A Curious Capital

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

 › entry 10 of 20 › view all entries

Phnom Penh is full of contradictions. Cambodia is a monarchy and nominally democratic. In the centre, the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda complex has been beautifully restored and is busy with tourists - we all peer over the wall into the private areas. The waterfront is getting a major make-over. The National Assembly building is new and grand. Many Wats (Buddhist shrines/ monasteries) are having major works. While there are no traffic/ bike jams on Saigon levels, the main roads are busy. There are relatively a lot more cars and far fewer motorbikes than Saigon, and of the cars at least 50% are very modern SUVs. We passed a showroom where a Lexus GX470 was on sale for US$44,800. (Average annual salary said to be US$500pa) There are dozens of good quality cafes and restaurants, more expensive than in Vietnam and where you pay in US$. They seem mainly frequented by westerners, but there are locals too. In the area around our hotel there are dozens of houses and apartments surrounded by fences and razor wire. There's nothing like the Saigon (or Hanoi) shops. But in other parts of the city the poverty strikes you. Dilapidated buildings, rubbish in the street, children not in school, kids barefoot (not many, true) , idle teenagers just hanging about and being moved on by the police.

We "did"various sights. Although the National Museum had been looted in the '70s and left to rot until the 1990s, it is now restored and has some fine carvings from Angkor. Wat Phnom, on a hillock, is still very active. Offerings of food are made and left in front of the Buddha with a luminous flashing halo. Also offered are lotus flowers whose petals have been folded and little birds are bought to be released for good luck. It's said they fly back to their cages. The fortune teller offers a palm leaf book which the supplicant places on her head (we only saw women), and marks an unseen page with a pin. The fortune teller reads the page and the fortune. But if it's not what she wants, the woman has another go. The colonial GPO lists the days for foreign mail despatch - Monday and Wednesday for England. Off to the calm of the prestige Le Royale Hotel for late morning coffee. Afternoon tea there - sandwiches, scones, cakes, is $15. Then after lunch to Lucky Supermarket where they sell all sorts of imported goodies for the expats and the rich. A visit to the very different Russian Market - like a souk, where tourists bargain for good stuff and tat, locals have clothes made and buy their motor cycle spares - dozens of stalls selling every imaginable bit.

Then the tuk tuk driver says , "Go to Killing Fields and Torture Museum?"and you recall the horrendous history of the country. In the late 70s Cambodia under Pol Pot, then the Vietnamese invasion of the 80s, and finally a less than ideal UN mission in the 90s. It's amazing there's a city at all.

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Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk