Smile on Phnom Penh

We left off with a pretty epic time in DaLat as our finale in Vietnam which left us at the doorstep of our next land, Cambodia. We had a pretty swift trip that left from Saigon to the border where we added a new visa to the passport and entered en route to our first stop, Phnom Penh.
Now, I’m gonna be frank, up until about a year ago I really thought Cambodia was in Africa. I did! It sounded African to me. Anyway, I digress. My point is that I really had no clue what to find in Cambodia so this was going to be exciting since in a way it was kinda like a newly discovered asian country in my mind 😉
After about an hours cruise past the border and a 5 minute ferry ride we arrived to the ever familiar tuk-tuk hounds but snuck away and walked to our lonely planet choice for the night, the Paragon.
I’ll skip the pleasantries and just get right to it. Our stay at the Paragon was cut short after a friendly cockroach took a stroll across Nicole as she lay on the bed in the room sending her whaling and screaming into the hallway wrapped in a towel yelling for me as I photographed from the balcony down the hall. Not gonna lie, I tried to get a picture but after she gave me the finger I deleted it, packed our stuff and asked for a new room at the reception.  The front desk kinda missed the point and asked us to pay an upcharge that they apparently  felt was appropriate given our unbelievable displeasure in large bug guest and so we kindly said “peace” and walked down the road to the Riverside Hotel that kindly set us up with a humans only room.
Now, the way fate would have it, the next morning after breakfast we were setup with a tuk-tuk driver named Sophet to haul us about the city….i’ll explain the fate part later I promise. The first stop was the US embassy to add pages to Nicole’s fantastically overstamped passport but were not able to do so at that time so our friendly  driver began our tour throughout the city streets to start the day.


The city streets of Phnom Penh weren’t quite as hectic as we experienced in some Vietnamese cities but there was sure no shortage of things to look at. While I had vigorously avoided the tuk-tuk onslaught to this point, I found that being in one offered us a very unique perspective on the city as we bobbed and weaved thought the streets and ducked into narrow alley ways. Our eyes were in a constant fast twitch mode trying to keep up with the people, motorbikes, storefronts, naked babies and architecture that whirled around us as we went about.
We made a loop around the independence monument and then over to the National Museum that like most national museums, housed some very impressive artwork and artifacts that nicely displayed the richness of the nations culture and religious beginnings.

While in the courtyard we met a group of orphans that had traveled 2 hours to the museum on a once a year excursion they take from the orphanage. Well, Nicole fell in love with them immediately and to brighten their day, she bought enough fish food for the lot of them for like a dollar. Initially I think they thought she was a prostitute with her western-baring shoulders but soon enough they got the idea and began to take some food and feed the fish.

Many of them were shoeless and obviously not used to many luxuries but for the moments they were feeding the fish they seemed as happy as any kids you would find anywhere else. It was great to see them smile and I swear if Nicole could have taken this guy on the road with us, she would have….and I might have let her 😉

Once out of the museum we headed to a less uplifting sight but one that is a very real and unforgettable time in this countries past that we both felt we needed to see to better understand. The Security Prison 21, better knows as S-21 was a high school that was taken over and converted into a prison that was used as a center for detention and torture by Pol Pots security forces between 1975-1978. This was not a good place. The outer walls of the buildings, chipped, dark and cold, echoed the hopelessness and utter horror that had taken place for those 3 years.
The buildings had remained as they were during the events which were very evident as the rusted beds with chains still sat in many of them. Other floors were a series of crude narrow brick cells with nothing inside but the chains that were fastened to the prisoners. The outside was barbed wire to keep anyone from thinking of committing suicide to escape.
Images of the 17,000 citizens that were detained and later killed adorned the rooms of the other buildings. Khmer Rouge leaders photographed each prisoner before and after torture as a form of record keeping.
After seeing S-21 we had seen enough misery and decided to stay away from the “killing fields” which was basically the extermination camp about 15km where the prisoners were killed.


To pick us back up we cruised past the royal palace (Nicoles shoulders kept us out of there) which was very impressive looking from what we could see. Then we took a cruise over the bridge to the new Diamond River City that is a newer project in Phnom Penh that began about a year ago and hopes to become an entertainment and new residential area in the city which will includes the cities only casino. The project is supposed to be completed in roughly 3 years and should offer a large amount of employment opportunity to local and add a much needed boost the local economy.

