A World Winder exclusive by guest blogger Joshua Ensler
Phnom Penh, city of wonder! City of history! City of really, really cheap greens! A reemerging city building upward and outward towards a bright future. A future funded by your tourist dollars.
The capital of Cambodia (population 14 million) holds a seventh of the country’s population and is the seat of government. It’s also where three rivers, the Tonle Sap, the Bassac and the Mekong meet. These have all been critical transportation arteries since the discovery that wood floats, plus they meet in a bitchin’ X-shape. Also, lots of water means convenient irrigation for a massive rice crop that surrounds the city.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Let’s start with one place where you will be the epitome of quiet respect: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Imagine if the head of Nazi Germany wasn’t Adolf Hitler the genocidal maniac, but Josef Mengele the torture enthusiast. That is the kinda place the Security Prison 21 was. Formerly a high school, they did things here that would make a Nazi turn aside and fail to keep his lunch.
This madhouse was shut down when the Vietnamese Army invaded and established the current government. The West didn’t feel like getting involved, which is why you will be respectful when you are here. I tried to take a photo while I was there, but after I snapped a photo my camera ejected the card, which sizzled and burned into a crisp on the sidewalk. I don’t think it was designed to handle that much evil.
You may meet people who claim to have been tortured by the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot’s army). Tip them well. On that subject:
Tips! They’re non-standard, sorta. You should leave about 10-15% with food and stuff. And don’t care too much about exact change in your favor. The money you’ll leak is the quiet drip of a broken faucet, not the submarine terror of a shattered water main.
Independence Monument Phnom Penh
On to lighter things. There’s the independence monument, celebrating Cambodia’s liberation from the French in the 1950s. It’s a cool-looking arch-thing. Let me check my photos…….yes! Here it is:
Riding on Tuk-Tuks in Cambodia
You will, of course, be traveling to this and other sights via the greatest method of transportation. It’s a motorcycle! It’s a taxi! It’s an open-air carriage strapped to a motorcycle in a city with no enforced driving code. Cast your appreciative gaze upon this wonder of modern engineering and private transit:
A common form of transit in Cambodia and Thailand, the Tuk-Tuk is a motorcycle questionably connected to a trailer designed to fit a dozen Cambodians (ie, there’s room for six Europeans. Or, an American or two, if they’re organic food types). It’s a bit difficult to tell, but these are very home-brewed. Sure, the trailers and motorcycles are mass produced, but they’re not actually designed to work together. The machines are jerry-rigged with coolant systems (complex mechanisms known as “jugs of water” and “cheap rubber hoses”) so they don’t overheat and catch fire while they haul people around.
Now, be sure to negotiate prices in advance, (varies based on destination and number of passengers), but service is excellent. It is helped by the lack of traffic laws. While officially there’s a workable vehicle code….yeah. Not happening. Here’s an anecdote: we paid two drivers to race us back to the hotel and they dove headfirst through oncoming and cross-traffic, ignored red lights, and cut diagonally across a freeway intersection.
My driver even took his helmet off. At first I thought he was just trying to scare us, but in my two weeks there I saw zero accidents. They’re excellent drivers and know where you want to go. They are unlikely to cheat you or take you to places where you’ll be robbed.
Cambodia is primarily a Buddhist nation, though you won’t find any fanatics or anything. You’ll see many monks in training wandering the streets. Ladies, don’t touch them. Even accidentally. They’re supposed to be chaste. Men, you’re fine. Pose with them if you want. They like pictures, but again: ladies, take the picture or stand off to the side.
Most monks you’ll see are in training; they’ll drop out of the monastery when they’re education is complete. Many are people who were too poor to get an education who are using more devout monks to get what they can’t buy.
Buddhism is fairly important here, and you’ll see shrines in all the shops with some incense and offering (including the love-it-or-hate-it, smells-like-the-lord-of-the-flies durian fruit). But for the best looking religious artifacts, you need to visit the Royal Palace.
Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
The Royal Palace, is the official residence of King Norodom Sihanouk. Phnom Penh became the seat of power in Cambodia around the time the French took over in the 1860s. You will not be permitted entry unless you wear close-toed shoes and pants that go to your ankles. Attire for ladies: ankle-length dresses or skirts or whatever the appropriate word is (sorry, I don’t speak fashion).
The king and queen are much beloved by the people of Cambodia, so be respectful when discussing them in public. They are figureheads; they have no actual power in Cambodia and serve the internal role of spiritual and cultural symbols of the Khmer people and act as ambassadors to the outside world. It’s like if Washington D.C. had a family who weren’t elected officials but pundits or something with a voice but no authority.
The palace and the Silver Pagoda inside bans photography. Get creative if you try to sneak one in; this is one rule they actually enforce and they get angry when you try to break their monopoly on the images. There are thousands and thousands of statues of the Buddha (of various sizes and materials) filling a few….zillion…plexiglass cases. A few of the shrines are also intact, but the royal residence is primarily a tourist attraction and most things are safe behind armored plastic. Lots of gold and jade and I-think-it’s-sandstone.
Another place to visit is the lone hill in the city. Yes, there is only one hill in the entire city. It’s 27m high and has no escalators. Americans may find this climb difficult.
Wat Phnom is, according to local lore, the reason Phnom Penh exists. Allegedly, a woman named Lady Penh built a shrine atop the hill here in 1372. It’s really quite beautiful: pink I-think-it’s-sandstone and broad leafy palms and undergrowth. The shrines are old and low-key and dignified without being ostentatious like a cathedral or overpowering like the Angkor Wat temple city.
There is also a clock.
Added to the temple after Pol Pot, (ie, Hilter von Satan of Cambodia) cut his country off from the rest of the world while he was busy being an omnicidal maniac. This clock was added to Wat Phnom after its liberation by Vietnam. It wasn’t added immediately, but after some sense of normalcy had returned to the country.
This is my favorite part of the city. This is where Cambodia was rejoined with the rest of the world. This is where two dictatorships, The People’s Republic of China and the People’s Republic of Vietnam, looked at true evil and said, “Holy crap. Let’s…..stop this……crazy bastard. We need to help these people.”
It’s a quiet symbol of tragedy and recovery.
Join us next time for the seaside joys of Sihanoukville, or “Little Bratki.”
Bonus Pic! Here’s a pair of Buddhist monks:
JOSHUA ENSLER is working as a copy chief for hcmclife.com. He started in California and decided to move to New York. He’s taking the long way. Currently he’s a resident of Ho Chi Minh City and wondering why he didn’t move before the rainy season started. He’ll be contributing intermittently as he wanders his way across Asia. He would also kill for a chance to visit a 7-11. Joshua can be reached at email@example.com