Phnom Penh, April 27-29

From Bangkok we flew to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. All three of our short-haul flights within Asia have been on the popular new low-cost airline, Air Asia. Even buying tickets relatively late we haven't paid more than $75 each, and one flight was only $25. All three flights changed their scheduled departure without notification (we learned to check the day before), but the prices were right and we got to our destinations without incident.

Before leaving Bangkok we packed up our dive gear, sailing gear, piano keyboard, and lots of other stuff we'd brought for boat living but didn't want to drag around now that we're traveling by land. We left far more than we took with us -- we're streamlined travelers now with just three backpacks that aren't even full, plus our small daypacks. It was no problem storing our gigantic duffels long-term at the accommodating Bangkok Somerset hotel, where we'll stay at least one more night before flying home on June 1.

Our first surprise arriving in Cambodia was the currency. On the plane we'd calculated that at 3800 riels to the dollar, we'd want to request over a million of them from the ATM. It turns out that although riels exist, nearly all transactions, large or small, are conducted in US dollars, and dollars are the only currency dispensed by ATMs. It's almost disconcerting (and certainly boring) to spend money without converting.

We'd arranged an airport transfer through our guesthouse and were met by the friendly and excellent English-speaking "Mr. Ra." Over time we discovered that tourist transportation is one of the hottest commodities peddled in Phnom Penh, with fierce competition -- numerous drivers jostle for position whenever a westerner walks out of a guesthouse or restaurant. We liked Mr. Ra enough that he earned our business for our entire stay. He has a car, a tuk-tuk (the motorcycle-drawn carriage that's the most common taxi vehicle throughout Southeast Asia; see photo 1), and a motorbike. We used all types of Mr. Ra's transportation during our stay (photo 2 showing our favorite), depending on our destination and number of people involved. Mr. Ra is well-connected: name any type of service anywhere in Cambodia or Laos and it seems Mr. Ra has a friend providing it. We haven't hired his friends yet, but we don't object -- if they're as reliable, pleasant, and easy to communicate with as Mr. Ra, they're a find.

We spent three nights in Phnom Penh:
  • Our first task was to make arrangements for onward travel. For one thing, we'll need advance visas to enter Vietnam. As with extra passport pages, which turn out to be easier to obtain abroad than at home, our understanding was that Cambodia is the place to get Vietnam visas. Mr. Ra took us to a visa agency with the rather unlikely name of "Lucky! Lucky! Motorbike." Tucked behind a motorbike repair shop, the women manning the travel desk were so professional that we ended up buying bus and plane tickets from them as well.
  • The top tourist attractions in Phnom Penh aren't exactly loads of fun. On our first day we visited the Cheung Ek Killing Fields, and on our second day the Tuol Slengh "S21" prison. It's impossible to be unmoved by the remarkably recent and truly unbelievable horror of the Khmer Rouge. At the Killing Fields we walked on paths with bits of bone and clothing protruding underfoot; at S21 we saw cells, torture devices, and photos documenting the atrocities occurring there. Most amazing, however, is how the country has bounced back. Despite the fact that that the vast majority of Cambodians over the age of 30 lost immediate family members during the Khmer Rouge regime, they seem to be a happy people, bent on rebuilding Cambodia into a stable, thriving country.
  • To counteract the emotionally draining sights, we visited the small but interesting National Museum (photo 3), and the Royal Palace -- it was nice, but not quite up to Bangkok palace standards; note the out-of-place gift from Napoleon III in photo 4. There was the required trinket shopping (which didn't turn up much), and on the grounds of the main temple we fed a friendly elephant (photo 5). Finally, we stopped into the venerable Foreign Correspondents' Club bar for drinks and a game of pool (photo 6).
  • If Emily were asked right now what scared her most during our year of travels, she'd answer without hesitation: crossing the street in Phnom Penh. Never mind four-day open-ocean sails or traversing crevasse-laden glaciers. When it came to getting across a thoroughfare buzzing in the evening with a nonstop onslaught of jostling motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and (surprisingly) Landcruisers and Lexus SUVs, Emily was petrified. Bangkok's traffic is madness too, but there are some traffic lights and pedestrian overpasses; no such conveniences exist in Phnom Penh. Street crossings have been compared to missile-dodging video games, but without the "multiple lives" feature. Eventually we learned to link arms, Emily closed her eyes, and we just went for it; whew.
  • Once again we completely pigged out. It's fortunate we stayed in a guesthouse with a modest continental breakfast, because we were pretty indulgent at both lunch and dinner. Although the cuisine is unmistakably Southeast Asian, it's not quite the same as Thai, and we very much enjoyed exploring the new tastes. As in Thailand, low-key restaurants are ubiquitous, delicious, and incredibly cheap. Both Tim and Emily have been sampling the local food but throwing in your occasional pizza or pasta for a break. They also love the fresh fruit shakes -- mango, coconut, watermelon, papaya, etc. -- available everywhere.
Even though Phnom Penh doesn't make it onto everyone's Southeast Asia itinerary, as developing cities go we found ourselves surprisingly charmed by it -- we're very glad we stopped by.

Next: From Phnom Penh we'll take a six-hour bus ride (on a nice bus, as we understand it) to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is Cambodia's top tourist destination by a huge margin, due to its proximity to the vast ancient temple complexes of Angkor. We'll spend a whopping five nights there, thanks to a nice-looking hotel (another web coup, we're hoping), flights to Laos that operate only some days of the week, and numerous suggestions that we allocate plenty of time for the temples and other sights in the area.

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