Then we headed for a bite to eat at a very cool place called “Friends”. The restaurant offers former street kids a way to get started in the hospitality industry and even houses them next door in a dormitory.  The workers learn from cooking instructors how to prepare food and work as part of a waitstaff to help give them a focus and direction towards a better life. The food was excellent and since our tuk-tuk driver had been so cool, we invited him along and paid for his lunch as a token of our appreciation for the education we were having as his tour guests.

After lunch we traveled to a more local scene along the riverbanks to catch a glimpse of what the areas outside any tourist influence were like and then to the side of town near the railroad tracks where our driver lived.  This was a side of the city that knocked us back into the realization that Cambodia is very much a poor country with a very large amount of poverty. The homes in many cases were very basic shacks and the people we saw in many cases looked in poor health and malnourished. It was very difficult for Nicole and I to walk through these areas and not think of how unfair it seemed that there could be such a stark difference in the way people live. Even in the city of Phnom Penh, the gap in class seems to be wealthy or very poor.

What was inspiring however was the reception we received in this city. If we could, Nicole and I wanted to be able to give something to everyone we saw but all we could offer was a kind hello and smile which was given right back every time. I swear I don’t think I have ever smiled at so many people and seen so many sincere smiles back at me. It was great to the point that it almost masked the fact that I was walking though a town that literally couldn’t afford anything but seemed happier and more content than half the world I know back home.

Our driver graciously offered us refuge at his home from the intense rains that moved in for a bit. Sophet’s place was nothing more than what we might consider a cement “cell” with some personal affects, a small tv, fan and rolled up pad to sleep on at night. He however was honored to have us there and proudly spoke to us about his past working experiences as a teacher and how he missed the opportunity to teach children but due to  government mishandlings of the educational system he was forced out of his job and into the tuk-tuk business. His rent is $14 a month and he explained that he has difficulty paying even that. He spoke about how difficult it was for the poor to find a way out of their current circumstances and so Nicole and I offered our assistance as best we could. We began to talk with Sophet about working on Cruise ship. Nicole explained to him that with his English speaking skills, work ethic and personality, he would be an excellent candidate. The light on this man’s face was priceless when we started to think of how this could help change his life. We told him to create an email and we would do the research and get someone in touch with him as soon as we could to start the process. For us, it felt as much an opportunity as it did for him. The idea that we could see someone who works so hard out of his current struggle and into a better life for him and his wife would be as a big a reward as I could imagine.

So, anyway, after we decided that the rain was not going to quit. Sophet lowered the plastic flaps on the tuk tuk and away we went as night fell back to the hotel. The rain as I said was not quitting and to be quite honest, it was f#$*king pouring! I’m talking flash flood kinda wetness that only seemed to get worse and as each road back to the hotel turned into a veritable canal, we kinda thought that the only way home would be a swim. Sophet however and the mighty tuk-tuk (seriously, the engine was underwater….i dunno how it kept going) powered through the waves and we eventually found a path back home.

It was a great day. And while it was our only full day in Phnom Penh until heading to Siem Reap, it was a memorable one made special with each beaming grin exchanged. Oh, right, that fate thing. So, it was really the cockroaches fault that the day happened at all. If he had walked under the bed, we never would have met Sophet and maybe not had the experience we did. So, the moral, next time you see a cockroach, lay down in front of it and let it walk over your chest. 😉
Thanks for reading, and smile more, its good for your soul. -adam
PS. Pictures to come later (the internet is just too slow to upload them)

One comment

  1. […] Hanging confidently out of the back of a tuk-tuk, camera firmly pressed to my face, we blazed through a bumpy Mekong River village in Phnom Penh. I don’t normally feel this comfortable photographing people but something about these folks told me that they wouldn’t mind. The endless stream of smiles that flooded our views as we sputtered was breathtaking and humbling all at once. Nearing the end of town we were chased down by two boys that offered us the most sincere gift they had to give, a smile. It was a photo that I was lucky to have taken, not because it was a great shot, but because of the moment shared and the memory it created. You can read the full story here […]


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