Sights of Phnom Penh

(19th – 23rd September 2018)

Silver Pagoda inside the Royal Palace grounds, Phnom Penh

The man behind the desk looks up, unsmiling, my passport in his hands.  ‘Visa cancelled.  Why?’  It doesn’t sound like a question, more like an accusation.   ‘You overstay your visa?’

Liz and I have made it to the Giant Ibis office in Saigon, the bus company recommended by one of my colleagues for our border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia.  We are both a little on edge.  Experienced travelers indeed, but having been spoilt in previous lives, we are more accustomed to border hopping via the air and are pretty adept at negotiating the trials and tribulations of immigration at airports.  Travelling on a shoestring and with adventure in mind, this is new territory for us, but for a fare of around $20 to get us to Phnom Penh, a land crossing is a no-brainer.

I sigh, it’s a sore point…  The man’s job is to inspect our passports before we board the bus to ensure there are no hiccups at the border post.

‘Are you from immigration?’  I retort.  ‘Please look at my visa, you will see it is/was valid until November…  I finished my contract and my boss insisted on cancelling my visa… Apparently it’s the law.’  Strange that in this instance the letter of the law should have been invoked when it had been flaunted on numerous occasions in the past, depending upon whose needs it suited… 

Way back in November 2017, before signing my contract and paying for yet another visa at $150 a pop, I had been reassured that with this new visa I would have plenty of time to travel after finishing my 1-year contract in early September 2018.  Plenty of time to explore Vietnam at leisure, I had thought, as the visa did not expire until 11th November 2018.  Only just a couple weeks before I was due to leave and was in the throes of finalizing details with Liz, it transpired that, at best, I could hope for a two-week period of grace at the mercy of the local immigration officers to be granted on my final day of work…

Oh, I was given a choice alright…  ‘Either I cancel the visa and you take the two weeks, or you leave and travel longer in Vietnam.  You let me know when you have left the country, and then I will inform the authorities that you have left your job without permission, but you may find it difficult to get a work permit in the future…  The contract you signed ends in November…’ Not a choice at all really, unless I have no intention of ever working in Vietnam again…  I’ve fallen victim again of the vagaries of SE Asian contract negotiations.. It isn’t worth the argument, so Liz and I adjust our plans to exit Vietnam no later than 19th September, my passport emblazoned with the offending cancellation stamps all over every Vietnamese visa…

Back in the office, the Giant Ibis man eyes me with suspicion, then relents and nods his head as I hand over my $25 Cambodia visa fee, plus the obligatory $5 to ease our way out of Vietnam and into the next country.  We pile onto the Giant Ibis coach and settle in for a comfortable ride, mobile phone charging points at our disposal, complementary bottled water and Blue Pumpkin pastry snack provided. 

At the Vietnamese border, we disembark and join the long queue of people leaving Vietnam…  The immigration officer is in no hurry and seems to have a penchant for solo travelers, or small groups of travellers, whose passports have been boosted with a few dollars inside.  We wait, and wait… and, finally, when lunch time approaches and our line has dwindled to just the Giant Ibis passengers, the immigration officer slowly picks up our stack of passports.  Clearly the extra $5 we paid in Saigon does nothing to speed up our departure from Vietnam.  Luckily, entering Cambodia proves less of an ordeal and we are on our way to Phnom Penh in no time. 

After Saigon, Phnom Penh is an oasis of calm.  Gone are the clogged roads heaving with the exhaust fumes from motorbikes and cars, gone are our mad dashes across the road when motorists ignore traffic lights and crossing the road on foot becomes a game of Russian roulette.  Although it may be that our hotel is in one of the quieter neighbourhoods of the city; we are after all but a stroll away from the mighty Mekong River and most of the sightseeing highlights that Phnom Penh has to offer. 

View from the rooftop swimming pool and bar area of our hotel
Mekong River at night
Independence Monument in the evening
Moonlight Pavilion, inside the Royal Palace grounds
Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, suitably disguised as was our luck…

Still, when my friend Andy asks me a few months later, ‘What’s different about Cambodia anyway?’, I struggle to immediately put my finger on it.  A seasoned traveller himself, Andy has previously visited Vietnam, but given Cambodia the cold shoulder.  ‘Surely, being neighbours with similar histories, they must be much the same..’  he surmises.  However, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, the country has such a different feel to it: a slower pace as tuktuk taxis rather than Grab motorbikes take passengers across town;

ubiquitous saffron-robed monks wielding yellow umbrellas keep the Buddhism vibe in full view;

Wats and pagodas dotted around the city resemble those in Thailand rather than the ones in Vietnam;

we discover Western style coffee… all Arabica, just as Liz likes. And to be honest, although I have grown accustomed to Vietnamese style coffee, there is nothing like a ‘normal’ cup of coffee to start the day ;

People are friendly and smile.  And of course, I’m on holiday rather than being irritated by a ‘saving face’ and work ethics culture that remains alien to me…  I smile a lot, I laugh a lot.  Cambodia is a much-needed tonic.

New country, new currency to get familiar with of course.  As always, I have not given it much thought, relying on the hole in the wall (or ATMs) and my currency card.   As a matter of fact, I have no idea what Cambodian currency looks like and on my first attempt to lay my hands on some at an ATM, I am bitterly disappointed to be presented with a stack of US dollars…  Foreigners cannot withdraw Cambodian Riel, it transpires!  Although it comes as a bit of a surprise, in the end it does not matter a hoot because in practice, Cambodia uses a mixture of US dollars and their own currency: big amounts in dollars and change in Riel..  It makes perfect sense once you get the hang of it, but Liz struggles with the concept for a few days…  Granted, she has only just mastered the conversion rate of Vietnamese Dong to British Pounds.  After a while, we just stop calculating…  Seems simpler that way, although not necessarily prudent on a tight budget..

The days are hot and sultry and heavy evening downpours are conveniently just that: short lived and timely; they hardly interrupt our tourist ventures. We live in shorts and strappy t-shirts and forget to pack tourist essentials in our day packs… Not sun cream or sun hats, but sarongs and shawls to cover legs and knees and to drape over naked shoulders… Whereas most establishments, including Buddhist temples, seem rather forgiving, not so the Royal Palace. Although many parts of the Palace grounds are open to the public, it is still the official royal residence. No admittance unless suitably attired. Of course, you can buy the necessary garments at the entrance, but at the exorbitant prices and ‘do we really need another t-shirt in our luggage?’, we turn back and decide to give this auspicious complex a miss. At least Liz does. We retreat to the hotel and, whereas Liz opts for an afternoon near the pool, I get changed abiding by the dress code and walk back and spend an hour meandering through the impressive sprawling grounds and gardens: a sanctuary of greenery tucked between the mishmash of buildings and dwellings in the area.

On our last day in Phnom Penh, we make it to the Russian Market.  Not that we are particularly enamoured with kitsch-laden markets plying tourist with cheap trinkets, having already sampled the night market in town which turned out rather disappointing.  Still, the tacky tourist stuff aside, the main attraction is exploring the diverse quarters of the market where hairdressers, beauticians, dressmakers, butchers, etc all rub shoulders. A little glimpse into Cambodian life, not so different from Vietnam after all.

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