24 February 2023

A whole week in Phnom Penh has passed. It’s Friday afternoon and I’m writing this at a café I discovered last Saturday. Whenever I visit a new café, the first things my eyes seek are electrical sockets. Last Saturday, I noticed that this café has plenty, which is why I’m back here today to continue writing down my observations of Phnom Penh:

  • Toyota Prius is a thing here. I thought I was lucky when the Grab car I booked from the airport turned out to be a Prius (it’s one of my favourite cars), but as soon as we came out onto the main road I realised luck played no part in it. The streets are drowning in Prius. Look left, it’s a silver Prius. Look right, it’s a blond Prius. Behind you is a Prius. Prius everywhere. I’m very pleased to see, but no less baffled as to why this is. Also of note is that it’s a model you don’t see in Thailand. I wonder which country it’s imported from.
  • The same way helmets here are real and not make-believe like in Vietnam, Phnom Penh also has legit petrol stations. Not the ramshackle operations you see in Vietnam where you half-expect to get fake petrol. Petrol stations here are sturdily built and come with a convenience store, like in Thailand.
  • In certain parts of the city, there are pedestrian crossing lights. This is a luxury even in Thailand, and I was surprised to see they had been installed here.
  • The toilets are clean. Everywhere. I have yet to enter an establishment with a dirty toilet. I don’t know if I have cleaners to thank, if it’s the type of places I’m frequenting, or if people are genuinely cleaner here than in Vietnam.
  • The riverside is the most extraordinary place. I’ve been warned it’s sleazy, and it is—rows of shops that wouldn’t look out of place on Khao San Road, sleaze-central in Thailand. But it’s also majestic and wonderful. I don’t have any photos—I’ve been warned not to take my phone out on the streets. But I felt like I was in Los Angeles. Wide boulevard along the river, tall palm trees swaying in the wind. And I might have just been lucky, but there was no beggar in sight.
  • Free water everywhere! In every restaurant and café, I’ve been offered free water, sometimes a whole bottle of it. I’m a water guzzler, and this free water phenomenon was a very pleasant surprise. I didn’t realise this could be a thing in a South East Asian country where tap water isn’t drinkable. I’m not sure if the water I’m being generously provided is purified tap water, but on at least one occasion I saw it being poured out of a bottle that looked like it had been bought from a store.
  • Credit cards aren’t as widely accepted here as in Bangkok, which is to be expected. Probably also not as much as in Ho Chi Minh City, though I don’t often attempt to use my card there so I can’t say for sure. Most of the places I’ve been to only accept cash or mobile QR payment. Transactions here seem to have skipped the credit card stage and gone straight from cash to mobile banking! Which, interestingly, I’ve been told some years back by a friend who used to work for a major bank in Malaysia.
  • You’d be surprised how difficult it is to navigate a new city without a mobile phone. I’ve been earnestly warned of phone snatchers, so when I’ve been out exploring, I’ve done so with the aid of a piece of note paper with street numbers scribbled on it. Each time I reach my destination sans phone feels like a genuine achievement. But even though I do my best to orient myself before setting off, I’ve gotten lost three times and had to discreetly take my phone out to consult Google Maps. Luckily, no snatching has befallen me.

Positive impressions of Phnom Penh continue. I have fallen in love with the city, as much as I could given I’m still wary of its bag/phone snatchers and pickpockets. I’ve got one full day left. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my vigilance continues to pay off and I board that plane to Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday with all the belongings I came with.

