Phnom Penh: A City of Charm, Chaos and Curiosity

Trip Start Aug 22, 2012
Trip End Jun 16, 2013

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Friday, December 21, 2012

Our first moments in Cambodia…
  • confusion over visa and photos but, no problem, pay $ (Cambodia rates a low #158 on a scale of 180 by Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog organization)
  • strict military men at customs demanding I put 4 fingers on the scanner, thumb, left 4 fingers, etc. and I can't understand him so start giggling and he looks very sternly at me
  • mayhem outside the airport; tuk-tuk drivers converge on us, they don’t know where it is we want to go so walk away to try to find another job
  • total chaos driving.  Motorcycles, cars, trucks, bicycles, tuk tuks driving in every direction, no lanes, horns beeping, not a stop sign or traffic lights in sight and dust and exhaust billowing about
  • smells of garbage, meat barbequing, cocoanut, burning wood, urine, exhaust, pungent something-or-other, you name it….all thrown into one big heap of noise and smell...
and we love it!  This is our favourite part of the world – Southeast Asia. We are so excited about being here even though we know it won’t be easy travel.  We thought South America was difficult with the language difference, we can’t even read the signs here because most of them are not in our alphabet, let alone being in another language. And when people talk, we cannot get the gist of the conversation unlike Spanish.  Here we go!

Life with Tuk-Tuk Drivers

A tuk-tuk driver finally took the job to transport us from the airport to 'The Terrace on 95’ where we had booked, even though he had no idea where it was located, and through a valiant effort he delivered us safely to this sweet little place in a quieter section of the city – which isn’t particularly quiet.  The friendliness of the staff and all we came into contact with after the airport was heartwarming.  What gracious people with such authentic smiles. 

But has every tuk-tuk driver had a girlfriend or wife who broke his heart when she left him for a richer man?  Or is this some story they have learned that brings them empathy and perhaps bigger tips?  Who knows…it is a surprisingly common story.

On one of our tuk-tuk rides we had to stop at a gas station.  An attendant was staring at Jim’s arm and we had a laugh - without any shared language - about Jim’s hairy arms and the young man’s smooth hairless arms.  He patted Jim’s arm and grinned widely at us.

Cambodia's Sad History
Phnom Penh is a bustling and chaotic city with some kind of charm that I just can’t put my finger on.  We were a bit tentative with our sightseeing here.  We did the compulsory Tuol Sleng Museum, the security prison where much of the Khmer Rouge torture was carried out. On the same day, we travelled out to one of the many Killing Fields in the country - to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center where thousands of Cambodians were executed.  A full day of that left me with a very heavy heart.  How can people do this to one another?  Genocide is unfathomable.  And we are talking about from 1975-79!

After that full, very depressing day - between the heat, the adjustment to Southeast Asia and the weight of the Cambodian history, we slowed down a bit. 

The City
The day we went to the Royal Palace, we found it closed because the king died in October and we are still not sure if it’s closed all the time, every afternoon or if this was a specific occasion.  But we enjoyed our day taking photos of the happenings around the Palace and the  day-to-day goings-on in the city.

The food here is delicious.  Our favourite meal was at a place called Romdeng which is a training center for troubled youth to learn about food service and tourism.  It is set in a colonial villa with a beautiful garden and, seriously, the best staff ever.  They were all so keen to learn and be good at their trade and had a shy, humble way about them.  The food was traditional Cambodian food and was fantastic although we passed on the deep fried tarantulas.

Our next stop is Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat.  Stay tuned...we will post after we come back from volunteering at the Elephant Valley Project.
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Bonnie C on

Wow - such amazing stories - stay safe you two - Happy New Year is upon us, B :)

Sylvia Fairchild on

After 3 hours of reading I'm finally all caught up and the best I can come up with is "Wow!" I'm so grateful for today's technology because without it I wouldn't be able to share in this experience. Thanks so much for taking the time to document your trip so well. Not many people would take the time or do such an amazing job. Donna, you're an amazing writer and Jim a photographer. I agree with your friends when they said National Geographic should see this stuff. Let me know if you ever decide to make a book because I want a copy, or two, or three.

I look forward to following your journey. Stay safe and healthy and HAPPY NEW YEAR!


Nora D on

"Wow" is all I can say too! You are an amazing writer and I feel like I'm right there with you when you tell your stories. I've enjoyed your blog so much over the past months. You are my adventure gurus now! so brave! Enjoy the rest of you trip and I look forward to reading about the elephants! Keep safe and Happy New Year!!!
all the best in 2013.

Ruth-Ann on

Wow! Again, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Your writing and photos help me "be there." I feel a deepening in my soul from looking and learning. When I have a new post from you on a work morning, I use it as my morning reflection and meditation. Saying prayers for your safety as you travel. The two of you should write stories and/or a book when you return! You already have a lot of material from your posts and your photos.

Sue Walker on

Once again I am speechless Happy New Year Safe travels. Xoxo

Basia on

Ditto to what everyone else said and...DEEP FIRED TARANTULAS?!
And we think we're all wild and crazy for drinking the worm at the bottle of the tequila bottle.
Thanks for the gift of your amazing blog. We're having a blast reading it.

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