In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to be exact. Consumed by war and genocide from the 60s–90s, Cambodia’s dark past overshadows most of the global narratives of the city, but I knew there had to be more. Dubbed “underrated”, “charming” and past “Pearl of Asia”, I decided there was no perfect time than now to see the city for myself, by myself—on Valentine’s, no less.
The spires of the Independence Monument and the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk in the distance. Photo: Pj Go
The language predominantly spoken in Phnom Penh is Khmer.
The city widely uses US dollars, with some businesses accepting the national currency, Cambodian riel.
DAY 1: 14 FEBRUARY 2020
1 pm, Singapore time
It’s Valentine’s! I’m sitting in a plane watching waves of pillowy clouds roll by the window beside me. It’s been a month since news of the coronavirus broke, and I suspect people are taking precautions and travelling less. The plane is half empty, and I get a whole row to myself.
2.50 pm, Phnom Penh time
I arrive after a bout of aeroisinusitis on the plane—an almost unbearably searing pain felt on one side of my face while tears flowed silently from my left eye only. After googling this totally new sensation* and knowing that I was going to be OK, I went back to my biz. At the Phnom Penh International airport, the first thing I do is get a SIM card (US$5 for a week of unlimited data!) and a 1-litre bottle of water.
Phnom Penh is swelteringly hot, but the wind is light and crisp, and only when I’m stationary do I feel like a cake in an oven. I book a motorised tuk-tuk on my Grab app, and it arrives within seconds. A half an hour ride to my AirBnb is only SG$5!
In my tuk-tuk, we stop at an intersection, and the light waft of gasoline drifts by. When we speed off again, the smell disappears and is replaced by fleeting whiffs of fried dough and freshly-cut grass. The traffic kinda reminds me of Hanoi. It’s a sea of vehicles with no clear current, but the drivers all have some sort of visceral navigator that allows them to manoeuvre expertly and gracefully by exchanging a mix of hand and horn signals, like a secret language comprehensible only to the drivers. I’m fascinated by this system and admire how my tuk-tuk almost grazes other vehicles as we zip past each other.
My driver weaves in and out of streets, and we pass by manicurists and hairstylists working in open-air salons, mechanics repairing scooters in workshops, street peddlers carting all sorts of goods—wooden furniture, sugarcane drinks, grilled chicken—and the hum of a busy city fills my senses.
I arrive at my Airbnb, and it’s huge and airy with lots of exposed wood and concrete finishes. I explore the units—a small but comfortable bathroom; a large communal space furnished with a mattress (on the floor no less), TV and sofa; a balcony overlooking the street; an outdoor lounge area where my first thought is—that’s a good place for wine and smokes!—and an adjoining outdoor kitchen complete with utensils and an electrical stove. The kitchen looks especially fantastic, but I knew I’d never use it (there’s too little time!)
After unpacking, I head out with a smaller bag filled with a few essentials—wallet, phone, and a bottle of water. This is probably one of my favourite moments when travelling alone. That first, fresh-faced exit from your accommodation where you’re not weighed down by luggage, ready to properly take in the next few hours of your new destination. The world seems momentarily more exciting, more optimistic, more filled with wonder that’s yet to be discovered. And (spoiler!) the next few hours will confirm this.
The streets my Airbnb sits on are just as busy, but noticeably less commercial and more residential. Telephone lines hang over low-rise concrete shophouses, laundry flap from balconies in the wind, and small family businesses spill out onto the roads. Motorists whizz past with a deft elegance, avoiding each other and the people walking on the narrow side pavements. I stride ahead, looking for a money changer.
I find one down the street with the help of Google Maps, but the lady at the counter looks at my Singapore currency and says she doesn’t take it. I ask her if she knows where I can change my money, and she shakes her head.
