Phnom Penh, then, Cambodia’s capital. A lovely city! Vibrant, active, alive with people, and with motorbikes and bicycles and cars and tuk-tuks and anything else that moves, without much structure. None of the traffic participants ever really stop at a junction, they kind of flow past each other, no matter in which direction; if necessary they adjust their course a little, but everybody allows everybody else to continue, in a more or less straight direction. And as a pedestrian it is perfectly OK to move in between, after all, nothing goes really fast, and after all, you have no other option, because the pavement – if there is a pavement at all – is invariably occupied with parked cars, parked motorbikes, waiting tuk-tuks, or with trees that have their branches so low that you cannot possibly be expected to pass underneath. The waiting tuk-tuks - essentially a small cart with benches and a roof, tied to a normal motorbike -, and all the other tuk-tuks, too, are a bit of a pain: drivers continuously assume that the foreign tourist is not assertive enough to ask for a tuk-tuk by himself, if needed, and thus constantly offer their services, but a friendly smile and a “no, thank you” usually solves the issue. And if you do want one, there are plenty available. And there is no more pleasant form of transport in town than the tuk-tuk, even though we have firmly established that the foreigner pays four times as much as a local person.
Right in front of our hotel is the Tonle River, which flows into the Mekong (and, incidentally, reverses its flow in the wet season, a unique feature of this particular river). Plenty of traffic, both fishing and transport, and plenty of other things to observe along the wide boulevard that runs parallel to the river. On Saturday evenings, several people bring out loudspeaker systems, and attract dancing crowds, who all seem to know the required steps for each song, all moving arms, legs and body in harmony. On the other side of the boulevard the river front is full of bars and restaurants, some trendy, some simple, many of them serving excellent food. I think the pizzas we had yesterday were some of the best I have ever had, rivaling New York pizzas, whilst the Khmer and Thai food is equally appetizing (lunch today, courtesy of a friend who lives here, was probably one of the best we have had so far, during the trip); and then the ice cream … you get the idea, this is not a provincial town, this is approaching a real capital city. Many of the avenues are wide, spaciously laid out, with green, well-kept park stretches (and surprisingly clean, given all the rubbish being thrown around in this country), but there is still very little high rise; many of the buildings are old - and to be sure, mostly dilapidated -, French colonial villas, but of a grander nature than the ones we have seen earlier.
(1) The river front, and (2) Heavily loaded barge on the river.
(3) Dilapidated French colonial building, (4) some of them still inhabited (but not by the French, anymore)
On the other side, just behind the hotel, is the fresh produce market, with all its attractions, turning into a food market in the evening. Not quite the selection of crunchy bites we saw in one of the markets at a bus station on the way – small frogs, green beetles, huge spiders plus the ubiquitous crickets – but still a respectable collection of unknown and unrecognizable, apparently edible, products. But there are many more markets in Phnom Penh, such as what is called the old market, and the central market, in a huge ochre-coloured art deco building, and last but not least, the Russian markets, the latter unfortunately with a large collection of “antiques” - in our vocabulary called artefacts -, which if fiercely negotiated for, would make interesting contributions to our already quite varied and chaotic collection at home. We negotiated fiercely. Once again, our luggage gets heavier and heavier! (we did sent a box home from Vientiane).
(5 and 6) Some of the crunchy snacks being sold in a bus station on the way to Phnom Penh, beware of the chillies!
(7, 8, 9, 10) Food stuff in the market behind our hotel, most of it identifiable.
(11) Market woman (not exactly smiling yet, but that will come).
(12) The central market building.
Phnom Penh also has its share of tourist attractions, of course: a Royal Palace, a pagoda, a museum and a number of temples, the standard fare, but they are just excuses to get out on the street, or in a tuk-tuk, and enjoy the city life. We stayed three days, much longer than initially anticipated, and we loved every moment of it. I told you, we are going to like this country!
(13) An adult-only Khmer statue at the national museum.
(14, 15) Frescos in the Silver Pagoda complex, one a typical rural picture – traditional houses on stilts – and the other a somewhat more exotic men-eating giant.