Phnom Penh is much smaller and more relaxed capital city than Bangkok or Hanoi. It is quite a new city so it doesn’t really have tourist sights of importance. A few lively markets and a bustling riverside are nice places to explore. But the main reason to visit the capital is to see the harrowing vestiges of the devastating Khmer Rouge regime. One cannot stay indifferent after listening to excellent audio-guides at the Killing Fields.
We spent in Phnom Penh three nights- much more than necessary to see the city. The reason for staying so long was getting the visa for Vietnam (Cambodia being one of the cheapest places to apply for it). We didn’t mind it that much, though as we really enjoyed our stay there.
TASTING THE ULTIMATE HOSPITALITY
Following the pattern we developed in Thailand, we decided to stay for a couple of nights with a local couch surfer. We had less of a choice than in Bangkok so we eventually decided to send a request to a Puerto Rican- Cambodian couple. It was a perfect choice as we met an extraordinary family.
Diego was an anarchist and a former vagabond, travelling with his girlfriend Kunthea throughout Malaysia and Indonesia without a penny, literally homeless, hitching a ride from island to island on the trucks and eating leftovers from the restaurants. When Kunthea got pregnant, he decided to take up a job (the first one in his life) and started teaching kids English in a private school in Phnom Penh. He was hoping to break the system from the inside but instead started growing increasingly frustrated by the rigid frameworks he had to fit in.
Diego rented a two-storied house in a poor but very centrally located neighbourhood in the capital. He kept the ground floor for Kunthea, his son, a kitten and a puppy and left the entire upper floor for couch surfers and his South African housemate.
We were not quite prepared for the standard of our accommodation: a small space devoid of any furniture with just a couple of mats and old duvets scattered on the floor. But we very soon warmed up to this place and started loving the communal vibe. As it was low season and not many backpackers were around, we were sharing the space just with Xavier, their flatmate. Only on the third day did another travelling couple join us.
It was easy to forget how poor our hosts were: when we asked if we could keep some food in the fridge for fear of attracting ants, he told us matter- of- factly that they didn’t have one. I was amazed that with the limited funds they had, they were willing to pay for water and electricity used by complete strangers. They even bought us baguettes when we mentioned we’d like to have some for breakfast.
Our hosts were actively seeking our company and invited us to stay downstairs many times, even to share a meal (which we wouldn’t feel comfortable doing). They were one of the most open and welcoming people I’d ever met. It was very inspirational to stay there.
We also loved the neighbourhood itself: narrow, winding alleys with local shops and food stalls, the entire life happening on the streets and everybody knowing each other. There was even a family of monkeys frequenting the roofs of the adjacent buildings.
We talked with Diego and Kunthea about many things over a few nights we spent there but I did not have the guts to raise the topic of how Kunthea’s family survived the Khmer Rouge regime, however curious I was about the topic.
LISTENING TO A STRANGER’S LIFE STORY OVER A COFFEE
Diego told us about Vietnamese style coffee houses where one could get a tasty ice coffee for 75 cents coming free with unlimited refill of ice green tea. Just perfect for me and Sayak: Sayak was ordering coffee and I was getting a free tea.
It was in one of those cafes that we met once a lovely elderly Cambodian who shared his incredible life story: from being expelled with his family from Kampong Cham as a little boy during Khmer Rouge regime, through the successful escape of his elder brothers across the border to Thailand and further to the US, all the way to his failed attempt to get to the US himself by means of marriage of convenience.
PHNOM PENH ON A BUDGET
Phnom Penh proved to be a cheap place to eat out which generally seemed to be the case with big cities. We used to have breakfast at a food stall on our lane: 75 cents rice with pickled vegetable for me and slightly more expensive barbecued meat for Sayak.
We’d normally have just a baguette or some food at the market in the lunchtime. The best were the dinners at the night market by the riverside. Locals and tourists alike were ordering food at the stall and sitting on the mats spread on the ground. Veggie noodles went for $1.50, skewers (including tofu, mushroom or okra) for 0.50-$1 each.
The Genocide Museum and the famous markets were all easily reachable by a cheap, empty, brand new, air- conditioned public bus going along Monivong Boulevard. If you stayed in the main tourist hub, you could walk to the remaining sites and the river.
GETTING A VISA TO VIETNAM
It took us a couple of visits to the Vietnamese Embassy (which was a long but cheap and easy bus ride) and unnecessary extra expenses to get a one moth tourist visa but it was our own fault.
The embassy is closed in the lunchtime so make sure you arrive there in the morning to apply. We were too late before the lunch break and didn’t want to wait 1.5 hours for it to open so optimistically assumed we would be able to see the nearby Genocide Museum and come back before closing. We didn’t manage as the embassy closed quite early, at 4 pm.
We applied on Thursday but as the processing time was two working days, we had to either pay extra $10 for a 24- hours, express visa or stay for the whole weekend and wait till Monday (that would additionally deprive us from the only chance of taking a train which runs only in the weekends). Having little time left, we decided to pay $50 rather than $40 each, really angry with our own stupidity and bad planning.
FROM PHNOM PENH TO KAMPOT
Having stayed in Phnom Penh for 3 nights and 3 rather lazy days, we finally said bye to our lovely hosts and took a train to Kampot, located on the coast. We really wanted to have the experience of riding a Cambodian train so we were relieved to learn the price of a train ticket equaled that of a bus.
Railway is novelty in Cambodia so the trains run just twice a day, from Friday till Monday. The only railway line in the country [UPDATE: the second, Western line from Phnom Penh to Poipet opened in 2018] spreads a mere 250 km from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and is used almost exclusively by tourists.
Just as we entered the train we saw an entire delegation of important looking men in suits, followed with two ladies in traditional Thai clothes. One of the man got into a chat with an elderly American passenger asking why he chose train over bus. Before leaving the car, he told me in passing something like: ‘Don’t you think the Thai ladies are the most beautiful?’ I absolutely agreed as the ladies indeed looked stunning. Another man following him whispered: ‘That was the transport minister of Thailand’. My pleasure.
We were surprised to see that our train had just two cars: first one with a set of two seats facing each other, second one with two rows of seats running all along the car facing each other. Very unfortunately, the train was fully air-conditioned and the temperature was set so low that despite wearing a fleece I was half frozen after a 5 hours long ride. The darkened windows prevented me from enjoying the views. It was much more pleasant to stay between the two cars. I’d love to sit on the stairs but was sadly asked to come back to the chilly interior.