Published: September 10th 2011September 9th 2011
Morning laundry & bath
Families can be seen in the morning at the river taking baths and washing their laundry.
It’s difficult to articulate exactly why, but arriving back in what can only be described as the chaotic and muddled city of Phnom Penh has been incredibly comforting. If the Universe didn’t seem to already have other plans for me, I could actually imagine myself staying here for quite some time. I love the run down yet beautiful French Colonial buildings, the way the city bustles along the impressive Mekong River, and how despite Phnom Penh being the wealthiest city in Cambodia it still looks and feels much like the projects to me.
I couldn’t stop smiling when I stepped out of the airport as the incredibly hot and humid air hit me after leaving the comparably cold and dry Sydney climate. I had missed the way the sun invades this city with sweltering heat each and every day, relishing the predictability and consistency with which it provides comforting warmth and promises that you will never be cold. Having not been in Cambodia for a while, I thought I had forgotten what little of the local Khmer language that I knew. However when I saw that first beautiful Cambodian face offer me a ride to my hotel and heard myself
Small Buddhist shrines such as this one are everywhere in Cambodia- in trees, at shops, in restaurants and there's even one on my apartment balcony. It's really beautiful.
say “Ou-kun,” I smiled realizing I had just remembered the Khmer word for thank you.
As I cruised from the airport to my accommodations through the bustling and frenzied streets of Phnom Penh, I recalled how overwhelmed and unprepared I was at the start of my trip arriving at the now comparably calm city of Bangkok. While relaxing in the Cambodian cab, I thought with amusement that it was a good thing that I hadn’t started my trip back then in Phnom Penh because I don’t know if I would have been able to handle the bedlam and disarray that this city is drenched in. It was one of the many exquisitely empowering moments on this trip where I noticed how far I’d come and how much my confidence, independence and street savviness had improved. It’s nice to see that although I am appropriately cautious I am also pleasantly calm in the chaos that seems to often surround me on this journey.
When I checked into my hotel only half an hour after arriving in Cambodia, I laughed in amazement when I looked at my reflection in the mirror and discovered that the curls that had disappeared from
Street sign please??
While attempting to orient myself in a new area I desperately searched for a street sign and only found this one (next to the 'gas station' lol). That sign is not so helpful...
my hair in Australia had already returned. I’ve spent my entire life desperately wanting wavy hair and it seems to just gloriously and magically appear as soon as I am in the hot and humid Southeast Asian climate.
I also found that in the same way that everything seemed outrageously expensive upon arriving in Australia, things in Asia had now returned to feeling ridiculously cheap. It cost me less money to splurge on a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh than it did to pay for my room at the hostel in Sydney. I couldn’t help forking out a little extra cash in Phnom Penh for a night or two and indulge in some relatively cheap comforts before I headed to the NGO where my volunteer role would soon begin. I was beyond thrilled to be back in Phnom Penh and loving every second of it.
However the honeymoon period in this city ended as quickly as it began as I awoke in the middle of the night to find that my luxury hotel was without power. This meant that my sweltering room now had no air conditioning and no fan. In the morning I discovered that the power
First thing in the morning people are found fishing with nets along the river, just across from the main strip of cafes and hotels.
was still out so I was forced to get dressed with a flashlight and brush my teeth in the dark. Wifi is also apparently not available during a power outage.
Another lowlight of my morning was when I discovered that despite the ridiculous amount of signs on the premises and on promotional material for the hotel warning that sex tourists are not permitted, the older Caucasian man in the room across from me exited his room at the same time as me accompanied by a teenage Cambodian boy. I tried not to jump to any conclusions about what might have been going on there, however there are unfortunately only so many reasonable explanations for something like that.
The struggles continued when the prepaid breakfast options were extremely limited because the power outage left the hotel without a fridge or stove. The phrase ‘Welcome to Cambodia’ kept running through my head sarcastically, followed by a silent yet determined ‘Bring it on.’ I also noted with pleasure that it was barely 7 in the morning and I was already sweating. The comforting heat thankfully seemed to compensate for all the other misgivings that the morning had already brought.
I walked down to the popular riverfront area to find a café that would feed my Internet and decadent breakfast addictions, I was suddenly aware of how flashy I looked in Cambodia. These same clothes of mine only days before left me feeling plain and somewhat inadequate in the exceptionally stylish and metropolitan city of Sydney; whereas in Phnom Penh with the exact same getup I might as well have been carrying a sign that said ‘mug me.’ Listening to my ridiculously souped-up iPod and with my expensive Mac laptop in my bag, I walked down the street taking photos with the flashy new Nikon that I had treated myself to in Sydney. This latest glitzy camera of mine is red, and not just any old red but a bright and shiny ‘look at me!’ red. Whatever was I thinking? A random local Khmer person on the street actually looked at my camera and warned me to be careful, seeing as how people would surely try to steal it. It seems I got caught up in the glitz and glamour of the Sydney lifestyle (and my credit card statement concurs) and temporarily forgot what my next few months would entail.
