Phnom Penh Full of Surprises

The Kingdom of Cambodia

Pronounced P-nom P-en, it is not a p-articularly pretty place. I arrived as the rain was beginning to taper off and the streets were drowned in water, making them impassible in places without getting in at least ankle deep. All the same I followed a Dutch man I met on the bus to go off on foot to look for a place to stay, rather than taking one of the tuk tuks clustered around the bus stop and other open spaces of pavement. I ended up slogging through several rundown streets, checking out some crummy looking guesthouses with Gerard from Holland, hauling my bags up and down flights of stairs as one room smelled like smoke, one guesthouse was full, the one recommended by a friend had a big wet blue plastic comb with some short hairs in it on the ledge under the mirror in the bathroom, and after dropping my bags I decided I just didn't want to stay there. It took 1.5 hrs but I managed to get myself installed in a slightly more decent looking room (still missing toilet paper), and headed out to see the main strip of Phnom Penh. Perhaps the darkness doesn't set off the city to its best advantage, but aside from some fancy looking shops on one main street, there was a derelict air about the place. I walked by a few “Happy Pizza” places selling ganja pizza – free trip included, and onwards towards a blue and red English sign that truly set my heart alight – two large and shining letters 'D' and 'Q'. With more excitement than I've felt perhaps since going for my first (and only) peanut-buster parfait in grade 4, I went in to check if it was for real. Dipped cones, blizzards, even ice cream cakes, just like at home. And the taste, the same as if I was sitting back in summertime in southern Ontario – sometimes soft, sometimes crunchy chocolate-y vanilla dip.

The real thing

This was not the only thrill Cambodia's national capital had to offer. In addition to some of the brutal historical sights, I went to the stunning Royal Palace, set in a large tranquil space of statues and potted greenery. I saw a shining Emerald Buddha that may be made of Baccarat crystal, seated on high in the Silver Pagoda, surrounded by elaborate buddhas, one covered in multi-carat diamonds.

Royal Palace

Palace Passage

On my way out of the Royal Palace I had another surprise, in the form of a friendly Filipino woman with a Spanish accent and Khmer appearance who wanted to sit down and chat, after which she invited me to come over to eat at her house. She wasn't sure what to offer me as a vegetarian option – fried noodle? I had been focused on a real Western meal for dinner and couldn't face the idea of something else fried. She thought for a while – bread. You eat bread? Well, yes. Not really for dinner… Eggs? You eat eggs? You could have eggs and bread. It wasn't quite a chocolate dipped cone and I wasn't as tempted, though I felt, as always, that I shouldn't turn down a friendly invite, especially after I'd had such a nice time meeting Nga and Nhi in Saigon. While I was considering her offer a little bell rang faintly in the back of my head recalling something I'd read before – Filipinos, foreigners, Vietnam, scams. What about breakfast tomorrow instead? What are you doing tomorrow? I settled on getting her contact info and left to continue my walk. Feeling bad about being suspicious of people I turned around a little while later, to see her walking with a large man. When I got back to the hotel I looked online to find that the Filipino black jack scam from Saigon had moved to Phnom Penh, with foreigners being targeted in the area just outside the Royal Palace. Apparently tourists travelling on their own get invited to someone's home where they can enter into a friendly blackjack game that suddenly turns into being on the hook for sometimes thousands of dollars. Or there's potential for more directly threatening robbery. What surprised me most of all was that I almost fell for it. If I hadn't been in the mood for something else for dinner, and if I hadn't, later in our conversation, faintly remembered reading about Filipino scams, I might have taken her up on it – she was friendly, and an invite to someone's home wasn't so out of the ordinary. After all my independent and occasionally intrepid travel, it was affronting to think I could fall for a scam like some fresh off the plane tourist. And that I could be mistaken for someone who would. Coming my first full day in Cambodia and the day after the bus border crossing scam tried to charge an extra $5 for a Cambodian visa – avoided thanks to Vinh yelling over the phone in Vietnamese at the bus attendant, who agreed to have the bus wait for me as my visa was processed – had me thinking that “Scambodia” might be living up to its name.

Working out on the Palace Strip

Fortunately, with a little bit of savvy, a bit more luck, and a few scoops of ice cream it all worked out fine.

Snap happy tourist Monks

Dry Streets of Phnom Penh