Phnom Penh

At the end of my stay in Baray, having spoken with some locals, I decided to just walk along the main road and throw my arm out. A minibus pulled over directly, and I gave the driver $5 to Phnom Penh. I’m not sure what the going rate is, but it seemed reasonable to me. Again with the dust and bouncing, but this minibus was also blasting Khmer dance tunes–it sounds similar to Indian pop to me–so we jammed the whole way there.

I had the address of the hostel, Spring Guesthouse, but written in English characters and numbers, so I couldn’t tell the driver where to go. We arrived at the final stop for the van, and everyone piled out. I figured a tuk-tuk driver might have a better idea, so I started walking down the street on the lookout for one. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, none of the tuk-tuk drivers spoke any English. I had assumed, mistakenly, that as the capital city there would be a large number of English speakers. Woe to me for my hubris!

Luckily, I’m pretty familiar with Khmer numbers and number systems now, so I told the next one I corralled  the street number and the place number instead, and off we went. Imagine my surprise when we actually arrived! I had little confidence in my ability to convey addresses, so it was a welcome relief to pull up in front of the very hostel I was looking for.

Moon's Up.

Spring Guesthouse was located near the heart of Phnom Penh, and offers excellent rates. I was posted on the 6th floor, and was definitely feeling my backpack as I followed the sprightly attendant up each flight of stairs. The room was clean, and offered a fan, TV, and wi-fi. Many of the hostels I’ve stayed in here also offer individually packaged mini soaps, which I immediately scope, as I love having soap on hand for those public bathrooms that don’t offer toilet paper or cleansing utilities, as well as toothbrushes. I probably have about 3 toothbrushes with me currently, and they perform all kinds of uses, from scrubbing out cups or utensils, to cleaning sand out of my camera. Some hotels also offer mini combs.

Interestingly, almost every bathroom in Cambodia will also have a comb at the sink. Clubs, restaurants, and other public places provide community combs for general use. There might not be soap, but there will certainly be a comb.

Sidenote: I know this is a long time in coming, but Khmer is pronounced “kuh-mai”. I had to learn that the hard way myself.

Being back in the city, I was reaffirmed in my realization of a disturbing Cambodian trend: a complete lack of concern for traffic flow. It’s extremely common for motorcyclists and cyclists to drive opposite the flow of traffic, in the lane you would normally be riding or cycling in going the correct way. Thus, you must drift out into the lane of car traffic to avoid a collision, and pray the people behind you avoid you as well. People will be attempting to perpendicularly bisect the road in front of you, and you must try to weave around them as best you can. Traffic direction has returned to normalcy here, that is, driving on the right hand side, but the disregard for flow is more terrifying than driving on the opposite side. Whereas Thai drivers use their turn signals scrupulously, here, you never have any idea what anyone is doing. The whole time, I felt as though I was playing Frogger on my bike.

Traffic Jam.

There is a general opinion in the U.S. that people from Asia are bad drivers. I would say that if you transplanted a Khmer person into American roads, this statement would be correct, according to our standards of transit. However, in Cambodia, there is no bad driving. There is no defensive driving. One simply tries to get where one needs to go, and God help the hindmost.

Another highly noticeable aspect of Cambodia is the smell. It’s more prominent in big cities, but you can find it in small towns as well. In some places, the air smells just like the cotton lining of a sweaty pair of underpants after a long day. Exactly like that. Markets smell fishy, with a whiff of overripe produce and a meaty undertone. In larger markets, you’ll smell delicious frying food, and then some funky smell like someone left the bathroom door open. I commented on this in Thailand, but that jarring “underpants” smell occurs so often, and in such unexpected places, I felt I had to clue you in. Sometimes I just elect not to breathe. This works, generally, but not always.

Wrap It Up.

I decided to rent a bike, because I didn’t want to pay a tuk-tuk driver every time I wanted to go somewhere, plus it feels so much freer to be able to hop on and off a bike every time you see a tasty vendor. There’s one street in Phnom Penh that’s dedicated to bikes. That street is No. 107. It leads right to the Phsar Orussey, which is also an awesome place. In the middle of St. 107 is an unassuming little shop, with a minute sign proclaiming “Bicycle for Rent”. This is the place to go. The owner selected a bike of the perfect height for me, aired up the tires, wiped down the seat, and gave me a lock. I left my passport with him, and away I went. The rental was $2 per day, well worth it considering a tuk-tuk in one direction to anywhere would cost you more than that.

Bikes for Rent.

I blithely set out on my way to the Russian Market, which I’d heard about from YeePei, charting my way using the handy hotel map of attractions. The city was much smaller than the map made it seem–to visually trick people into using tuk-tuks? I wondered, is this some big conspiracy?–but somehow I managed to go about 3 miles in the opposite direction, making a huge anti-clockwise parameter that I just needed to close to reach my destination. I pulled up at what I hoped was the Russian Market, it just looked like a clump of stalls, and had my bike valeted by an enterprising young man. The market was similar to all tourist markets, featuring the same tourist stuff, but in the middle was an extensive food court!