Proust has been quoted as saying that the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes. I certainly seemed to be seeing Asia from a fresh perspective this time around after my recent time spent away in Australia, noting many things in Asia that I think I had become accustomed and almost immune to before having left this developing area of the world just one month ago. As I walked to the riverfront there were many scenes that caught my eye, including a woman sitting bare-chested in the middle of the sidewalk breastfeeding her child and a man sweeping the road a few feet away with a homemade broom with a small naked child by his side. These are very simple things that although are commonplace in S.E Asia, are not at all part of the daily scene in Westernized countries. I also once again truly appreciated the serene and beautiful sight of strolling Buddhist monks in their orange robes toting matching umbrellas to shield them from the sun, bringing a sense of peaceful balance to the commotion surrounding them in Phnom Penh.
Within 10 minutes of leaving my hotel I
noted that I could have had new sunglasses, books, jewellery and about a zillion tuk tuk and moto rides should I have taken up any of the many offers that came my way while walking down the street. I also took note of the fact that I now seemed to be a natural at making my way through the anarchy of motorbikes and vehicles as I crossed the many busy streets on the way to the café. Months ago I would have stood on the side of the road for a ridiculously long time before eventually tagging along with a local as they made their way through the swarming traffic. One step and one bike at a time seems to be the necessary strategy for crossing the road safely in this busy area of the world.
After selecting a charming café by the river to settle in at, I relaxed with a freshly cracked coconut and continued with amazement to take in the pandemonium around me. Each day one can observe the Buddhist monks making their rounds begging (their term) at the local shops and cafes. Seeing as how they have no salary to speak of, there is an
Observing these power lines I have no trouble figuring out why the power keeps going out!
unofficial agreement that the locals will support these devoted spiritual individuals. As I waited for my breakfast, I witnessed one monk collect a monetary donation and stop a couple of feet in front of me to perform a small ceremonial blessing for my waitress who got down on her knees for the duration of the chanting. This is another beautiful example of something simple that is an everyday occurrence in this part of the word but virtually never seen in Western areas. Shortly after this devotional display the power then went out at the café where I had gone to escape the original frustrating power outage at my hotel. Once again the sarcastic words ‘Welcome back to Cambodia’ replayed themselves in my head.
I don’t even know how to explain the surreal craziness that is Phnom Penh. Street venders push food carts piled with meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Children approach you selling small items and some simply beg for money having nothing to sell. Some of these very small children have babies hanging off of their sides looking as though they are about to be dropped. It’s mind-blowing to see infants in the care of such young children
Splurging for luxury
The 'Blue Lime' hotel where I treated myself to a couple nights of luxury.
and I struggle with how to handle this every time I see it. I have vowed to never buy anything from the children or give them money after a local children’s aid organization urged that this only supports the exploitation of children who aren’t benefiting from your tourist dollars anyway. It’s a challenging stance to maintain when in the face of the struggling children pleading for your help, however I remind myself that my time and money is much more effectively invested in the organizations that work to get these children off of the street.
The months of September and October during which I will be residing in Phnom Penh are the city’s rainiest periods, getting soaked with an average daily precipitation of 20-25 millimetres. However the silver lining is that this abundance of rain turns the country into a green and lush paradise to be enjoyed during the hours each day when the sun shines and welcomes you to partake in its magical beauty. Temperatures hover around the mid-thirties during the day and only drop a few degrees to the mid-twenties at night. Weary of the continuous heat locals mostly hide in the shade, while I on the
other hand usually look for a spot in the open to soak up what for me is the glorious and highly sought after sun.
Phnom Penh may have it’s challenges and I imagine that for many people this might be one of the last places they would ever choose to spend any significant amount of time. Although for whatever reason, the paradox of simultaneous chaos and calm here in this city seem to work surprisingly well for me. My belief is that peace is in perspective more than it is in circumstances and that certainly seems to be the case here for me.
I’m definitely encouraged and inspired by the resilience of this city and impressed each day as I watch the millions of people find their way through their days despite the challenges that living in Phnom Penh can bring. Nothing is ever mundane here for me seeing as how everything I do and see is like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before. Every aspect of my day has a sense of excitement and novelty to it making boredom virtually impossible. There’s also an aliveness here, a certain vitality and level of energy that I don’t
I think I would consider staying in this part of the world for no other reason than all the fresh coconuts alone lol.
always sense back home in Canada.
I’ve noticed that generally speaking struggles can unite people and break down some of the barriers that exist between them, leading me to think that perhaps Cambodia’s challenges are in fact partly responsible for the increased connectedness that I enjoy in this country. Whatever the reason is, I know that for now being in Phnom Penh really works for me and I am incredibly pleased that my path has, at least for the time being, brought me to this fascinating and wonderful place. I have a feeling it will be really incredible to be able unpack my bags and feel like I have a somewhat permanent home for a while and am sincerely looking forward to all the new adventures and experiences that this will surely bring.
There are more photos below