Pensive in Phnom Penh

On the morning of my second and final day in Cambodia’s capital city, I met a group of Baptist missionaries.  What are the odds that I would meet Baptists in Phnom Penh?  They were staying at my hotel for a reunion, they said.  I had a nice chat with a couple of them and gave my Whatsapp number to an older American missionary and his wife who live in Jakarta.

I spent the rest of the morning hanging out in my room, washing and twisting my hair, and watching Obama’s speech to the DNC on CNN and the analysis afterwards.  I had forgotten how much I love the American political side show.  At noon, I checked out of my hotel, left my luggage with the front desk and headed out into the city with my tuk-tuk driver, Way (pronounce ‘Why’).  The previous evening, I had made a deal with him to drop me off at the National Museum and pick me up at the Royal Palace around the corner from the museum after 4 hours, then take me back to my hotel and leave me there for a few hours.  Finally, he would come back for me late in the evening and take me to the bus station, where I would catch the night bus to Siem Reap.

The National Museum was disappointing, to say the least.  I had budgeted to spend 2 hours there learning about the non-genocidal, far distant history of the country, but I was done in 30 minutes.  It was so poorly laid out that I eventually just strolled through the exhibit rooms, barely pausing to look at anything.  The 20 minutes I spent sitting in the shade by the concession stand sipping a Coke and munching cashews were far more interesting.  I decided to kill the remaining 3 hours before Way came back for me at the Royal Palace.  It must be more interesting, right?

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Saw this sign in a public bathroom at the palace…you would think it would be unnecessary but it’s SE Asia so it’s totally necessary

No.  No, it was not.  The Royal Palace was even more disappointing than the National Museum.  There were no signs describing anything and no proper information about what each building on the grounds was supposed to be.  I was done in under an hour.  The only thing I gained from this visit was an unsettled feeling of something being wrong with such apparent royal opulence in such a poor country.  Over the next week, as I read Cambodia’s Curse, a book that I had bought at S21 Prison, I learned far more about why such opulence could exist.  It’s a good book.  If you want to know more about Cambodia from a seasoned journalist, you should get it.

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One of the gates of the royal palace…with a huge picture of the king’s mother benignly looking out over the park beside it

I lingered on the grounds of the palace for as long as I could stand to, then I finally left and wandered to the nearby park, where I strolled around for a bit watching children feeding and chasing pigeons.  Eventually, a coffee shop caught my eye and I passed a lovely, air conditioned time there getting provisions for the night bus.  Then I strolled back down to the palace’s exit gate to await Way.  He showed up right on time and took me back to my hotel, where I passed the next 4 hours in the restaurant writing and catching up with things online.  My second day in Phnom Penh had left me feeling unimpressed and slightly put off.  It had not been at all satisfying but it was certainly revealing.

At about 9 pm, Way returned for me and dropped me off to the night bus to Siem Reap, and we amicably ended our relationship (i.e., I paid him, including a little extra because he was so reliable…plus that darn tourist guilt).  After checking in at the desk, I wandered across the street to the night market.  It seems that every city and town in Southeast Asia has a night market, where goods are sold at seriously low prices, including electronics, clothes and shoes.  In all my months in the region, I had not yet been to a night market so I decided to check this one out.  Unfortunately, it was not that interesting; it had been raining earlier in the evening so most vendors had already packed up and left.  The remaining few were packing up to go but I managed to buy a t-shirt and a pair of pants, totaling about US$6.  After about an hour of hanging around, it was time to board the bus.

I could have taken an airplane to Siem Reap but where was the fun in that?  The bus ticket had cost me US$16 ($15 plus a $1 online booking fee) and I would sleep all the way there, as well as pay for 1 less night’s hotel stay.

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My bunk is at the bottom…see my ever-present travel pillow?

The night bus is outfitted with bunk beds, not seats.  They are in rows of 3, with 2 beds on the right side of the bus (the side behind the driver) and 1 on the left side.  There are upper bunks and lower bunks.  I had taken the advice of an online reviewer and booked myself a bottom bunk at the left side near to the front of the bus.  After all, I’m a solo female traveller with no interest in lying next to a stranger for 6 hours.  The reviewer had also made the point that riders in the front of the bus and those on bottom bunks experienced a smoother ride (less jostling around).  Also, there was a bathroom at the back so being near the front meant less disturbance from other passengers going to the bathroom throughout the night.

I must say, the ride was pretty good.  There were 2 drivers, who switched every hour or hour and a half; 1 would drive while the other napped.  There were electrical outlets, so I could charge my phone or any other device, as well as wifi, so I was Whatsapping for the first hour or so of the ride with my sister and anam cara.  They also provided a blanket and pillow at each bunk.  I regarded these as I do airline blankets and pillows – with suspicion – so I put my travel pillow on top of my assigned pillow.  I did use the blanket because the air conditioning was cold, but I was wearing long pants and long sleeves so I didn’t worry about that too much.

Eventually, I feel asleep, which I wasn’t expecting, and I slept pretty well, considering that I was on a narrow bunk on a moving bus.  At around 4 am, I got up to use the bathroom.  Again, I was impressed.  It wasn’t the best bathroom ever (after all, it’s on a bus), but considering the roach-infested atrocity that I’ve been using, it was paradise.

As we cut through the night towards Siem Reap, I reflected on my 2 days in Phnom Penh.  I had learned a lot and to me the city seemed to embody the ugly parts of the country’s character.  I wasn’t sad to leave it behind.

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