One of the important lessons that we learned in our trip is that we shouldn’t read too many guide books. It’s alright to get some basic information about the country from them, but you really shouldn’t form your idea of the country based solely on the Lonely Planet books.
After reading some guide books you can get a pretty gloomy picture of Cambodia — for example, some of them say that it’s difficult to buy basic things there or find a pharmacy. We didn’t really expect to see complete devastation in Cambodia, but we had a vague feeling that Cambodia will look somewhat like the poorest cities in India.
But after about a week in Cambodia our impressions about the country changed (we’ve already spent more than a month here), and we will tell about it in our posts.
Our first stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh — the capital and the biggest city in the country. We came to Phnom Penh on a bus from Ho Chi Minh: it takes about 7 hours to get there, including an hour at the border (that is organized rather stupidly).
Cambodia’s population is 15 millions of people, and the difference with 90 millions in Vietnam is dramatic. After Ho Chi Minh Phnom Penh feels like a relatively quiet city with normal traffic, although there is some bustle around the markets. But overall the pace of life is much slower and calmer here.
The center of Phnom Penh looks quite beautiful: there are many hotels and restaurants, and the Tonlesap river embankment is the favorite place of locals and tourists. It looks more beautiful in the night than during the day.
A proof that there are in fact pharmacies in Phnom Penh!
There is a big gap between the rich and the poor in Phnom Penh: children are sleeping at the streets on cardboards next to Lexuses and Mercedeses. Also there’s a lot of very expensive hotels in Phnom Penh (around 500 dollars per night), although many local people live in small houses made of metal sheets. This leaves a painful impression. In other parts of Cambodia this difference between rich and poor did not seem quite as shocking.
The city landmarks look quite impressive, like the Royal palace. There is a big square in front of it.
Historical Museum in Phnom Penh is not only beautiful, but also interesting. The museum is very calm inside, and you can relax on the benches in the courtyard next to the Buddhist monks.
Cambodia is Buddhist country, and there are many monks in beautiful orange robes.
Cambodia has a sad history: in the end of the 1970s the Khmer Rouge party led by dictator Pol Pot seized the power in the country, and just a few years of repression and famine led to the deaths of about a third of the population. Before that Cambodia also had problems: the country was a colony of France from 1880 to 1953, and after gaining independence it almost immediately became involved in the Vietnam War — the eastern part of Cambodia was bombed by the Americans along with Vietnam and Laos.
The farther from the center, the less clean the city looks. This is partly due to the fact that there is a lot of dust — there are many sandy roads in Phnom Penh.
On the streets people are selling a lot of cheap food: everything starting from fruits and ending with … fried cockroaches and spiders.
There are several markets in Phnom Penh: for example, there is a night market near the waterfront with cheap clothing and food. We got there on Saturday, and there were mostly locals hanging out. People eat there sitting on mats.
In Phnom Penh, there is a Russian market and a Russian Boulevard, and it’s unclear where these names came from: people say that in the 1980s the first tourists began to come to Cambodia, mostly Russians who bought cheap jeans at the markets. But maybe it’s just a legend.
Despite the tragic history and a complex present, almost all people in Cambodia whom we have met have been very friendly and open. We didn’t really grow fond of Phnom Penh (possibly due to the fact we both caught a cold on arrival), but some other places in Cambodia have completely charmed us — we will tell about them in our future posts.