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Draft chapter for book about our time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in January

‘No Drugs, No Prostitutes, No Weapons:’ Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia was hot!  I stood outside with the bags while Anthony got a SIM card, then we got a cab.  The cab driver had a big, lived in face, open and strong at the same time; as I looked around I noticed a lot of the men looked like this.

It was still early when we arrived at our guesthouse and we had to wait in the restaurant area.  The front had windows and a door open onto the street, at the back were steps up to the rooms.  Around us were lots of young Western tourists, suddenly it felt like we were on the tourist trail.  We had fruit salad, a side order of baked beans- an expensive but necessary luxury/dietary requirement- and coffee; it seemed expensive.  ‘Everything’s going to seem expensive compared to India,’ Anthony said.  We’d travelled overnight, while we waited for our room I curled up and napped in a round wicker chair with a big cushion.

Our room was medium sized with a low coffee table, a window and its own bathroom.  On the inside of the door was a sign with the rules and information for the guesthouse, top of the list was No Drugs, No Prostitutes, No Weapons.  ‘Well that’s our holiday ruined,’ we said, laughing.

We unpacked a bit and then went out.  Down our street there were lots of laundry places with banks of machines and laundry hung out on rails outside.  We passed a few Western families.  The side streets with their bird’s nest wires reminded me a little of Kolkata or the old part of Bangkok.

Cambodian women wore skirts made of wraps of printed cotton with shirts, or short skirts with t shirts, covering up their tops from the sun like in Japan and Thailand.  Men sat in social groups chatting, with cans of red bull or beer at tables outside workshops and garages.

One of the first things I noticed was that the Cambodian men don’t look.  In fact I looked more!  I couldn’t help noticing men working on engines, not wearing tops, their bodies fleshy, soft, just natural.  An old Lonely Planet I read in a cafe in India advised Western women travellers to wear dark glasses and avoid making eye contact with Indian men, this of course this is a huge generalisation; I hugged male friends we made in India.  But in Cambodia it wasn’t just that men didn’t look at me, no one looked at us at all.

Our first meal, at a Western owned restaurant, mirrored the sexy-in-the-mouth-noodles of our first meal in Bangkok the first time we’d left India.  Perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked, mushrooms, carrots, green beans and chard; the noodles not salty or greasy, the tofu was tasty, and even, for total perfection, just the right amount of Chinese sweet corn (two or three bits.)  Even the lettuce was tasty.  Sometimes in India we missed fresh crunchy vegetables, and right then we were happy to be away, from the bad tummies and the awful journey, and just relax.

From the restaurant we watched the traffic of the main road; a little street food van with lights and music blaring like a disco.  A scooter with a child in the middle of two adults holding a baby/toddler.  Scooters with women holding giant teddies.  Lots of cars, most looked new some very big and shiny.  Rickshaws with curtains, silky shiny drapes.  A white rickshaw with neon lights went past, then another rickshaw full of monks in orange robes.  A cycle rickshaw- the passenger seat at the front like a Victorian bath chair- the passenger a woman with an orange cat on her lap.

As we left the restaurant a woman passed us with a big circular tray on her head full of bottles of nail polish and hair scrunchies.  We walked on the prom between the main street and the river.  There was outdoor gym equipment and people doing exercise classes to music outside.  A rickshaw driver beside his parked rickshaw was doing exercises, hands on thighs, swirling his knees, looking cheerful.  By the river were street stalls, mini charcoal burners, sets of scales, dumplings in a big pot, people with mats, little food stalls with tables and chairs.

People with little hand carts filled with ice and cans sold drinks including alcohol, but even though alcohol was the same price as Coca Cola, the night life didn’t seem to be all about drinking, people were just out.  Playing cards, sitting at the little tables, one group standing with two on the near side and one on the other side of the wall by the river.  Lots of women had little fluffy dogs on leads. Further on along the prom was a running track with distances marked out, and big neon screens with ever changing and moving images, tulips, rain water falling.  A covered area, a night storage area of bananas, coconuts, people sleeping on camp beds, guarding the produce I suppose.  A kind of a square, with grass, paving, topiary trees, palm trees with strings of lights wound around them, and lights outlining the pointed roofs of temples and a palace.  Like an upmarket Asian version of Great Yarmouth (link to a blog post explaining why Great Yarmouth holds a special place in my heart.)

Then back across the main street and in again, through the market with beautiful fruit and lots of street food.  I saw lots of cats, most with short tails, one with no tail, one with a long tail.  I saw buildings with spiral staircases like in Tokyo.  We walked down the strip of bars with young women dressed in mini skirts and mainly older men drinking.   Not one person hassled us except one person offering us a (pink) rickshaw.  Not one selfie request.  ‘Don’t you know who I am?!’ we said laughing.

(Part Two on Sunday)

Thank you very much for reading

About the author

Sold house, left job, gave away almost everything else.  With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India.   Here are my India highlights.  Now back in the UK, living on a narrowboat, and writing a book about the trip, a spiritual/travel memoir, extracts from which appear regularly on this blog.

For more photographs of the trip see Instagram travelswithanthony