Disregarding the backhanded comment on the map that advised that eating at the Russian Market was for the “hygienically adventurous”, which nonetheless amused me, I sat down at what was obviously a well-cleaned bar and ordered a temptingly fresh spring roll from the young woman in front of me. She thoughtfully cut the roll into meatball sized chunks, and served it up with a small dish of spicy, sweet, peanut-chilli sauce. I woofed that down and ordered another. Then I watched as a couple of teenaged girls ordered some sort of noodle salad bowl, with a thick flab of fresh noodle being cut into mouth-sized pieces and dished up with mint, cilantro, and some other herbs, plus sauce, and a deep-fried meat egg roll type thing. You know, just everything I love. I was happily munching away, when all of a sudden I experienced a strong, strong fishy taste in my mouth. It was so hard for me to finish chewing and swallow, while making a sickly attempt at keeping an expression of enjoyment on my face. What was that horrendous flavor? I searched out the only leaf unfamiliar in form and hesitatingly took a bite. Yep, that’s the offender! Luckily, it seemed as though there were only two in my bowl. I found out later that the herb is a type of cordata, and is not only common in Vietnamese and other Asian cookery, but offers a variety of health benefits, including anti-obesity effects. Only because it makes you wary of continued ingestion!

Garlic Seller.

I ended up buying nothing at the market save lunch and a $1 fan from a poor lady who looked like she’d been burned. I went to collect my bike, but the bike valet was nowhere to be seen. As I began to make my way off the curb, I was suddenly apprehended by the erstwhile handler. I ripped my little half ticket off the brake lines and gestured, I handed him the remaining half, he said some things I couldn’t understand, and in the end he just shook his head angrily and let me go.

Back on the main road, I pulled over at one of the thousands of pushcart drink sellers. Cambodians seem to drink coffee black and liberally sweetened with sugar–so strong that even the melting ice doesn’t dilute it. These can be had, unless you’re getting ripped off, for anywhere from 1000-2000 riel; so fifty cents or less. These are proffered with handy little drink slot bags that hang perfectly from handlebars or hands. I’ll have to take a photo. Honestly, it’s the “usual” things in Cambodia that are the coolest, but you look like a total innocent abroad if you’re seen taking a picture of a coffee. And I don’t want to be laughed at anymore!

Bird Seller.

I didn’t go to the Killing Fields, and I didn’t go to the Central Market. I had developed quite a horrible case of heat rash, and was half-insane with itchiness. The rash started right on my bra-line and cleavage, a place you can’t go around scratching, especially in Cambodia. I eventually went to the pharmacy and bought some $3 anti-histamine cream, which saved my life. Even taking one Benedryl per night leaves me dopey in the morning, and the cooling sensation of the gel was an extra bonus. Pricey, but necessary.

Rinsing It Down.

Be warned that businesses, even pharmacies, shut up by 8PM or earlier, so get your supplies early.

A market I did go to was the nearby and aforementioned Orussey Market. This market is a market for locals; it contains household goods, hardware, food and food preparation items, clothing, and on the top floor, tailors and seamstresses. On the second floor, there are a number of closet sized stalls offering second-hand clothes. Each of these is tailored to a specific item or style of clothing: lace and openwork clothes, just shirts, just bottoms, just dresses, just velvet, just shoes, just bras. I did buy some bras; the lady perfectly guessed my size, and presented selections based on what I chose out of her first options. It was like a Pandora station for bras! I paid $5 for two, but I had to force the deal, as I only had $5.

Wire Wad.

I also bought a number of lacy bandeau-type deals that are so stupidly pricey in America. Speaking of underclothes, do you know what they don’t offer in Thailand or Cambodia? Thongs! That’s right, because Asian women are perfectly comfortable being sexual in a bikini or lacy brief-cut panty. And much more attractively so, in my opinion.

The back of the second floor is lined with hair salons! You can smell the hot hair scent as you approach. Salon after salon providing extensions, coloring, cuts. I wish I was in the market for some hair care.

I also chose to eat near this market, as there was an enormous selection of street food, as well as little “restaurants” set up on the encircling curb. I had some delicious borbor served on a clean table in the middle of the square, and an excellent num pang from a young lady on the curb, who hooked me up with a gang of papaya relish. Num pang are the Khmer equivalent to the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich.

Num Pang.

Ok, I swear this is the last thing I have to say about food! At night, these picnic tables of Khmer desserts pop up all over. These mostly consist of certain mixes, arranged in giant stainless silver bowls, such as banana and tapioca, sticky rice and taro, corn coconut tapioca, and so on. You can eat it there, in a little bowl you’ll hand back, or you can take it to go in a tiny baggy. These treats are topped with coconut milk, and shaved ice if you ask. I’m a corn dessert addict, so that’s what I had. Similar in flavor to creamed corn, with an inviting texture of tapioca. You can also select from some small bowls offering palm seeds, rainbow squigglies, coconut jelly, and other small confections, which are then paired with coconut milk and ice as well, for an impromptu shaved ice treat!

Wandering around Orussey Market after dinner, I came upon a bin of baseball caps. I’d sent home my oversized straw sunhat long ago, and needed a light grade replacement. “Muy bo-an,” said the lady watching nearby. 1,000 riel, or $0.25. I picked through all the hats, finally settling on an red nylon edition, emblazoned “Profashion”. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed other piles. Mounds and mounds of clothes slightly sorted and piled on tarps. All for 1,000 riel each! I ended up digging out one stretchy, sleeveless, knee-length dress in taupe (French for mole, you know) and one pair of girl-style boxer/sleep shorts. Boy, if I lived in Phnom Penh, I’d be here every night! You could outfit your wardrobe in these pickings. I wish I could have snagged more, but I have to carry it all on my back, so, alas.

I took the plunge and decided to have my laundry sent out. *Heavens!* It cost $1 per kilo, so I got roughly 7lb of laundry washed for $3. I left it at 7:30PM, and picked it up the next day at 5PM. How easy is that! Dirty underwear, heavy towels, handkerchiefs, fabric bundles…it was all there, fresh, clean, and neatly folded in a plastic sack. Interestingly, my laundry didn’t have a particularly “clean” scent, it smelled like the air of Phnom Penh in which it had been hang-dried, so mostly like smoke and doughnuts.