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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 22 Jan 2007

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

MapPHNOM PENH: FIRST IMPRESSIONS FOREVER?
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Our first destination in Cambodia was the capital, Phnom Penh. Every backpacker you meet pronounces the name differently:

1) Penom Pen
2) Fnom Pen
3) Nom Pen
4) Fnom Fen (?)

The locals pronounce the name similar to number one but with the stress landing on the 'om'.

Two million Cambodians live here amongst the traditional Khmer and French influenced architecture. It's a bustling, low-rise city with wide, tree lined boulevards, and many parks. It has a tropical, colonial atmosphere ("the last of the great Conradian river ports") with sharp contrasts between rich and poor, past and present. Plastic-chaired food stalls fill the spaces between chic cafes and restaurants. Beggars try and catch the eye of wealthy businessmen. Temples and palaces are packed with regular worshippers while a young and small glitterati dedicate themselves to the 'lower pursuits' of bars and clubs.

We arrived at our chosen hotel which was situated on the banks of the Boeng Kak lake in the middle of the city. The Lakeside area has been labelled Cambodia's Khao San road by many travellers. It's a misleading description. Lakeside is a small, relatively quiet alley and though a backpacker ghetto of pancake serving restaurants and tye dye clothe shops we saw more Cambodians walking the street than fishermen pant wearing travellers. The two cannot be compared.

Our hotel (The Lakeside) was tatty and the rooms sweltering but the atmosphere was friendly and the owners helpful, perhaps too helpful. All of the hotels along this strip have terraces overlooking the lake so we dumped our bags and had a drink while one of the workers tried to plan the following days for us. "So tomorrow, up early, museum in the morning, go-karting in the afternoon. Next day, shooting range in the morning..." I half expected to receive a timetable; 8.11am - fun should begin. We stopped him before it got out of hand.

After a few drinks Ruth and I ventured outside for some food. A mistake after dark. Tuk tuk drivers circled like vultures, relentless and slightly threatening. They offered the usual three D's: drugs, dolly's and destinations. "You want taxi?", "Weed?", "Opium?", "Women?" One moto driver followed us up the street keeping a few feet behind us and stopping whenever we did. Only when i asked him rather forcefully if there was anything we could help him with did he desist.

My first impressions of the city were therefore unfavourable, but i soon learned my dislike ended at the border of the backpacker ghetto. Never judge a town by the tourist trap!