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.



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.


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