens to walk around. Some limited museums near the exit are tacked on to your visit here.
- Wat Phnom – the temple on the hill that gave the city it’s name when it was founded by a lady called Penh! Monkeys play in the pretty gardens that surround the hill temple.
- River front promenade, with all the western bars and restaurants opposite, but full of locals having fun and relaxing
- Shopping at the central market – everything under the sun housed in an attractive and interesting 1930s art-deco building
We really liked Phnom Penh – apart from the constant hassle of the various hawkers and children. It has a good feel to it, some nice sights and is comfortable for a western visitor. The few remaining colonial buildings blend with the modernity of a buzzing city (successfully) finding its feet again after the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
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