A driver stops by the money changer to drop off some packages and overhears my conversation. He sees me holding my Singapore notes pitifully and asks, “What money you want?” in a thick, Khmer accent. “Uh, riel,” I reply. He raises a finger, motioning me to wait, and takes out his phone and wallet. He puts his phone on the money changer counter where I can see and googles the exchange rate for Singapore dollars to Cambodian riel. I hand him my Singapore notes and receive the unequivocal amount in riel. You should note that I was not charged a transaction fee for this—just a zero-exchange-rate trade of one currency for another.
“Thank you!” I say gratefully, and he sort of grunts, nods, gets back on his motorcycle and speeds away. The money changer watches all this transpire casually as she tends to a baby that has somehow materialised in her arms during the transaction.
I find a coffee shop and smile at the lady wiping tables. “Open?” I say. She smiles and says, “Yes, yes, come in”. “Menu?” I ask. She doesn’t understand, so I try to mime a book opening. “Menu?” I repeat, hopefully. Comprehension crosses her face, and she points to the walls, where there are A4-sized pictures of dishes with their names and prices below in Khmer. “Oh, ok!” I smile, looking at the makeshift menu. I understand none of it. So I point to a picture of a bowl of noodles that looks tasty. She nods. “Drink?” She asks, and I point to a picture of a papaya at what looks like a small juice bar parallel to me. She nods again and bustles away.
While I wait for my order, I try to find the location tag of the eatery I’m at so I’d be able to Instastory it, but nothing seems to appear. I’ll find that that would be the case for most of my trip moving forward.
Ten minutes later, a steaming dish arrives. I examine the ingredients—boiled intestines, generous slices of beef, fried spring rolls, and crushed peanuts sprinkled over a heap of white vermicelli noodles. Underneath, pickled, thinly-sliced cucumbers and carrots mix with a warm, potent and sweet, meat broth. The result is a delicious meal, which I slurp happily till the very last drop.
I’m back at my Airbnb, freshly showered and heading out again, this time for a bar crawl. My guide—a young, slight and easy-going Cambodian—picks me up 45 minutes after the appointed time in a tuk-tuk, and he apologises. “It’s Valentine’s Day, so traffic is crazy,” he points out. “Oh shit, yeah. Is it gonna be crowded later?” I ask, almost like talking to an old friend. “Oh, definitely. But don’t worry, I made reservations at all our bars,” he says.
We talk, and I learn that being a guide is a part-time gig for him, and by day, he’s a music curator who dabbles in social media marketing. I tell him I’m a copywriter and his eyes light up. “I do copywriting too!” He says.
Over the din of traffic, we talk a bit about the music industry in Cambodia. “It’s rising, but we’re not quite there yet. Like South Korea, Thailand—they have their stuff, but we’re still working on creating our own sound. Something really Cambodian. But it’s a work in progress.” my guide tells me.
We round a corner on a busy street, and it’s swimming with motorcycles, cars, and tuk-tuks. “I hate Valentine’s Day,” my guide muses out loud, eyes gazing over the mass of vehicles. “It’s such a commercialised holiday,” I commiserate, watching straw-hatted ladies and small children selling giant bouquets of roses, pink teddy bears and boxes of chocolates. “Every year it gets like this.” He says, shaking his head ruefully.
Despite the congested traffic and my guide’s disapproval, I marvel at the energy of the sprawling city centre from our tuk-tuk. The city is lit by flashing shop signs; colourful, twinkling string lights that cascade down sidewalk trees and the bright windows of skyscrapers overlooking the headlights of a thousand slowly-inching vehicles, jammed together in the tepid heat of barely-moving traffic.
The pulse on the streets, however, is perceptibly youthful and electric, with throngs of couples and groups of teenagers milling about. We pass by numerous alleyways where cafe tables overflow onto walkways, and patrons gather around, smiling, chatting, and drinking happily. French architecture is prevalent everywhere in churches, school buildings and street infrastructure—evident of the century-old French colonisation that enveloped the city in the 1860s.
I remember what an acquaintance had told me before I left Singapore: “Phnom Penh’s just ok… it’s like a dirtier version of Bangkok.” Yo, that’s bullshit, I think, as we totter past a park filled with stylish, up-cycled cargo containers selling food—a popular entrepreneurial trend that reminds me of the glittering, intoxicating nightlife of Seoul.
