Work hard, play hard - making progress on my research whilst getting to sample more of Phnom Penh's night life and sights
Back at work after a couple of days of Xmas festivities and it feels as if I never left. My team is blissfully oblivious to the significance of any non-Buddhist or non-Cambodian holiday and so my overspill contentment from two days of doing nothing much is soon replaced by the reality of market research. No banter, no belated Christmas wishes, just work. In a way this is good as it allows me to get on with my interview hunting.
Phnom Penh with typical sight of orange clad monk
By now I have a couple of interview arranged for the first week in January and with the two I already did, I need another two to hit my minimum research requirement. Fortunately, the Christmas spirit seems to have rubbed off everyone else but my company and so before long, my calendar is filling up with another two slots. Result. Anything else that comes after this is a bonus.
In a quest to try new places to go out, Friday night is a girls night out with my boss and an American girl on a temporary contract in Cambodia. The plan is to meet my guest house crowd a little bit later. The destination - Le Moon. A bar on a hotel roof top with a magnificent view of Phnom Penh and the river. Unfortunately, despite best efforts my Cambodian network provider is notoriously unreliable when it comes to delivering or receiving text messages and so instead of turning the night into a mega shin dig with the usual crowd of trouble makers, the evening passes in a demure manner over a few cocktails and civilised conversation. Lovely nevertheless.
Unlike many people who decided to head to Siem Reap for the weekend, I am staying in Phnom Penh. The problem of having three weeks at the end of my volunteering placement to travel through Cambodia is that I do want to keep some destinations for later. And so instead of joining in the fun, I am packing my Lonely Planet and setting off on my increasingly shaky bike towards one of the perhaps most underrated sights in Phnom Penh - the hill pagoda of Wat Phnom.
Cages of swallows at the Wat Phnom hill
Legend has it that lady Penh, a wealthy widow, found a large tree trunk floating in the river and upon inspection, it turned out to contain a bronze statue of Buddha. To mark the undeniably holy place of this discovery, Lady Penh created an artificial hill and built a shrine on top of it to protect this sacred statue. With time, town arose around it and surprise surprise, it was called Phnom Penh.
Heading the monkey-business warnings on my way up the hill, I finally arrive by the main entry into the Pagoda. Passing several women selling incense sticks and jasmine blossoms, crippled children and adults begging for money and an entrepreneurial man surrounded by multiple cages of swallows to be released with a good-luck wish for a small payment, I am struggling to see any of the infamous bag-grabbing monkeys allegedly operating in the area.
Before I can get into the Pagoda, however, I am reminded by a friendly looking guard that I actually need a ticket. This would not be a problem, except that the ticket booth is all the way down the hill in a small kiosk surrounded by beggars and picture-hungry tourists. Great. The midday heat is not exactly ideal for climbing up and down unshaded stairs, but equipped with just about body-temperature water, I absolve this round trip in less than 5 minutes, determined to find some shade in the famous Wat Phnom.
Burning insence sticks outside the Wat Phnom pagoda
When I say this sight is underrated, I mean it. Silver Pagoda by the Royal Palace is impressive with its beautiful architecture and solid silver tiles covering the entire floor. But Wat Phnom is a completely different ball game. Unlike Silver Pagoda, Wat Phnom feels less like a tourist attraction and more like a sacred place, with Cambodians offering gifts like jasmine flowers and bananas to Buddha, hoping to secure good exam results for their children or simply thanking for a wish come true.
The walls and ceilings are spectacularly decorated with colourful frescoes depicting scenes from Cambodian history and stories of famous legends including one not dissimilar to the Indian story of Hannuman. Multiple statues of Buddha are covered in gifts, believers quietly kneel on the ground and burning incense sticks add to a special atmosphere. I took my time before eventually leaving to explore the surrounding ground.
The pagoda hill is a home to a museum, which I left for next time, a large Stupa housing the ashes of one of the previous kings and his family and a number of other small structures. Wondering around, I chatted to a Scottish / Australian couple who offered to take my picture, sensing that solo travel experience is not exactly good for coming home with an impressive gallery of self-shots.
Satisfied that I saw another important part of Cambodian heritage, I slowly make my way through the dusty streets towards the river. As you probably know from my previous posts, I am addicted to very reasonably priced beauty treatments and massages in Cambodia and so this time, i decide to try another blind massage place, sampling a traditional Khmer massage, which proves to be a real treat. Except the male masseur, oblivious to my phobia of knees bending the other way who kept resting one of his hands on my knees whilst massaging my leg with the other one. Fortunately, it only took him three times to realise that I might not be exactly relaxing when he does that, before he opted for a spot under my shin.
With mid afternoon approaching, it is time for a coffee break. Whilst I like the Cambodian style of coffee and generally don't seek the western overpriced coffee chains, as I cycle past Costa Coffee it seems to be calling me in and after assessing the risk of being hit by one of the many motos and tuk tuks driving opposite me, I criss cross through the traffic and land in a crowded car park. The beauty about Phnom Penh (one of many beauties actually) is that most places have valet parking. Never mind how sorry your knackered bike / moto / car look, there is always a guard at hand who rushes towards you and takes over your vehicle, whilst you are free to shop / dine / etc.
Mini shrine outside the main pagoda to place gifts and get blessing
You know that you are getting native when you walk through town and bump into familiar people. With four weeks in Phnom Penh under my belt, I am now regularly randomly meeting various acquaintances and this time it is Rachel from work with whom I happened to be out the previous night. By the time I am leaving the coffee shop, it is late afternoon and I contemplate a trip to the Russian Market, which happens to be around ten minutes ride away.
Concluding that I do desperately need a light dress (as if), I pedal through the thickening traffic on a mission to beat the closing time of 5pm. And yes, I do make it. And yes, I do actually find a nice dress for a bargain of 5 USD and a couple of silk clutches on top. Life is hard.
Returning to the guest house with the last rays of sunshine, I feel a warm sense of satisfying day and reward myself with a glass of ice coffee, whilst discussing the possibilities for the night ahead.
With most people out of town, Saturday night happens to be a small affair of three people. But what we don't have in quantity we make up in quality. Having said that, the drive to town was rather amusing. Uncharacteristically, when we leave the guest house at 9pm, there is no tuk tuk in sight! Whatever next. Walking a couple of minutes down the road through a tuk tuk hassle promenade, we are left completely undisturbed by the two tuk tuks parked by the road. You'd think they don't want our business?
Colourful interior of Wat Phnom
It takes us ten minutes to find the driver and convince him that we want him to take us to town. His slowness at jumping at this business opportunity becomes clearer a little bit later, when he takes us to the wrong street, upon which I get off to talk with him through the right way. Only then does it dawn on me that he is drunk out of his face! Slurring his words and openly checking me out, I am torn between getting someone else or absolving another Schumacher race through the town. Eventually we decide for the latter and hang on to the Jesus bars for dear life as he cuts in front of 4x4s and spooks a series of rather shocked looking motorbikes. But we make it in once piece!
The advantage of going out with a small group is definitely flexibility. Starting at a small sushi place, we continue to a big open space with pool tables and cocktail bars, where I take on two of my male companions and to the great cheering of all female bar tenders beat them 3:0. Girl power!! Then we head on to a rock bar called the Zeppelin Cafe, spending several hours sipping on cocktails and placing a song order after order before we eventually end up on the notorious Heart of Darkness. That's right. But to our defense, we wanted a dance place and dance place we got. So much so that we were amongst the last people to leave.
Dried fish stall at the Russian Market
No wonder my Sunday is a low key affair with book, movie and three portions of fried noodles at different stages of the day. And I got another two interviews for next week. Woohoo!