Day 1 Cambodia - Hot Reflection at the National Museum in Phnom Penh

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November 16th 2014
Published: November 16th 2014
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It's hot. No two ways to say it. It's just really, really hot. And I'm pretty sure it's mild on the weather spectrum for Phnom. I'm in a dryfit bright green shirt and bright pink running shorts with my iPad and my tote bag and the fedora I just bought at the market. I'm just one day glow tourist in the sea of ancient statues now surrounding me.

The silver pagoda and other temples don't open for another hour, so I thought I'd take the time to blog amidst the Cambodian statues in the National Museum, my current location. The statues aren't in a rush to go anywhere. Most are from the 10th century. So I figure I can chill out, too.

I departed Melbourne at 1:25am Monday morning after a fantastic weekend. Public transport there is so easy, and there were no snafus in my disembarkment. I always get so antsy before a big flight, convincing myself that I hadn't actually bought the ticket, or it's the wrong day, etc. But all is well in this case, and I slept hard on the first 8 hour flight and arrived in Malaysia. I then commence my ensuing 7 hour layover. I'm sure the ticket was cheap and that's why I booked it, but of course the Ariel of present is now shaking her head at the Ariel of 2 weeks ago. Bonus is that the airport is like a mini-mall, and has a movie lounge, wifi, and 15cent mcdonalds ice cream cones. So I'm really all set. I caught up on phone calls and email and watched some flicks and then boarded AirAsia for Phnom Pehn.

My legs are stuck together. Just uncrossed them. So hot right now.

The AirAsia boarding process is unfamiliar and chaotic. They check your boarding passes while you are seated in the waiting area, and then it's a free-for-all to the gate. No real issues though, and I find my middle seat and I pass out hard again. Customs was easy as I had prepurchased an E-Visa and I had arranged a cab to pick me up and take me straight to my hostel. Airport travel is one thing I don't hesitate paying more money for - it sucks feeling so lost with all your baggage traveling alone and showing up in a new place. I find my cab and take off for my hostel.

The cab ride is around 45 minutes and costs $12. The driver doesn't speak English. The roads are chaotic and bustling, with no real rhyme or reason to the traffic patterns. Motor bikes swerve in and out, tuk tuks carry tourists sidle up along the curbs, and women hop onto the back of the motorbikes side saddle with their babies like it's nothing. The streets are lined with vendors selling everything and anything. But it's obvious the area near the airport is not a tourist area - it's grimier and all street based and no white faces. We head northwest to my hostel.

The people at Velokkeman Backpackers are great. I believe Velokkeman means "welcome" in German (I could be so so wrong) and it's owned ny a German expat. Young local Cambodians work the bar and the rooms. I check in quickly to my $10/night private room with a shared bathroom and a fan. It's tiny and simple, but cheap and very clean. My shower is a handle over the toilet, and has hot water though that would be criminal in this heat. I decide just to take off and not shower even though I feel disgusting to get some food and toothpaste, which they confiscated at the airport. I walk to the river front as the sun is setting. I just stroll until I find a small unassuming place and decide on the vegetarian amok (traditional Cambodia dish of vegetables and usually meat cooked with cream and lemongrass and an egg cracked on top, served with rice). It's the best meal I've had thus far and costs $3.50. It would have been a dollar more if I wanted a pint of beer. I'm really going to like this place. Right before I leave, an exercise session/flash mob starts at the waterfront. It's dark, but I'm assuming they wait for dark given the heat. It's a mixture between jazzercise and step aerobics and about 75 people are participating. Superb people watching. I almost join in, but damn I need a shower.

I am now in the middle of a Chinese tourist group. At least I look slightly less absurd compared to the other tourists.

I turn in super early as I'm still exhausted. I sleep well and hard after a cold shower and the fan fortunately does the trick.

I wake up and go for the most pathetic run of my life. Too hot. I'm not alone, other people have joined me on the waterfront. But my favorite sight are the 45-70 year old women and men who have congregated at the public exercise machines they have set up in the river plaza. They are body weight propelled machines and monkey bars, etc, and the people are taking their workouts very seriously, but have collared shirts and long pants and most are exerting very minimal effort. It seems more social than anything. Funny. But they definitely don't look as pathetic as my slow jogging ass does.

Down by the river there are the typical long boats filled with a bunch of unrecognizable shit and sometimes small children bustling around. There are fly fisherman as well. The water doesn't look particularly clean, actually, the city itself isn't either. The trash bins are overflowing, and there is often wash water on the streets of questionable cleanliness. The markets are low and directly on the pavement, and the cacophony of smells is confusing. There are wafts of lemongrass and fish cakes between motorbike fumes and sewage water, and at this point I've determined I'm not brave enough to buy from the small street markets.

I have a quick brekky at the hostel and take off for my first stop, the central market. It takes me far longer to get there as I hesitate to take out my map, and it's surprisingly hidden and not well marked. And as we all know, I suck at directions. I think I heard "hi lady, want a tuk tuk?" a good 50 times. But I persevere and find this Art Deco establishment which has a covered central plaza and then alleys radiating out like spokes of a wheel. The center has jewelry mainly, and then the rest is whatever you could imagine - purses, leather, shoes, electronics, makeup, dresses, scarves, etc. Vendors are fortunately not too pushy, and I haggle for what I hope are appropriate prices, and get a few light dresses and scarves which will be more appropriate for this trip, and a hat for the sun. There are women on the outer aisles sewing the clothes by hand and with machines. At least we know I'm buying locally!

I'm looking at a tourist right now wearing the shorts I just bought. Look good though!

I exit the market into a sea of food stalls. There are live fish swimming in kiddie pools, and women hacking up fish, chickens, sugar cane, and shelling fish with bricks. There are fruits I don't recognize and locals sitting on low stools getting served lunch 1-3 at a time. I'm unclear what the ordering process is from these teeny booths, but I don't think tourists are really invited to this party. I do succumb to a pineapple shake which blows my mind.

I leave the market sadly, could have bought everything there, but still have 5 weeks of traveling and shopping to do. I then head to the museum, and en route stop at Wat Botum. I still haven't figured out exactly what this place is, but there are roosters milling about and monks outside on their pink laptops (no joke) and people praying inside of a large temple. I make my way to the national museum which is mainly filled with very ancient sculptures and statues.

I read a few interesting things here about brahmanism and the introduction off Buddhism to Cambodia, which appeased to have happened around the 6th century. I'm not even going to pretend to have any knowledge on this subject, but I read that in brahmanism there are three gods, brahma (god who created the earth) Vishnu (god who maintains the earth) and Shiva (god of destruction who will ultimately destroy the planet). Brahma is often depicted with 4 heads, Vishnu with 4 arms, and Shiva on top of a bull. The stone tablet picture I have included shows the three gods amongst their watchmen. Buddhism also has three pillars of perfection ... The common trilogy theme amongst religions is something I want to look into more when I can.

There is also an exhibit about the UNESCO conference in 1970 which focused on the quest to return the ancient Cambodian statues which were on display around the world back to Cambodia. The US ultimately returned exhibits from MOMA and other museums. Then a statue which had been pillaged from an ancient village north of Angkor Wat was found in a Sothesby catalogue and ultimately returned. Damn Americans.


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