Phnom Penh can shock you. Somewhat like a bipolar, one minute it peeps out a chaotic urban feel; next, it would take you to its relaxing laid-back lifestyle. One minute it lets you meet friendly people, and the following minute it would let you stumble across money-grubbing people from hell.
We hopped out of the bus, after surviving seven hours of bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. The environment was frantic, the bus stop was nowhere to be found. We were in the middle of a market-like place, surrounded by Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers hounding us for their services. The sun was up and everyone was ironically wearing long-sleeves, gold bling blings, and slacks. Near the area were more Cambodians hopping in and out of packed vans and pick-ups with their oversized bags. Vendors selling crickets and other unidentified exotic snacks were roaming the streets. It was Quiapo and Divisoria rolled into one.
"Do you have a hotel, lady?," the drivers amazingly have that European accent. This is third world, a home away from home where drivers convince you to agree to their overpriced service. Nine dollars. Eight dollars. Six dollars. Left without much choice, we boarded the carriage-like tuk-tuk, with our luggages wobbling against our backs.
"Careful with your things, there are many snatchers here!," our driver gave us his proud welcome with a big smile. We tightly held on to our dear bags, each time a motorycle driver bearing the same face of a snatcher from our imagination, got an inch closer to our tuk-tuk. I asked the driver where the Capitol Tours head office was, and he said it was 20 minutes away from the area. We decided to head straight to our hotel but after just two minutes of tuk-tuk riding, we saw Capital Tours and forced the driver to stop for a minute. He tried to sweet-talk us for a minute, and even offered another tour company for our tour package (hidden agenda!). With resignation, he finally allowed me to pay for my reservation. Bleh! Nobody can fool us that much (after padding three dollars of your tuk-tuk, Mister.)
On the way to our hotel, the view changed from chaotic to WOW! Temples, clean parks, beautiful landmarks and humongous mansions effortlessly erased the chaos, and replaced it with beautiful Phnom Penh. In an instant, I realized why this place was once called The Pearl of Asia. I wanted to jump out of the tuk-tuk and take pictures, but then I remembered I still have my oversized luggage uncomfortably sitting against my back.
We arrived at the newly built boutique The Willow Hotel. The staff welcomed us with a refreshing cold juice, while the front desk declared with a smile that "we only have three beds for you." With a sheepish smile like that, I blurted out, "Are you joking?" "No, I'm serious!" He then told me that they were fully booked and gave me BS (as in B@<<$#!+) by saying that the reservations manager only e-mailed me that "We might put an extra bed in the room." Well, in this part of the world, might is a powerful word and so, left without a choice, the four of us had to learn how to make the most out of three beds. It was a good thing that the boutique was homey, and the room was spacious or else Phnom Penh would have left a terrible impression.
After freshening up, we met Borky, our friend who is currently based in Phnom Penh. With just an hour before sundown, we decided to skip Phnom Penh's depressing tourist destinations like the killing fields and S21 Prison. For our first stop, we walked along Sisowath Quay, a long strip of boulevard along the Tonle Sap River.
It was similar to Baywalk, minus the reeking smell.
There is too much to see-- The locals were playing their own version of football.
The foreigners were jogging. The locals were shaping up with their "outdoor gym"
The folk singer was humming an indecipherable song.
The monks were walking. A father and son tandem was bonding inside their boat.
The vendors were selling balloons and cotton candies. Across the wide baywalk were bars, hotel and restos that would make you time travel to another era.
Next stop, we headed to Wat Ounalom, considered as an important wat (temple) in Phnom Penh. Buddhist monks and nuns abound. Most of them were praying, with their hands clasped into a meditative state. The monks were bursting in their different shades of orange. We took a couple of pictures and then, a monk asked Borky "Where are you from?" He then asked us if we wanted to know more about Buddhism. With a few tidbits about their religion and exchange of e-mails, we learned more about the hard life of being a Buddhist monk.
It was already dark when we stepped out of the wat, so we decided to walk back to Sisowath Quay for our dinner with Borky's family. We dined in Old Ponlok, a restaurant offering Khmer cuisine.
They say that Khmer food is an acquired taste for non-locals. But for me, it wasn't hard to acquire Cambodian taste (and SMELL) after the waitress accidentally spilled Prahok on my blouse. Prahok is an extraordinary dip with an extraordinary smell. It's like combining patis and bagoong in one smell. After wiping the sauce off my blouse, the stinky smell was still there (and even reeked all over my body!) I had to be mad, but after a taste of prahok, there's no way I could get mad of this stinky delicious dip. My beloved prahok turned simple veggies and meat into a delicious dish!
We also tried out Khmer's version of hotpot. It was like a cross-breed of Vietnam's pho noodles and Thai's tom yum soup. Weird but nevertheless delicioso!
We went back to our hotel to freshen up, then strolled at the nearby Independence Monument.
The next day we had to bid adieu to Phnom Penh. With just 17 hours to take in Cambodia's capital city, I have to say that a comeback to this place is necessary to take more peeks of this beautiful bipolarity.
*Old Ponlok is located along Sisowath Quay
*Visit The Willow Boutique Hotel's website: http://www.thewillowpp.com/
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