Life in Vietnam: Phnom Penh

JACQUES SMIT travels to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on the banks of the Mekong River, a “city that comes alive at sunset”


phnom penh

JACQUES SMIT travels to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on the banks of the Mekong River, a “city that comes alive at sunset” 

It must be one of the flattest places I’ve ever been – mile upon mile of nothing but rice paddies, trees, the odd lake and a house on stilts. The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon) to Phnom Penh took hours – the roads are a disaster and the going is slow.

Before you enter Cambodia you’ll need to disembark, let your luggage be x-rayed and sort yourself a single entry visa for $25, valid for one month. When your paperwork is done remember to get back on the bus. You’ll need to get off again a kilometre or so from the border for an enforced pit stop. What fun. Cambodia is still a country in the grips of extreme poverty and I wasn’t sure what to expect from its capital city. The usual images of drugs, violence and people trafficking crossed my mind. I am too young to be trafficked.

Perhaps it was because of my initial misgivings that Phnom Penh made such a delightful impression on me. It’s not until you reach the centre that the city starts resembling a capital, still in the throes of development and recovery after years in the hands of the notorious Khmer Rouge. The city’s outskirts resemble those of cities in Africa… cue melancholy and homesickness. Situated on the banks of the Mekong, the city comes alive at sunset when the promenade  and streets are full of people taking a leisurely stroll (or indulging in a bit of soccer in front of the Royal Palace) and street vendors preparing for business. Sitting down on the river wall we had ample opportunity to watch the city sway, be tempted by street children asking for a dollar (often in exchange for patting a puppy) and grilled snake on sticks.
Wondering through the dark back allies we stumbled on our first night market where meat and perfume mixed casually with the greens of vegetables and the matt textures of cheap clothes. We had dinner (vegetable pho) at the second night market (closer to the river) while watching something akin to Pop Idol taking place on an overlarge stage. Needless to say we were extremely saddened by the fact that we had only booked one night’s accommodation. There was still so much to see. There was still so much sitting around and watching to be done. Before boarding the bus to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, we promised ourselves that we’d return soon.