Navigating Phnom Penh with reflections ten days in

Before leaving Bangkok I did my best to pack in as much sightseeing in this fabulous city as I could manage. On Saturday I went to the Chatuchak weekend outdoor market. You need a map or an incredible sense of direction for this place: a maze of thousands of stands selling pretty much everything are jammed into blocks of a temporary, canvas roofed shopping complex. My feet are blistered from walking unaccustomed miles every day so I immediately purchased a pair of Thai flipflops and left my hot, heavy, expensive American walking shoes behind.

$3  later, my feet could breathe.

Thai flipflops.

I wished I had come  to SEA bringing nothing at all or had a Sherpa with me to carry my load because the clothes here were beautiful. Little shops selling Thai designers’ cool contemporary clothes were mixed with American labels mixed with French clothes mixed with the ubiquitous cotton drop-crotch elephant design pants and tees and absolutely gorgeous children’s clothes. There were amazing textiles, art and sculptures, soaps and scents, herbs and spices, food and drink – all sold at cheap prices – and they beckoned to me from every direction.

Since I couldn’t shop and I was hot, I went to the river to try out the water taxis. The weather had changed from overcast and steamy to clear, cool and blue, and, on the Chau Doc river, the wind was blowing up small white caps and the temperature was perfect.

Wat Arun – Temple of Dawn, – Bangkok
Temple rules of respect.


Taking the ferries across the river multiple times, I explored several temples and water-side neighborhoods,  finding something new and interesting around every corner. Bathrooms, thankfully, are easy enough to come by and are clean – most with a Thai woman inside doing perpetual cleaning. Unless you’re in one of the many Bangkok malls, you might want to provide your own paper. With luck there will be a table out front with a roll of TP and a basket for you to drop a few coins in to pay for what you took. The more remote ones (off the tourist trail) have squat toilets and “bum guns” – hoses with nosels for, guess what? Your bum. I have yet to experiement with these but they do look efficient and eco friendly.

In the four days I was in Thailand I was never once hassled or hustled by anyone. Offers of tuk-tuks and guides, yes, but easily declined with smiles all around. I was always treated kindly. Saying “goodbye” to Preaw, she asked me what had surprised me about Bangkok? I was embarrased to admit that I hadn’t realized what a cosmopolitan, progressive city it is.

All the while I was traversing and enjoying the pleasures of the city, I was getting little “pings” on my phone with links to articles in US newspapers citing the abandonment of the malls in America. It’s tempting to talk knowingly about our isolationist tendencies, our avarice and arrogance, our blundering “leadership”- all leading to the inevitable decline  of the West and the rise of the East…. but I think I’ll wait until I’ve been here longer than ten days, seen more and learned more, before I pontificate.

Flight to Phnom Phen, the capitol of Cambodia, was delayed and it landed later than expected so my driver (I’d booked a car to take me into the city) had left. The fine print on my ticket said, “Your driver will wait a maximum of five minutes!” A tout offered me what I thought was a car for $10. and, when I said OK, ushered me to a tuk-tuk (a motorbike fitted with passsenger cab on the back, with two short bench seats facing each other and a canvas roof.) It was late and I was too tired to search for another option, so I climbed aboard. My driver, Mathli, tied my pack to the seat with a rope while telling me, “It’s a long way, I hope you tip me good.” I didn’t answer, just held on tight since I had been warned about the traffic in PP and the wild tuk-tuk rides. These stories were all too true. In the 30 minute ride to the city I inhaled a lung full of diesel fumes, got what felt like cinders in my eyes, had cramps in my hands from clinging to the side bars and TMJ from clenching my jaw. But I was wide awake! The streets are chock-a-block full of trucks, buses, cars, tuk tuks, pedicabs, bicycles and motos. Traffic signs and lights are ignored, there are no lanes and kazillions of motorbikes weave through the traffic at dizzing speeds, passing in front, around and behind larger vehicles and even crossing into lanes of on-coming traffic or riding up on the sidewalks to find a small hole in the traffic to whiz through. The tuk-tuks do the same when and where they can and the cars just plow ahead without seeming to care about other vehicles which are just inches away from each other. Horns are coming from every direction. After a while I noticed that I seemed to be the only one inside this crazy dance that was at all nervous. The moto drivers wore flipflops or, in the case of the women, high heels and nylons, helmets or bonnets and they are hella cool. Often an entire family was perched on one bike. The sidewalks were alive with people cooking food or selling things, eating or shopping. The smells, aside from the diesel, were inticing and the noise level was intense.

Eventually I came to have some faith in Mathli who was an older fellow and still alive after presumably driving his vehicle for years. The air temperature was perfect, the night balmy. Arriving at my hotel on the waterfront, thrilled to be in one piece, I handed him a handful of Thai baht notes, all that I had left, and took his phone number and my leave as he beamed at me, holding the notes in his raised hand and begging me to call  him tomorrow for a trip to The Killing Fields or wherever I wanted to go.

The hotel, the Cozyna, is an old dame left over from the French period, heavy on dark wood and fronted with wrought iron balconys. The location is great – right next to the Royal Palace and in the middle of the action. I was escourted to my room which, being one of the cheapest they have, was on the fourth floor (no lift and no help with my pack) and depressingly dismal. Trying to settle in I realized the bed light was dim, the AC wasn’t working and the phone was broken.  I had to walk back down to the desk and then climb the four flights of stairs again with Chai, the front desk guy. He said this was the last room, the hotel was full, they only had more expensive rooms available. I kept my tone light but did insist on what I was promised: a $20. a night room with AC, wifi, hot water, cable TV, a coffee pot and toiletries. Eventually, with only one more hike down to the desk and back, Chai did give me a wonderful room just one flight up. Yay!

I’m leaving Phnom Penh early in the morning in a Cambodian Post VIP Van going to Siem Reap – five hours away. I’ve walked for miles dodging traffic (sidewalks are where the cars park), visited the National Museum, several Wats and the Royal Palace, seen so much that amazed me,  applied for and gotten my Vietnmese visa, eaten some excellent Khmer food, hoisted several pints of Angkor beer in frosted mugs (.50 to .75 cents a pour), had a fine pedicure and wonderful leg and foot massage ($7.) at Friend’s N’Stuff where young girls off the streets are taken in and taught a viable skill. I’ve watched  zumba classes in the park by the Tonle Sap River, and chatted with locals and expats. Cambodia is poor and it shows. My heart hurts and my American guilt cup runneth over when I see the maimed adults and the scrawny children begging for pennies in the streets.

I am vastly impressed by the resiliance and creativity of the Cambodian people who have suffered so much and yet still laugh and smile and go on and I look forward to getting to know them better.

Laksa – curried soup with coconut milk and seafood and hard boiled egg – cooked by street kids/chefs in training
Combodian National Museum, Phnom Penh
Fabulous pedicure and massage by former street kids at “Friends N’Stuff”