06.08.2013 36 °C
Today I’m leaving Seam Riep and travelling to the Cambodian capital city Phnom Penh, down in the southeast of Cambodia and not too far from the Vietnam border. I have spent nearly a full week here exploring the town and the magnificent Angkor temples, my legs and feet hurt from all the walking but I feel satisfied that I’ve at least seen a good chuck of the complex.
There is no functioning railway in Cambodia, although they’re working on it and you can expect a line from the Thai border to Siem Reap in the next few years. Bus is the main means of transport so I booked a mini bus to take me to the capital, about a 6 hour trip on the main road.
The bus picked me up from outside my hotel and we were on our way. The main road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is one of the largest in Cambodia but is only 2 lanes and very rough in places. I was sat right at the back of the bus most of the journey and my head actually hit the roof on several occasions as we hit large pot holes or the driver went off-road to avoid oncoming trucks. Traveling on Cambodian roads is not for the faint-hearted and can be dam hairy at times, continuous use of horns is mandatory and no obvious traffic rules make for a riveting journey.
Phnom Penh has been the national capital since French colonisation and sits on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Once known as the “Pearl of Asia” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina. The city only has one large bridge spanning the river, which is a side shoot from the main Mekong and most of the city life is based on the west bank.
When I arrived I booked into a hotel, out a bit from the main central district, as it’s significantly cheaper and is only a $3 tuk tuk ride to the centre.
I spent a few hours sightseeing around the Royal Palace, one of the tourist highlights here and a magnificent complex of buildings serving as the royal residence for the king of Cambodia. Built in 1860 the palace is a good example of Khmer architecture featuring a defensive wall, throne hall, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, stupas, towering spires and mural paintings. Definitely the main attract is the Silver Pagoda adorned with over 5,000 silver tiles.
Out around town
The city has some pretty good nightlife, mostly clustered along the riverside strip on the west bank. When out around town you notice the stark divide in this country between the very few rich and the vast majority of poor. Poverty is still quite bad and effects most people here, although it is improving at a fast pace with foreign investment and the opening up of the country to the outside in recent years. Unfortunately corruption at high levels is still rife here and the inner-circle of elite still control most aspects of industry and commerce. The vehicle of choice for the elite seems to be high end LandCruisers and Range Rovers, jamming the streets amongst the sea of scooters and tuk tuk’s.
I didn’t realise when I arrived in Cambodia that the country is gearing up for elections on 28th July, well I certainly do now and was wondering why everyday in Seam Reip I would see or hear large election floats parading with megaphones blaring, of course they are all for the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) the ruling communist party who’s Prime Minister has been in power for the last 28 years. Although elections are held they are mainly a farce and the CPP controls the media, military and justice systems. Military police keep the party rule and the only real opposition is the Cambodian National Rescue Party who really don’t stand much of a chance.
I also didn’t realise when I arrived in Phnom Penh that I would bearing witness to a significant moment in Cambodian history. When travelling around town I would come across these mass noisy rallies with packs of young Khmer on scooters all wearing white baseball caps, hundreds of them waving flags and blocking the streets up completely. I found out afterwards that apparently masses of young people are being mobilised and organised using Facebook to come out and support the opposition party against the CPP.
This may be historic but the CPP have been quick to address this new threat and have launched counter Facebook campaigns and organised even larger rallies of young Khmer’s all wearing the same white baseball caps. It was chaos in the city and it was hard for me to tell who was supporting who, I guess this was the CPP’s aim and it was quite affective. In the end the CPP had their predicted landslide but this was historic for the opposition who managed to double their seats.
The use of Facebook to subvert the controlled media and organise so many young people freaked the CPP out and whilst I was in the city the US embassy issued a warning to tourists to avoid the city due to threat of riots and unrest during the election. Great news and after hearing this I actually started planning an escape route… just in case.
But I never saw any trouble, a lot of noise and energy but I never felt like it was turning nasty. Apparently there were a few incidents but not nearly as much as feared. Most Khmer people I spoke to seemed quite ambivalent to the politics, they would say quietly to me the CPP are no good but I didn’t detect any resentment or anger, they will just smile and get on with their life’s.
People say that Cambodia is still a wild country and still only really suitable for the more hearty adventure travelers. Whilst I think there’s truth in this I can also say that not once have I felt under any threat or felt any aggression towards to me. You can walk around the capital at anytime of the night and be quite safe, even if you’re women. Sure you can get scammed if you’re not careful but in all I’ve noticed less scamming than Thailand or even Vietnam, the worst you may get is being charged too much for tuk tuk if you’re not aware or prepared haggle.
The Khmer people I’ve encountered and made friends with have been genuinely friendly and kind with more than a little heart, sometimes if the language barrier isn’t too bad you will be treated to an astonishingly cheeky wit which is just charming.
I guess it’s true to say the country still has rough edges and is not nearly as tourist adapt as Thailand where English proficiency and better transport makes things a lot easier. The roads are the only way to travel and are rough and dam hairy sometimes, buses break down and plans change often but if you can handle this and not get to upset or stressed and don’t mind a bit of discomfort you will love it.
Another good thing is it’s thinned out the more annoying travelers, those that make it here are certainly a better breed and a lot more tolerable. Of the foreign travelers there are a few Brits, Germans and Aussies floating around but the majority are Americans and French.
Well I must leave this charming city tomorrow and head down the Mekong river on a boat which will take me to the Vietnam Mekong Delta on my way to Saigon. I’m kicking myself for not being able to make it to the hilly North-east of Cambodia where it’s remote and even wilder, mainly small minority tribal villages living amongst the high hills and patches of emerald green jungle, there are also elephants there. Alas I can’t do everything and if I went up North-east I would have to back track all the way to Phnom Penh on a 15hr multiple bus journey because travelling to Saigon over the border is going against grain of roads in Cambodia, even though Saigon is quite close. It’s just too hard and would take me days and I’ve found no one who has done that route yet.