A bog-standard breakfast in lovely surrounds is just about bearable. I couldn’t complain too much – breakfasts are not the Secret Villa’s forte – it’s charms and appeal show in various other ways. Vero and I walked it off on one of our customary long strolls through a new city, where we took in the outside of the National Museum, experienced the hustle and bustle and crippling humidity of street-life, and finally ending up at Wat Phnom, where the Chinese were busy lighting incense sticks, and vendors were busy selling greasy-looking sparrows for people to “set free.” All the way up the steps to the temple sat the beggars, the unfortunates, the handicapped, the forgotten people of society that temples seem to attract. They all had their green, dark pink, or white plastic begging bowls out waiting for the dollars to drop into. Somebody had told them today was a good day for fishing – for it was the Chinese New Year holidays. The poor here had the same grubby, unwashed bodies, wore the same rags, had the same hungry and desperate look in their eyes as anywhere in third world Asia, where the rich / poor divide is ever-growing. Cambodia especially seems to be a really fucked up place with a corruption that runs so deep that the rich-poor divide is never under any danger of narrowing.
After strolling around the pretty temple grounds, and releasing a couple of sparrows into the air, we grabbed a taxi to the Riverside and found a restaurant with a superb happy hour. Here, we had a couple of jars of ice-cold Angkor beer, and some fantastic fish amok served steamed in a banana leaf. Yummy. We then popped around the corner to the Royal Palace – a very impressive complex consisting of some incredibly beautiful examples of Khmer architecture, most notably the Throne Hall, the Moonlight Pavilion, and the Silver Pagoda. You need a good couple of hours to stroll around the lovely grounds, and we did just that, mingling with the monks and the other tourists, taking photos, enjoying the views, not quite believing we were only 90 minutes away from Singapore.
We’d walked a lot today, and even a delicious Costa coffee couldn’t keep us going much longer, so we walked back to the hotel. Vero needed a siesta, but I needed to continue exploring, taking more photos, and so I headed back down to the Riverside alone, criss-crossing a network of worn old streets, passing dilapidated buildings, walking around a street-market, witnessing scenes that were as old as the people in them looked, as worn as facades of the buildings, as messy as the tangles of telephone wires hanging over street corners….chaotic S.E Asia at it’s least progressive and most authentic.
The sun began to set, and I sat watching the river, writing, enjoying the views of the tourist boats trundling up and down the river, the muslim fisherman praying to Allah on his little boat, the local couples on the bench watching the river, the joggers. It was a peaceful scene. The ‘white-hairs’ were already in the bars behind, and many others were on benches on the riverside with cans of Angkor, scruffy, unshaven, cruel, reddish eyes scanning for young meat.
For now is the time of the wolves. This city, this riverside, is a place that seems to attract these predators, washed up old white men living in hell and surrounded by a version of paradise that is also a version of hell….
All here seem to enjoy the waterfront (and the white-hairs the benches in front of the playgrounds in particular). There are palm trees dotted the entire length, a generously wide boulevard, benches, plenty of benches to just sit and watch the evening strollers, joggers, mismatched couples and families. People played keepy-up with wicker balls, and, further down the stretch, the Messi’s of Phnom Penh engaged in a more acrobatic game of keepy up played with a weighted shuttle-cock.
There’s something about a river that draw’s it’s cities inhabitants towards it, as though they are clamouring to escape the dust, the noise, the chaos of the city. A river makes any city beautiful, and even Phnom Penh could have once been, as so many Asian cities next to rivers call themselves, the ‘Paris of the East.’
I enjoyed my stroll down the river, watching the people, the hearts and souls of this city, enjoying themselves, exercising, selling stuff, hanging out with friends after a hard day’s work, watching the boats, looking back into the dark heart of the city as the sun set behind it and cast long dark shadows in the sunset yellow and orange streets.
That evening I booked a boat to Siem Reap. It was all I could do. All the buses were full, even the minibuses. I was assured that the boat only takes ‘5 hours.’ I knew this wouldn’t be true (it did, in fact, take 8 and a half hours and was one of the worst journeys of my life). We went to a lovely Khmer restaurant for a delicious basil chicken meal, washed down with a jug of Angkor for just $2.50. After paying $25 for a small cocktail a few days before in Singapore, this was an absolute bargain. Such prices can’t help but a bright smile on your face in this dark city. We called it a night there – not wanting to head back down to the river. We had to be up early to get the boat anyway. So, it had been a short and, in many ways, sweet trip to Angkor Wat, a trip that left a much better taste in my mouth than in my previous visits, though for me it still has that darkness about it, that edge, that feeling that something could go very wrong. Regardless, two days doesn’t really do the place justice, but we had to move on. I’d come back for sure.