My first day in Phnom Penh was my birthday…and not just any birthday as I turned 40! I had been a bit hesitant about having such a big day alone in a strange city, but it was of course my own decision and in fact I have spent my last couple of birthdays by myself in Mexico and Vietnam, so I guess it’s kind of a thing now. 😉 In reality I like not having to make a big fuss about it and what better way to celebrate another year around the sun than on an adventure?
However, prepared as I was, I felt the tears coming as I sat at breakfast surrounded by Chinese tour groups and hotel staff….soon I was crying into my napkin and laughing at myself at the same time! Turning 40 is scary in a way, especially as I still feel 25! I felt quite lonely and overcome with thoughts of whether the 40 years had been well spent. But some things you can’t change and I had the choice of wallowing in it or dusting myself of and getting on with exploring this new city!
First order of business was getting a Cambodian sim-card and then I decided to just walk around and see where I ended up. The sim-card was easy to find in a local phone shop and for 10 dollars I got 10 GB. I then walked along the crowded streets of Phnom Penh, noting that although there is a lot of traffic, it is nothing like Saigon! It seemed that there were fewer scooters, more cars and of course an abundance of tuk tuks. Also for some reason I didn’t feel that the use of horns was quite as prevalent as in Vietnam. Other differences I noted were that I got a lot more attention from the locals. Nothing uncomfortable, but they seemed to notice my presence (and otherness) more and would in some cases stare at me quite freely. Also the city seemed a bit more dilapidated than Saigon and I saw several children and elderly begging on the streets.
Walking along the busy street of Preah Trasak Praem I spotted a large yellow art deco building in the distance. This turned out to be the Central Market of Phnom Penh. I entered the market to be met by an absolute abundance of stalls and wares! Everything from jewelry and watches to clothes, flowers and food could be found here and I spent a few happy hours wandering around haggling with stall keepers and sampling tasty local fruits.
Finally I was craving a cup of coffee and the chance to sit down and do some people watching, so I got in a tuk tuk and asked the driver to drive me to 136th street. I mistakenly thought it was a regular backpacker street but it turned out to be a long street of strip bars… Here I saw several scantily clad ladies and older Western men enjoying their company. At 10 am the street was already in full swing and the beer was flowing freely. I had a quick coffee at one of the bars but was disheartened by the atmosphere and quickly returned to my hotel.
For dinner I had decided to spoil myself and booked a table for one at Sik Gaek, a Korean restaurant with great reviews on TripAdvisor. I dressed up for the occasion and arrived expectantly at 7 pm looking forward to being around other people in a hopefully busy place. However to my massive amusement I was to be disappointed! The restaurant it turned out, was a very authentic place that consisted of a variety of small dining rooms that were totally closed off to each other. I was placed in one of these rooms and told to ring a bell if I needed anything, and then left to my own devices! The employees looked like they felt pretty sorry for me and one even asked if I had any friends!
At this point I was laughing so hard to myself that I had to share the absurdity with someone and promptly face-timed both my boyfriend and my mother back home. The dinner however was great and I loved the amazing Korean food!
I was ready to go back home to bed at 8.30 pm, but a friend from Copenhagen that lives in Phnom Penh insisted that we should go out for birthday drinks and I wasn’t hard to persuade! We met up at Street 308 which is really charming little bar street in the “nicer” part of the city. The rest of the evening consisted of many, many drinks, another stripbar and a lot of laughs.
I did however also see the darker side of Phnom Penh materialized in children as small as babies, lying barely clothed on rugs on the street with only their 4-year-old sister as a babysitter, presumably while their mother was at work in one of the bars. The kids were dirty and hungry and although all guides tell you not to give them money it’s virtually impossible to just walk by and give them nothing! My friend Christian had a great strategy though, where he would buy the kids a meal or a soft drink instead of just giving them cash and we concluded the evening eating fried rice with the sweetest 10-year-old girl who at 1 am was walking the streets alone.
I went to bed that night thankful to be 40. Thankful to have the opportunity to travel. Thankful to be able to feed my kid and myself and thankful to be alive to experience the contrasts and beauty of this world. And honestly feeling a bit silly that I had cried about my age in the first place!