Phnom Penh – a strange city

We’re in Phnom Penh, and we can’t make head or tail of the place – there seem to be such wide contrasts.

Take our accommodation, Diamond’s Guest House, which is in the centre of the city and handy for the Royal Palace, National Museum, and the restaurants and cafes along the banks of the Mekong. It’s in a side street of 4 storey apartment blocks, but it has obviously had a previous life. Last night, our room (which we’ve now moved from) was decorated with padded purple silk fabric on all the walls and ceiling, and a huge mirror on one wall. We guess that before becoming a Guest House it was either a karaoke bar or a ‘massage parlour’.

“…or explosion bringing in to guest house”
When you see a sign, and wonder what happened to make them put it up

Like most hotels and guest houses all over the world, there are various policies stapled to the back of the door (normally “What to do in case of fire”), and this is the same – except that Rule Number One is “Weapon, ammunition or explosion bringing into the guesthouse is prohibited”. This is no different to any other guest house and hotel in Cambodia, but it is a reminder that we’re not in England any more! The guidebooks are full of dire warnings about the risk of robbery in the city. The Rough Guide cheerily says “Gun crime is actually more frequent in Phnom Penh than anywhere else in the country”, and gives advice on not carrying too much with you, and “If you are robbed, do not resist and do not run”. Although there’s always a risk (I wonder what the guide books say about Oxford Street?), it seems that Cambodia, with its reputation for lawlessness and chaos, has a special place in the Street Crime League Tables.

Colonial houses in Phnom Penh

The streets are a mix too, with wide avenues dotted around, lined with old French-influenced colonial houses. The one on the left is the headquarters of UNESCO, and has been restored, while the one on the right is lived in, but a wreck! But the side streets are just dust bowls – many of them are just dirt tracks, or pitted tarmac tracks lined by apartment blocks (in the centre) or low-level concrete houses.

During the day we didn’t do very much – Charlotte has a mild ear infection, and just wanted to stay in and around the guest house, and Emily was more than happy to watch Cartoon Network all day (every room here in Cambodia seems to have a television with 65 cable channels on it). Phnom Penh is also in the middle of a heatwave, and is going over 40-degrees in the middle of the day, so cooling off in the air-con room between short trips out was definitely a good idea.

When the power goes out on the streets of Phnom Penh

In the evening, before a power cut that reduced the streets to a black hole (we should have been staying in the guest house on the left of the street above, with its own backup generator!) we went to a small backpackers café that was showing The Killing Fields on a big screen – Charlotte has heard so much about the time of the Khmer Rouge, that she was really engaged by the film. Its not really made with children in mind, and it contains a fair amount of bad language and gruesome scenes, but over the last year, both girls have got used to being constantly around adults, and recognising that while many adults use bad language, they shouldn’t use it themselves. And the gruesome scenes? Well, tomorrow we’re going to the infamous S-21 prison camp and one of the killing fields, and we’ve already talked about some of the recent history of Cambodia, so it’s another piece of the jigsaw.