Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Visit to Phnom Penh

PHNOM PENH – Some say the capital city of Cambodia will be more congested than Manila, Bangkok and Saigon in a decade.

This prediction is easy to accept at street level.

It's difficult to believe this is the capital whose residents were forced into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot 35 years ago. The population now is back with a vengeance.

When Ken Fritz, a fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot; our colleague, Dinh Ngoc Truc, with Vietnam's International Press and Communication Company in Hanoi; and I arrived in Phnom Penh last Saturday, the major downtown streets were blocked for the annual Water Festival, which the royal government estimated would draw 3 million people to the city Saturday-Monday.

The other 9 passengers on the Vietnamese tour bus were heading off on a multi-hour shopping trip after lunch, so Ken, Truc and I had our luggage unloaded so we could strike out for our hotel 6 hours earlier than our fellow passengers.
Street scenes in Phnom Penh during the Water Festival.

We hailed a Cambodian tuk-tuk, which is a 4-passenger trailer pulled behind a motor bike. The three of us squeezed between pieces of luggage and headed toward our hotel. Our combined weight nearly flattened the tuk-tuk's left tire.

When we came to the first police-military checkpoint, our tuk-tuk was halted. Truc flashed press credentials, but we were not allowed to pass in the vehicle. We paid the driver, unloaded our suitcases, and then passed through the checkpoint. Fortunately, our luggage had wheels, because we had to pull our suitcases 2 kilometers to the hotel.

Aside from VIP, military and police vehicles, we had the main boulevard to the waterfront all to ourselves.

Ken Fritz (left) and Dinh Ngoc Truc pulling suitcases
through streets of Phnom Penh to Nagaworld.
When we arrived at Nagaworld, we thought we had arrived in Las Vegas, except the Mekong River runs behind it. The casino hotel is named after the mythical Naga, a cobra with two heads – one in each world. Stone statues, showing 12th century monks holding the Naga in place, are common sights throughout the 60-square-mile Angkor temple city complex of Cambodia.

The bellhops had a Yul Brenner look, ala Anna and the King of Siam film. After we had checked in, a beautiful and well-dressed Cambodian woman took us to our rooms and showed us in detail how to operate the air conditioning and electronics.

We cleaned up from the journey and then headed out the front door of Nagaworld, which opened onto the street lined with beer booths, ice cream stands, skin cream tents, and extremely loud music. We blended into the crowd that crossed a bridge over a canal to Diamond Island. On the island, we stopped for ice cream, then walked over to see the barges that would be lit offshore each night during the festival.

A steady stream of people passed on and off the island over the bridge.

The following day, after we left Phnom Penh to return to Saigon, some 350 people would be crushed to death on the bridge. Cambodian authorities said it was the worst death toll during any event since the Killing Fields under the Pol Pot regime.

Truc left us to meet with a Cambodian friend, so Ken and I decided to try out happy hour in the hotel lounge. The bartender did a decent job with the Tom Collinses and my Singapore sling, plus the ice in the glasses was refreshing. We then searched for an Italian restaurant we had seen advertised in the hotel.

The Royal Chancellory at the Cambodian Royal Palace
and Temple.
Instead, we found a Chinese restaurant, a French restaurant, and a wine room. It turned out the Italian restaurant had been replaced by the French one. However, pasta was available in the buffet restaurant. We did some mixing of foods, starting off with sushi, followed by Vietnamese pho, Eastern European smoked pork, pasta, a salad, and green tea cheesecake. The young Cambodian waitresses were a delight, thanking us when they removed an empty plate or brought more ice to drop in our beers.

Breakfast on Sunday morning was the same sort of mixed international fare. I ate French pastries, Vietnamese dragon fruit, apple juice, cold cuts, and what the Vietnamese refer to as milk coffee.

Before departure, I went down to the lobby to pick up a WiFi signal on my iPad. I saw that during the night, a tall Christmas tree had been set up.

We then boarded our Vietnamese tour bus and drove to the royal palace.

Then, 2 hours after we had finished breakfast at Nagaworld, the bus stopped at a Phnom Penh restaurant specializing in Vietnamese and "Western" food before making the dash back to Saigon. The food looked great, but I couldn't face another mouthful.

It was a great trip, bridging decades.

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