End of the forbidden cityThe week in Sihanoukville has been very pleasant. But now the batteries had been re-charged and the suntan worked on. It was time to move on and seek out the city lights. I had read and digested a lot of information about Phnom Penh. Although no longer a no go zone, the city's reputation dictated that care should be taken. Communication links between Sihanoukville and the capital are surprisingly good. Some may prefer going by rail, although the main road has recently been resurfaced and is both smooth and fast. Within four hours the coach was negotiating its way through the city suburbs. The French rebuilt much of Phnom Penh during the late 19th Century. In it's hey day the city was widely regarded as the finest in what was Indo China. Much of that regal charm still exists today, old colonial buildings lining the boulevards. The faded facades still spoke of elegance and mystique. As the bus made its way to the centre I became aware of just how unspoilt the city was. Most buildings were but a few stories high. It was evident that big business had yet to hear of Phnom Penh. Sorting out accommodation proved no problem at all. The local moto rider that I had commandeered spoke good English and knew of the Narin Guesthouse that I was to make my base during my stay. The traffic was a problem though. Whilst hurtling up the road on the wrong side, speeding through oncoming vehicles, I made a mental note that hiring a motorcycle for myself could be a bad idea! Having read about the Tuol Sleng museum (the infamous S21 interrogation centre), I made this my first port of call. Once a school, the Khmer Rouge were to convert the building into a modern torture chamber through which thousand were to spend their last days. The Vietnamese liberated S21 in 1979 and were the first to open it as a museum. Each of the concrete rooms has been left as they once were, housing shackles and instruments of terror. Many of the walls are covered with the photographs of the victims, many taken before and after death. This is not a place for the faint hearted. After such an experience, I was in need of a lively bar to help lift my spirits. Throwing caution to the wind, I set out on foot to seek out the bright lights. I was not to be disappointed, soon finding myself playing in a pool tournament at the Australian run Walkabout bar. This proved an excellent social occasion and soon I was drinking with hustling locals and travellers alike. Aided by Angkor beer and the vocal support from one of the barmaids, it was with some surprise that I potted my way into the final, only to lose to the local champ. Buoyant from this success, the Heart of Darkness beckoned, a bar offering music and dance. The remainder of the evening was spent exaggerating the level of my game to a growing number of other revellers. Many will find the riverside venues a calmer lure. The stretch of pavement along the river makes for a relaxing evening stroll. Most of the recently renovated buildings now house restaurants and cafes, including the Foreign Correspondents Club, made famous through the film The Killing Fields. After years of suppression, Buddhism is once again being allowed to flourish. Orange robed monks can regularly be seen wandering around town, quietly pacing the pavements. A number of Wats has been restored and the following day I found myself heading towards Wat Phnom. My main interest was to visit the shrine for the genie Preah Chau. It is here that many city folk come to pray for luck. Forget about forging any feelings of serenity though. On my approach to the Wat I had to run a gauntlet of hawkers, selling everything from trinkets to elephant rides! In order to appreciate Cambodia's rich cultural past, a trip to the Royal Palace is almost certainly essential. The centrepiece is the Silver Pagoda, housing a solid gold Buddha, decorated with thousands of diamonds. Whilst devastatingly beautiful, the statue is an opulent reminder to earlier Khmer civilisation. The pictures that I took can in no way do it justice. Although not an avid shopper, I was persuaded to visit some of the local markets. The nearest to the guesthouse was Psar Thumei, so this is where my feet took me. The domed hall is worth a look in itself, resembling a large eccentric pigeon loft. Whilst browsing through the many gifts and antiques (many undoubtedly false) I completely forgot that I do not like shopping and lost an entire afternoon. Any visitor to Phnom Penh must visit the markets, if for no other reason than to witness modern Khmer life going about its daily business. Security is still an issue, but in no way should be seen as an obstacle to visiting. I was surprised that there was no undercurrent of unease or violence to be found anywhere. Walking around proved perfectly safe, although taking a moto at night is probably a good idea. After leaving Sihanoukville I did not know what to expect. Folklore suggests Phnom Penh to be a wild city fraught with danger. What I found instead was a city teaming with charm and intrigue. A city like no other; but for all of the right reasons!
Published on 2/7/02