Phnom Penh, 5:30 am. The sun has not yet risen, but everyone in the temple is already awake. I’m having a noodle soup at the only table of a food stall in one of the small streets. A man is cleaning the stairs that lead to the ‘vihear’, the richly decorated prayer room guarded by golden lions. Freshly washed monks are draping their saffron colored robes carefully around their bodies. In the early morning light this trivial but timeless ritual almost becomes mythical.
From time to time I have my breakfast at Wat Saravan, a Buddhist temple in the heart of Phnom Penh. You have a magical experience inside a ‘wat’, while Cambodia’s capital is awakening. Outside the walls of the monastery, this pretty-twisted town is already up and running; the streets convert into a wild river of scooters that slalom between the slower cars, honking themselves to work. But in the temple, a village within the city, the atmosphere is serene. And the lightshow is dazzling.
When the sun rises, the golden roofs of the vihear start shining as a disco ball. The conical ‘prangs’ with relics of Buddha flicker in the reflecting light while you hear hypnotizing chanting in the little streets. This scenery is intimate and spectacular at the same time. Here in Wat Saravan I discovered the real Cambodia. Dispite the dizzying progress Phnom Penh is making, the Cambodians remain these rural, traditional and spiritual people.
That’s why Wat Saravan has become my secret hideout in the enchanting city where I’ve been living for one year and a half now. I’m now a ‘barang’, as foreigners are called here. I moved from Brussels to Phnom Penh; on the world ranking list of ‘mutilated cities’ this is a jump from the mid-level to the top. In its heyday, during the sixties, it was called the Pearl of Southeast Asia. But that was before wars, revolutions and coups happened.
A fast changing city
Phnom Penh is a miracle. The way in which this city has risen from the ashes is amazing. The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn Cambodia into an agrarian Utopia. They killed everyone who finished primary school and turned the country into a big gulag. Two million people (one quarter of the population) didn’t survive. Phnom Penh was evacuated, everyone had to become a farmer. This has been an uninhabited ghost town for four years .
Now the country revives and the capital is more sparkling than ever. Thousands of food stalls are crowded with customers every night. In the trendy bars, a new middle class is sipping colorful cocktails. On the centrally located Norodom Boulevard fashionable youngsters are zigzagging through traffic on motorbikes, to avoid the SUVs. They drive past crumbling houses that are being renovated or that will replaced by modern steel and glass. The skyline is changing rapidly.
Not everyone is happy with this impatient catch-up. Some like Phnom Penh to stay just as it is: a big town on a human scale, but not a metropolis. I love walking along its big green avenues. Children play on the streets while the barbecue is working overtime. “Soe-er-s’dey, bong! Njam houwie?” “Hi! Did you eat yet?” My neighbors regularly invite me to a party. I’m spending less money here, but this life style is my big luxury.
A fairylike palace
Phnom Penh does not try to seduce you or to be pretty, but at some places the city is simply magnificent. That’s why I like to go the fairylike Royal Palace. Behind the ochre-colored walls provided with merlons, you’ll find pavilions and tempels with gold-plated roofs. The most impressive one is a pagoda with a floor made of 5.281 silver tiles. For Cambodians the main attraction is Phnom Mondop, where Buddha supposedly left a footprint.
Although it feels the palace has been there for ages, in reality it’s not older than about a hundred years. In 1866 the French installed the capital of their new colony in a fishing town of about 10.000 souls. They could not have imagined that 150 years later there would be 2 million.
The French influence is still noticeable. Streets are sometimes still called ‘rue’. And you will find the police at ‘la poste de la police’. Khmer is filled with French loanwords like pan for bread. The names of countries are pronounced in a French way. For Cambodians I am a barang (which literally means Français) from Belzik.
The perfect summary of Phnom Penh
Starting from the palace, you can walk down eclectic street 13. You won’t be bored for one a single moment. Visitors who have very little time will get the perfect summary of the city here.
Between the bright green palmtrees, you can see the dark red National Museum with the world’s most important collection of old Cambodian art. If the visit makes you hungry or thirsty, you can easily find your way to one of the trendy bars and restaurants in this neigborhood. The most striking one is a derelict villa with bullet holes and traces of mortar fire in the walls, a popular filmset.
The street continues along the old temple village of Wat Ounalom, the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism. A little further ahead you’ll find three markets and dozens of little restaurants, the best places to blend in with the locals. Prepare to be surprised by Khmer specialities such as duck eggs with fetuses, pig brain, grilled tarantula’s, barbecued frogs and snakes. All very fresh.
Street 13 ends a the post office, a perfect example of the French architecture. The whole place reflects a colonial atmosphere. Behind La Poste is the stunning Wat Phnom, ‘the temple on the hill’. A legend says that it was built by a miss Penh. The city is named after ‘the hill of miss Penh’. The ’13’ is a route through the rich history and the vibrant life of this city. That’s why I like living in this street.
There are more interesting streets, but you have to be able to find them. The streets have numbers, but the numbering is not consecutive. Streets 172 and 178 are next to one another, Street 174 is elsewhere. Street 154 and 156 are 3 kilometers away from each other. The city map looks a lot like a lottery draw. It’s also an acceptable excuse when I arrive late at meetings.
“Hello sir! Tuktuk?” This sentence belongs to the soundtrack of the city. At almost every street corner a tuktuk (or moto-remorque) is waiting for you. It’s a motorbike with a trailer which fits 4 Westerners; or 8 Cambodians. Sometimes they squash a classroom in a tuktuk for a field trip. They can always add someone extra!
The tuktuk is the best way to explore the city and a recognizable icon for Phnom Penh. But for unschooled migrants from the country side it is a way to lift them out of poverty. My friend Sokha was one of them. “I worked in the rice fields, but had no future in my village. So I came to Phnom Penh.”
He did everyting to survive here. “Driving tuktuks, producing mortar for masonry, selling charcoal, guiding tourists,… I did it all. And at night time I worked in bars.” 20 years of hard work has proven its worth. Now Sokha is the manager of the LGBT bar Blue Chilli, an institute in the night life of Phnom Penh.
When the sun goes down, this city is a heaven on earth if you love lip syncing diva’s with fake boobs. The best shows are in streets 174 and 178, if your tuktuk driver can find them. Or take an elevator to one of the many rooftop bars for an overpriced cocktail, enjoying a priceless view over the city and the Mekong.
I also love the unpolished night life on the slightly hallucinating island of Koh Pich, or Diamond Island. Hundreds of Cambodians come to the banks of the Mekong to enjoy good food, lots of beer and loud music. Come here to breathe in the atmosphere of a fairground and become and attraction yourself, since you’ll be the only foreigner.
Riverside is only two steps away, but offers something completely different. The bright neons attract few Cambodians but a lot of hungry and thirsty tourists. Here tourism is flourishing. And it was about time. Phnom Penh has been considered a pitstop between Thailand and Vietnam for too long. Or a pee break after having visited the tempels of Angkor.
This exciting and very safe city has a lot to offer. But its people are the biggest richness. They’re friendly, generous and abundant. I finish my noodle soup in Wat Saravan while I see saffron robes waving in the wind. Now I understand why Cambodians call their country ‘The Kingdom of Wonder’.