I thought Seoul might ease my transition into southeast Asia, with its warmer climate, but I was wrong. I landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, at around 11pm and it was still blazing hot and humid.
The next morning, I was awoken around 6am by the bustle of activities occurring outside my window. Things start early here, and rightfully so…it was 8am by the time I rolled out of bed, showered and made my way to the guesthouse cafe out front and barely seated for more than a minute, I was drenched, and pleading for an ice bath along with my iced coffee 🙂
Peter, the staff at the guesthouse confirmed that it’s best to get things done between 4-8m, because it gets progressively hotter after that. I guess this schedule shift is good training for med school?
But enough about the heat. Phnom Penh is a beautiful, bustling, historic and dizzying city that lies on the banks of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, and Tonle Sap lake ( “great lake” in Khmer). The Mekong, although not the longest river in Asia (it comes in 7th place) seems to pop up everywhere: I saw it in Vietnam ten years ago, now it’s in Cambodia and already I have plans to see it again in the next month along the Thai-Laos border!
The Tonle Sap lake however belongs 100% to Cambodia. At Phnom Penh, the Mekong and Tonle Sap join. They work together: when the Mekong river is low, the Tonle Sap water flows from the lake into the Mekong. During the rainy season when the Mekong floods, the flow reverses; the floodwaters of the Mekong flow up the Tonle Sap. Apparently the lake increases in size 8x during the wet season! Right now, in May, we are at the end of the dry season, so the lake is pretty small.
After coffee, I ventured out to explore Phnom Penh, the largest city in Cambodia, and the capital since the French colonial times. Their influence is evident in the layout and architecture of the city, with its grand boulevards, colonial villas and city squares. I can see how Phnom Penh may have been un petit Paris back in the day.
My first day anywhere is always overwhelming and disorienting no matter how many times I’ve read through the guidebooks. So I prefer to use my map and go by foot.
People in my hostel were hiring tuk-tuk’s (moto drawn carriages, see below left) for the day to show them around the major sights, which might have made sense 1) because of the heat, but really because 2) you cannot walk more than 5 feet without getting a “tuk tuk, lady! tuk-tuk, lady” or “ok, lady, my tuk tuk now”. The drivers are usually just hanging out, sometimes napping, in their tuk tuks. It doesn’t matter if there are 5 tuk tuks in a row waiting on the corner and you’ve already said no to the first two, each and every one of them will ask you to get in his tuk tuk. This comes in handy when you do need one (to clarify, tuk tuks are like “taxis” and charge you based on the distance, or time used, and it’s essential to establish the price before – I’m a few days ahead of this post so I can already tell you that one driver tried to charge me and a few others $15/pp for a half day, so $75 total, when it is written in all the guidebooks that $15 should be the overall price! )
I’ve concluded that it is best to acknowledge and say no to every driver (or shake my head and hands “no”) than to completely ignore them. The latter has elicited grumpy sounds or comments that I could not understand but seemed to convey offense. Let’s hope it becomes second nature!
A few photos from my day…
National Museum with Khmer art and sculpture:
Nearby the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship monument