Wish me luck,

Val

18 February 2023: Part 2

This morning I sat in my friend’s kitchen and wrote a post titled “18 February 2023”. I had no intention to make it into a two-parter, but here we are. It’s 5pm. I’m back in the same kitchen after half a day wandering around the Russian Market area of Phnom Penh. And I’ve got more observations for you:

  • I’m bowled over by how friendly and gracious every local I’ve come into contact with today is. A security guard said “Hello!” as I walked past and smiled when I, surprised, turned to return his greeting. (I don’t think a random guard has ever verbally greeted me in Ho Chi Minh City. The most you can get is a return smile if you smile at them first, but even this is rare—my smiles are usually met with an emotionless stare, if not outright ignored.) Every restaurant and café staff I’ve interacted with—and there were many—were unfailingly polite and—I can’t find a better word to describe—gracious. This includes staff at establishments I wandered in to see the interior and check the menu out. “Can I just see your menu? I’ve already eaten,” invariably engendered warm smiles and an instantly proffered booklet (always with English names of dishes). When I leave half a minute later, everyone thanks me profusely, wishes me a nice day, and “Hope to see you again.” I’ve never felt so repeatedly welcomed in an afternoon. I’ve never been made to feel so welcome ever in Ho Chi Minh City. Service is a big thing for me, so this is a major plus for Phnom Penh.
  • Greenery appears to be a thing. I found a number of restaurants densely wrapped in foliage. They were all very quaint and extremely inviting. I wish I were staying here for a month instead of ten days, so I could go back to while away afternoons in all of them.
  • Lots and lots of foreigners. A few clearly tourists, most unidentifiable.
  • Beer ($1) was cheaper than soda ($1.75). So I drank beer. The draught Cambodian beer was actually very nice—a dollar well spent.
  • Street crossing helpers are a thing. I saw this depicted on television somewhere (I don’t remember now where) yesterday in a commercial, and was the happy beneficiary of one today. My route to my lunch spot involved crossing a major thoroughfare. There were barriers in the middle, so I had to cross at a U-turn. As I stood there wondering how long I would have to wait for the traffic to ease off, an older man in a guard uniform with a light stick came up to me and gestured for me to follow him. He then proceeded to step confidently onto the street, waving his stick to stop incoming traffic, and lead the way for me to cross to the other side—Moses-style. Safely arrived, I hesitated, not knowing whether he was expecting to be paid for his much-valued service. But the man smiled and nodded, and I took that to mean that I was free to continue on my way.
  • I must have spent an hour crisscrossing the small streets to the east of the Russian Market. In that time I discovered a dedicated English language book store (still haven’t found one in Ho Chi Minh City) offering a wide variety of titles for ridiculous sums of money (Chasing the Scream was $17.50. I quickly gave up on the idea of buying a paperback to read during this trip), numerous restaurants and bars, some bakeries, and a small store selling made-in-Cambodia products which I’ve earmarked for a potential return visit (I try not to impulse-buy. I’ll see in a few days if I still want the items that caught my eye). Those few blocks remind me strongly of the Nimmanhemin area in Chiang Mai which I and my partner loved exploring last July, but a more expensive (everything’s priced in US dollars) and international version (in that short walk, I came across restaurants offering Iraqi, Balkan, Russian, Greek, and Italian cuisines).

Today was my first full day in Phnom Penh. And I must say it was a roaring success. I’ve discovered an area I love that’s 30 minutes away on foot from where I’m staying (albeit a sweaty and not-entirely-pleasant walk). I’ve acquired change in local currency so I have the option to hop on a tuktuk to get there. I’ve got more restaurants on my to-visit list than I have meals left. I’m set for the next 8 days.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your Saturday. Until next time,

Love,

Val

18 February 2023: Part 1

It’s Saturday morning and I’m on a trip once again—to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. So here I am, blogging away, roughly half a year after my last post. I do have a blog centred around travel, but this daily blog seems to have become the place for my travel musings, so I’ll go with it.

This time, though, I do want to update that travel blog with a post comparing Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (where I live), but I want to write with some perspective, the kind I’ll only have at the end of my 10-day trip. I also recently read an excellent advice book on writing that said the key to writing about places is to know what to leave out. I’m following the author’s advice, so rather than adding what seems like an important observation today to the post, I’ll wait until after I’ve had all my observations, so I can pick only the best ones for it.

The problem is, I only arrived yesterday afternoon and I’m already brimming with observations, which I’m afraid I’ll forget if I don’t write down. So my solution is to use this daily blog to record my unedited thoughts which I’ll cherry-pick for the travel post after my trip.

