Welcome to Phnom Penh

Let me set the scene. I’m sitting on an enormous four poster bed, with crisp white linen and delicate draped netting fluttering gently in the breeze. From the wraparound balcony to my right I can see lush greenery, a fan of palm leaves and the gentle twinkling of fairy lights in the trees. Through the window in front of me, I can see the ornate Independence Monument, lit up beautifully against the fast-darkening sky.

It sounds fairly idyllic, and is pretty lovely to be honest. Though the breeze is actually from the air con, which I have on its highest possible setting and which still only brings the room temperature down to 28 degrees C. I’m in Cambodia, Phnom Penh to be precise, and it is hot. I’m talking around 36-40 degrees C. But despite the air feeling like you’ve just got into a steaming hot bath every time you go outside, Phnom Penh is beautiful and I’m loving exploring bits of this city.

It’s one of those places that is packed full of contrast; women weave their way through the traffic in the heat of midday, selling jasmine to those coolly passing by in their air-conditioned cars, men work barefoot on the construction of enormous new houses, groups of retirees gather for aerobics in the park whilst children scamper around in the dust nearby. In some ways it reminds me of the dusty and chaotic streets of Uganda, or the boldness and colour of Nepal – and then you notice the up-scale coffee houses and bakeries which could be straight from Paris or Buenos Aires. It is a beautiful, vibrant place.

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We’re staying in a small boutique hotel called The Willow. It’s tucked away just off the main street that passes from the Independence Monument to the Riverfront, so is well located and yet fairly peaceful. The surrounding area is packed with restaurants and cafes, and there’s a beautiful park across the road where people gather to hang out, chat or exercise when the sun goes down. The Willow has character in abundance; the décor mixes dark wood with local Cambodian art work and bright printed fabrics. My room is on the second floor, reached by two spiral staircases which take a bit of effort to climb in the heat. It’s worth it for the lovely view, though, and for the huge room which is flooded with sunshine all day long.

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Our days have been busy with work, but our local hosts have helped us to also see and experience some of the real Cambodia. We’ve eaten some phenomenal food (so good, in fact, it deserves it’s own blog post!) and learnt a lot about Cambodian history and culture. 2015 marks 40 years since the start of the Genocide, and it is work related to this anniversary that has brought me to Phnom Penh, so it has been both fascinating and heartbreaking to learn about the atrocities that were committed four decades ago. We’ve visited both the Genocide museum at Tuol Sleng (the infamous former Security Prison 21) and the Killing Fields, and they’ve been some of the best and simultaneously the worst places I have ever been. They’re left largely untouched since the years of the Genocide, giving harrowing insights into what happened there, but they’re unmissable if you want to understand some of the complex history of this country and its people.

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On Saturday night we went to a special commemorative arts performance, held in Koh Pich theatre – the largest in Phnom Penh. It was an amazing performance of traditional Apsara dancing and Khmer opera, with over 120 performers dressed in some of the most intricate and stunning costumes I’ve ever seen. It was truly beautiful.

We’ve now moved onto Siem Reap, home to the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, so I’m looking forward to sharing some highlights from here soon.

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