I thought I would start a series of posts called the ‘Phnom Penh Files’, which will be a monthly recap of my time in—you guessed it—Phnom Penh. The following is just a stream of consciousness, so please forgive my babbling.
September was a whirlwind month. I had 2 sets of friends come to visit, as well as the hubby, which meant that I got to play the role of Phnom Penh tour guide – a tour that essentially involved eating and drinking. It’s difficult to extol the virtues of Phnom Penh. It is by no means an attractive city, with its lack of green spaces, its lingering pollution that seems to immediately attach itself to you as soon as you walk outside (you should see my facial wipes at the end of the day), pothole-ridden roads and rubbish littering the streets. There’s not much to see in terms of tourist attractions, with the two main attractions – the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison – being significant but not necessarily enjoyable outings. If you follow the Lonely Planet itinerary, there is also the Royal Palace, National Museum and the various markets, but if we’re being completely honest, you’re likely to have visited far more impressive palaces, museums and markets (although I do love the Russian market) elsewhere in South-East Asia. With a lack of a ‘highlights package’ to present, my plan was essentially to ply my friends with food and drinks, which seemed a sufficient strategy.
This is the problem with travelling to a place for a short period of time. You build your impressions within a limited timeframe, which are often based around visual cues, such as scenery or architecture, and experiences, such as activities or interactions. Phnom Penh doesn’t offer anything that immediately grabs your attention and draws you in. It doesn’t make your jaw drop or elicit any ‘wows’. In essence, it seems like just another South-East city, although lacking a clear differentiating factor. On first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going for Phnom Penh, which is why a lot of people tend to dismiss the capital city in favour of the far more impressive and sprawling temple complexes of Siem Reap and the idyllic beaches of the islands off Cambodia’s coast – which is fair enough.
Phnom Penh isn’t built for tourists exploring the city for a day or two, it’s made for those who are willing to give the city a chance and put in the time to get to know its core. It’s built for the expat or long-term traveller, because people don’t stay here for the beautiful scenery or attractions, they stay for the community. Phnom Penh offers a lifestyle that can be intoxicatingly addictive, which is what I was so attracted to during my first visit to the city. It’s the undercurrent of energy running through the rubbish-littered streets that you wouldn’t necessarily be privy to unless you were staying for an extended period of time.
By the same token, it’s also a city that starts to wear you down after a while, precisely through the things aforementioned: its lack of green spaces, its lingering pollution, the rubbish littering the streets. I’ve been dreaming about the beaches back in Perth and the sprawling green park across from my house. Additionally, similar to drugs, the novelty of the intoxicatingly addictive lifestyle starts to wear off after a you’ve gone through your experimental phase. Alternatively, some people fall into the trappings of the hedonistic lifestyle that Phnom Penh offers, spiralling out of control and unable to manage their addictions. There’s certainly no shortage of unsavoury characters / alcoholics in the city.
A friend who arrived in Phnom Penh around the same time as I did received an offer from her workplace to have her contract extended for another year; however, she doesn’t know if she’ll take it because in her words: ‘I am so over Phnom Penh’. I can relate. I think I’m at that same stage – not in the sense that I’ve over the city, but everything has become so ‘familiar’. Ah, the dreaded word: familiarity. How does a word have such positive and negative connotations at the same time? We yearn for familiarity, for the comfort of home, the embrace of our significant other and for the park across the road, but yet at the same time we ultimately become bored and unstimulated by what ends up becoming familiar. This becomes a conundrum in that we are driven to chase the unknown but longing for familiarity at the same time – how do we negotiate such opposing forces to create a situation that works in the long term? Okay, sorry to get deep, guys. This is just a stream of consciousness, so I go where my thoughts go.
In other news, I visited Sri Lanka, which was my first foray into South Asia. I travelled around the hill country from Kandy to Ella by train. Guys, if you haven’t been to Sri Lanka, please, please, please go, or at least put it on the list! This has undoubtedly been my favourite trip taken so far during my South-East Asian stint and I became completely smitten with the country and its people. I can’t wait to get more posts up about my time there (although who knows when this is going to happen? Time, why are you so cruel to me?!!).
I also need to start thinking about my return back to Oz. The hubby and I will be in Melbourne for Christmas, but I’d like to spend at least a week in Perth beforehand – there’s a park I need to reacquaint myself with.