A Slow Peek at Phnom Penh

In collecting my reflections on Phnom Penh, a patchwork of images, sounds and smells evolves of daily life pulsing along through the semi-dusty streets, driven forth in swarms of motorbikes, wafting from the narrow interior aisles of the markets, woven tightly with history and specked with modern influences. The city seemed to balance daintily between the precarious rubble and rush of Kathmandu and the pristine vs. grit sensation of developing Bangkok. It immediately communicated to us that people live here, beyond the tourism. Contrary to the hot and blinding spotlight of the Siem Reap tourist machine, we were more able to slowly wander and quietly explore here. Though not many pictures exist from our week of time here, the ones that do sum up the time well enough. Yes, a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from our $6 per night guesthouse bookshelf was put to use for bedtime stories, though it went much quicker than when either of us was younger:

Staying true to form, as you have likely seen in a previous post, we maintained our culinary adventures as best possible...even after the dysentery mishap. A little bit of homesickness and sense of directional haziness was mildly, and I mean barely but happily, sated by some "fries" one afternoon. What was better about this place, though, was the extensively entertaining western-menu offerings:

It wasn't all reading and eating for us in Phnom Penh - even though our documentation may lead everyone to believe otherwise. The weather here was much kinder to us, inspiring many days of walking about and generally seeing what the city is made of. Some our favorites include:

+ The Phnom Penh Photo festival, a continuation of a festival in Siem Reap, highlighting the stellar work of young, mostly Asian photographers. Exhibitions were dispersed throughout the city, though more densely featured in the Street 178 (art street) area.

+ A $2 screening of the documentary about James Nachtwey, "War Photographer", at the Goethe Institute funded Meta House. I had meant to see this a few times over, but viewing it on the open-air balcony with a glass of sauvognion blanc in hand was better than a living room. Plus, Eli got to sip on a real stout, making the night a triple win.

+ The market up the street from our guesthouse was huge, lined with mopeds outside, hosted rows of fabric shops, was dark and super crowded with regular life goods and not just souvenirs. Multiple visits ensued.

+ Our guesthouse! Tat's Guesthouse, streets 125 and 232 or somewhere near there, away from the backpacker riverside and center city. We were lucky to stumble near it and be enticed by the nice, young chap on the balcony. It was nowhere near a sealed, spotless room but for $6 a night we also received some Khmer lessons, many good cups if coffee, the aforementioned storybook, and got our Vietnam visas taken care of by them instead of having to traipse around the city for a half day. Plus, Yi (the young, english speaking psuedo-manager) spoke to our khmer speaking only guesthouse in Ban Lung to make arrangements for our arrival. Woot!

+ Our visit to Tuol Sleng genocide museum (S-21), the former Khmer Rouge prison established at what was once a high school. Not a favorite in terms of the usual feel good city attraction, clearly, but one because of the respect that is due to the prisoners that died here and the fact that the rule of Khmer Rouge is gone, but still so present in this country's collective conscious and unconscious. An awful place, with a history that is worse, but the archival obsessions of the time it was running are currently being capitalized on as a memorial via photographs, paintings and a documentary. Funded by a now defunct Yale program, it is in need of some upkeep but gets the point across. All for the cost of a latte in the US.

+ Our nighttime walk down the riverside, accompanied by myriad Khmer families, when we happened upon one small temple that was, as Eli put it, "lit up like a Las Vegas drive through chapel" complete with blinking neon & another nearby that was crammed with people, lotus flowers and smoking incense for reasons unknown. The quiet excitement and sound of the live marimba like music and neverending scent and glow of candles was mesmerizing. That, and the small, incredibly dirty, naked child near us on the sidewalk playing with an iPhone.

Though many suggested that four days or so were plenty, we left after six wishing we had either decided to stay a little longer or that our route through Southeast Asia might bring us back through this city. Unfinished explorations can be well utilized in future choices with new places, or in deciding to return at another point down the road. Harnessing what we are learning from this currently wide open agenda applies to more than just traveling, an exciting challenge to tackle from here on out.

Location:Phnom Penh, Cambodia