'For Adventures of a lifetime'

Monday, 25 July 2016

24 hours in Phnom Penh…Revealing its true identity

Tonight I have a little sour taste in my mouth after experiencing a few surprising things about a city I thought I was falling in love with.  It all started when I decided to take a walk along the popular riverside tourist spot of Sisowath Quay, better know at the riverside walk.

It goes without saying that the more you travel the more you gain in confidence; dealing with people, overcoming language barriers, being streetwise and avoiding the ‘danger’ areas…especially in large cities. So as I strolled along in the early part of the evening, enjoying (now that I’m use to it) the heat and late sunshine, absorbing the colours, the sights and the smells of this beautiful part of the city I found myself thinking about travelling companions who, let me say, are not the most trusting souls in the world when it comes to city people or natives of the city to be more precise.  As I watched the people sitting in family groups eating, chatting and having fun together, children playing and even a few serious games of kick volleyball going on I thought to myself, are my travelling friends missing out on potential experiences, sharing the ‘real’ adventure of travel?  All felt good, all felt calm; I even had a family sit next to me as I watched the amazing skills of the kick volleyball players who are able to back kick the ball above the net and their heads!  The family (locals) engaged with me as their baby sat next to me and reached to play with the bracelets on my wrist and then looking at me in amazement at what I believe was the colour of my skin…Laughs and giggles ensued and finally as they were leaving asked if I minded having a photo taken with their son.  They left happy and I left thinking how nice they all were and how they had given me a ‘travelling experience’ without even realising it.  Something my cynical friends may miss out on.

I continued my journey along to my intended destination, the night markets, which I had already been to the previous week but felt a little bit of retail therapy was needed…this being the perfect spot as most things are cheap, especially if you haggle, as everything has a deal.  Before reaching the markets I was approached by a well dressed gentleman (smart shirt, trousers, shoes, clean shaven) who spoke in very good English.  “Can I just ask where you got your shoes?” he said.  Now immediately I should have questioned his intentions as I was wearing my three year old Croc flip flops.  “Are they comfortable to walk in? He said with real interest in them.  I told him how I had actually bought them from the Central Market in this city three years earlier and yes they were very comfortable.  Having the earlier experience with the family had given me a false sense of security as I happily chatted with this well spoken Asian gentleman, who I now think was Pilipino. We even sat down and chatted about English football and Sunderland AFC’s new manager signing.  He then mentioned his sister who was actually awaiting a visa to go and work as a nurse/carer with old people, ironically in the North East of England (where I’m from).  The conversation flitted from one thing to another until his phone rang…I did think his telephone conversation a little strange but threw any negative thoughts out of my mind.  We started chatting again and then he asked would I be willing to chat to his sister before her departure to England and let her know the state of play in England regarding the local area and immigration etc.  I of course being ‘the confident traveller’ graciously accepted his offer, thinking all the while how enriched my life will be.  I suggested meeting at my hotel for a coffee but he says “its Asian tradition to invite the person to their house for food”.  I was once invited for tea by an ex Buddha teacher in India and the memories of that day stay strong in my ‘travel experiences’…why would this experience be any different? He then suggested meeting at the new mal in town as that was easier for him.  We parted company shaking hands, agreeing a time and with a genuine smile on our faces…

Walking around the night markets little niggling doubts entered my mind and dissipated quickly…the confident traveller in me, like a druggy, wanting his fix of ‘travelling experiences’. The walk home back to the hotel allowed a little more contemplation time and I kept thinking I don’t want my doubting travelling companions niggling lack of trust in people generally to effect the outcome of my earlier rendezvous…Did I tell the guy too much? Yes! Did I give him answers that he didn’t ask for? Yes! Would he really pick me out from a crowd and ask about a pair of three year old flip flops? No! I know it is easy to reflect on it now and see how unbelievably naive I was…The whole thing looks to have been a scam…Fortunately this tale has a happy ending as nothing happened as a little bit of research revealed a far too similar scenario for some other travellers.  (See this article and read the comments below it: )  I didn’t meet the guy!

Today, I got my sensible head on again and thought right I’ll go to Central Markets (more retail therapy) pick up a few bargains and then possibly get a haircut too.  Arriving at a good time 0900 hours, I started my exploration around the tightly interwoven stalls, selling everything from scarves to statues, earphones to nail polishing…After the hundredth “Can I help you sir?” “Would you like to buy something sir? “ I was done and needed a coffee…”Tuk Tuk Sir?” was shouted by every male as I left…hassle hassle hassle! Arrrrrrggggggh! Just leave me alone!   I just needed to be left to myself so I could absorb…it wasn’t going to happen.  Eventually I made it to the freedom of the chaotic roads and almost stumbled on a hairdressers almost immediately…$4 for a cut….Bargain I thought and sat in the chair in a little oasis of freedom but still enjoying the hustle and bustle around me and watched with intrigue a man have his ears cleaned, the girl doing the cleaning looking proud when she brought out some waxy objects from the depths of his cochlear.   While in the middle of my haircut I was asked if, ok it was indicated that, I needed my fingernails done…I thought why not…the lady then wanted to do my toenails…in for a penny I thought… The total for the lot including the haircut  (a good job too) came to $8.  Only then did I realise something else was being offered…which apparently was upstairs…and with a choice of suitable assistants from young to old.  I was caught off guard but declined respectfully and made my way back onto the busy streets.  I was desperate for a coffee and stopped around the corner at a roadside coffee shop…within seconds a woman approached making light conversation, my ‘Traveller senses’ now alive, I  realised immediately this was hooker corner…I looked around the coffee bar and five smiling faces glared back at me.  I made short work of the coffee and high-tailed it out of there and back to the freedom of my hotel. 

As the day drew to a close I found myself at the local park, a great place just to people watch and let time go by. Located just at the bottom of the road from my hotel,  group dancers were doing their thing, lads were playing football and children were running around having fun. No hassle from anyone, not even from the street vendors selling amazing little hot snacks and every style imaginable of drink.  Phnom Penh was back and my love affair was starting all over again…

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