Yes, you heard me right: I finally have something positive to say. Phnom Penh is a really incredible place. I haven’t been this excited about a city since Pyongyang.
Today, however, got off to a strange start. I had booked a boat to Phnom Penh through my hotel and they’d arranged for the boat company to collect me and take me to the dock. I was told I’d be collected at 7am, but by 7:30, the time when the boat was supposed to leave, there was still no transport. The hotel staff were phoning people and I got the impression that there was a problem – but they told me everything was fine and that the transport was on its way. Finally, I got picked up at 8am and was taken to the dock, where I realised that I had been forgotten about, the boat had left, and then turned back especially to pick me up. Every passenger looked at me accusingly like I was a time-wasting simpleton.
Though I was the last on the boat, I got a good window seat at the back. The boat followed close to the left riverbank, and I had a seat on the left, so I was happy.
We got off at the Vietnam customs, and again at the Cambodia customs (above – I think it was the first time that I crossed an international non-EU border without having any kind of bag or body check). When I got back on the boat, a Malaysian girl – a pampered princess travelling with a rich-but-stupid-looking boyfriend – had stolen my seat. I’m embarrassed to say that I was incensed – raging inside as I sat in a viewless aisle seat while the princess sat with her eyes closed in my window seat. I spent the whole journey fantasising about kicking her head-first out of the window. I’m such a child.
When we arrived, I prepared myself for the onslaught of motorbike men – but there was no onslaught. There were just a couple of them waiting and they weren’t persistent or aggressive like in Vietnam. I walked down the riverfront (above) and was amazed by how calm and tranquil the place is. I found a cheap, grimy hotel and went to the Royal Palace.
Look at that sky! It doesn’t seem real. Anyway, the Royal Palace is still in use, so only a few buildings are open to the public.
The palace has some spectacular metalwork:
By now it was about 4pm and I hadn’t had anything to eat other than a roll for breakfast. It was baking hot and I was feeling dizzy so I went to look for something to eat and, by chance, came across a vegetarian restaurant called Evergreen that I’d read about online. This is stir-fried noodles with ‘intestines’ and a side order of ‘meat’ balls:
After supper, I found ‘Psar Thmei’ – the huge domed art-deco central market.
It was very civilized. Nobody shouted at me or grabbed my clothing.
And that’s about it for my first day in Phnom Penh. I haven’t seen much of the city yet but what I have seen has made a very good impression. I don’t want to paint a distorted picture – walking down some of the narrow backstreets made it very clear that a lot of people here are living in real poverty. I’ll try to write something a little more balanced once I’ve seen more of the place.