Here goes:

  • There are two kinds of airports: the ones that stress you out, and the ones that calm and delight. Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City are the former, and Phnom Penh is the latter. As soon as I entered the airport from the plane, I spotted a Relay store and a Starbucks, with proper seating, in the waiting area next to the gates. I was delighted. This is unheard of in Ho Chi Minh City. And though Bangkok has lots of shops, the seating area in its cafés is invariably cramped. The delight continued as I discovered the immigration hall had clear signs—visa on arrival here, passport control here, ASEAN lane here, toilets there. None of the confusion and chaos of Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. The delight only heightened when I went inside the ladies’ and found that the toilet stalls had been designed to accommodate luggage. I didn’t have to push my carry-on into the corner of the stall and squeeze myself inside between the door swinging shut and the toilet. The ladies’ was also impeccably clean—a cleaner hovered nearby as I washed my hands and immediately went to wipe the sink dry afterwards. So that’s the delight. The calm was from my interactions with airport staff. I’m usually a nervous wreck when I face the immigration officer. But the man who sat in the booth in front of me, though taciturn, was not intimidating—unlike the many immigration officers who routinely terrify me in my travels in and out of Ho Chi Minh City. My hands, for perhaps the first time, were not shaking as I handed over my passport, boarding pass, and immigration card. I was not expecting to be turned away, as I do each time I fly into Ho Chi Minh City and face one of its smug officers—I was calm. The same calmness characterised my interaction with the customs officer. He was simply standing in the customs area with his hand outstretched to receive travelers’ customs forms. There was no random interrogation—”Show money” in Ho Chi Minh City being one example. I handed him the form and walked straight through. Once out into the arrival hall, I was beckoned over to one of the stalls selling “free” traveler mobile sim cards. The lady was well-prepared with a piece of laminated paper detailing all the packages and prices, and efficient in her transaction with me. I was also approached by a taxi driver hopeful for a fare. But when I said no, he promptly went away. None of the hackling you’d find in Ho Chi Minh City. There was also a large convenience store just outside the arrival hall in case you needed refreshments after a long flight—this, Ho Chi Minh City didn’t have. Needless to say, I was very impressed with the airport—a great first impression of Phnom Penh.
  • Motorbike riders wear sensible helmets in Phnom Penh. One of the things that always baffled me about Ho Chi Minh City—and Vietnam in general—was how 99% of locals wear what I’ll call “make-believe helmets.” Look around when you’re on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and you’ll see a sea of half a plastic coconut shell strapped on top of lots of heads. I’ve had one of those on mine often while taking Grab bikes, and it doesn’t make me feel the slightest bit safer. I feel like it would either bounce right off if I had a crash, or crush my skull. For the longest time, I thought this preference for make-believe helmets was a phenomenon of lower-income countries—you don’t see them in Thailand. So I was surprised when I came out of the airport onto the streets of Phnom Penh, a city further behind on the development curve than Ho Chi Minh City, and didn’t see a single one. Every local rider had on proper full helmets, the kind I and my partner wear. And now I need to come up with a new theory to explain the make-believe helmet phenomenon in Vietnam.

Those were my two key observations from yesterday, among other minor ones like the beautiful architecture around the city, the various exotic kinds of Grab rides you can order, and how quiet the streets are—people don’t drive with their horn like in Vietnam.

So far, Phnom Penh is a delight. Today I’ll go out on foot to the Russian market to have lunch at one of the restaurants I’d earmarked for the trip. My friend, with whom I’m staying, has warned me of rampant phone and bag snatching. So, rather than consulting my phone for every turn, I’m going to have to memorise my route, which is going to be interesting. Or, I just had an idea, I’ll simply write down the street names on a piece of paper. Sorted: we’re going to travel the old-fashioned way. Then I’m hoping to come back and hit the gym in the afternoon, keep fit and shed the kilogram I’ve put on in the last week.

That’s it from me for now.

Love,

Val

p.s. There is now a “Part 2” to this post. I came back at the end of the day and recorded more observations. Off you go.