Forty-five minutes later, we pick up the only other two people on the bar crawl—two American friends, one in the city for work, and the other on holiday. We exchange pleasantries, and just like that, we’re off.
At the first bar, we make meek small talk over craft beers—customary of strangers thrown together into an intimate space unwittingly. We make some progress—they learn I work in advertising, and them both in healthcare, but it doesn’t take long for some friction to begin. Here’s how I remember it going down.
One of the Americans asks where I’m really from after he learns I’m Singaporean.
“What do you mean?” I say, genuinely perplexed.
“Well, your English is so good,” he replies pointedly, completely unaware of his unintentional but racist remark.
“Why wouldn’t my English be good?” I ask.
“You thought my English wouldn’t be good because I’m Singaporean?” I say. I’ve had this conversation before, and I knew what he was implying—that Asians can’t possibly speak good English.
“Well, we were colonised by the British for a century” I start, “and English is one of our main languages, so lots of Singaporeans speak good English.” It feels a little bizarre, like I’m on a skit show, reciting a rehashed script about shattering Asian stereotypes. I half expect a reality show host to leap out with a camera crew and say, “Ah ha! Gotcha in an awkward situation!”
But, the American nods. “I’m sorry. Set me straight.” He says, tight-lipped.
And after that, we get along much better. Just an hour in, me and my bar crawl mates have developed a chummy chemistry. We’d knocked back a few combinations of wine, beer and cocktails, and were all imbued with an enthusiastic affection for each other. By the end of the night, we have no shame professing high praise for each other despite our tiff earlier, and one of the Americans even buy me a Valentine’s rose from a passing vendor.
The third bar we go to is packed to the gills, so we have to share the table with another group of bar-goers, but they welcome us ceremoniously. We shake hands and exchange introductions. There were six of them, and they were all young Cambodians. The girl directly opposite me smiles warmly at me. “Sister…” she begins, waving her glass around. “You… you are gorgeous.” I beam affectionately. “Aw, thank you!” I reply, raising my glass to her, “You’re beautiful too!” I say, meaning it, and we clink glasses cheerfully.
Over cocktails with names like “Moonshine”, “Penicillin”, and “Saum Arkoun (‘thank you’ in Khmer)”, an impassioned young Cambodian at the same table tells me about his business of creating sustainable, eco-friendly water filters for companies, while side hustling as a night club ambassador. We bond over our similar work ethic, and he passes me his name card, which I accept graciously.
I start to lose track of time at this point, but—
At another bar, we order a plate of crickets fried in sweet and spicy soy sauce. They have the same crunchiness as prawn heads but retained no discernible flavour. If they did, it was overpowered by soy sauce. “I think I might have just eaten a cockroach,” my guide says in the middle of our snacking. We stop eating the plate of crickets after that.
I also take pictures of almost everything, including multiple, unabashed selfies of myself. I notice my new companions watching with amusement, and I point out, “I’m a millennial—if it doesn’t go on Instagram, did it happen?” (I repeat this joke to too many strangers, but it almost always has the same effect, i.e. cue genial chuckling) One of the Americans quip: “What’s Instagram?” (He’s over 40.) I feign incredulity and say: “I need to give you a class on that.”
Before our last destination to the city’s biggest nightclub, our guide asks if we want pizza, and I immediately say, “yes!” My new companions laugh at my enthusiasm, and we settle down beside the roadside outside a 24-hour convenience store where foldable chairs and tables have popped up—no doubt a night-time operation only. Behind us, a stall—part motorcycle and part giant portable oven—cooks pizza. We order two pizzas (the flavours escape my memory), but when they arrive, the pies are hot, spicy, and overflowing with cheese—a welcome respite to all the alcohol we’d been guzzling.
We’re at our final destination now—the raved-about Pontoon night club. At one point of time, above the thundering thrum of dance music, someone orders a round of tequila shots, and we all yell “Happy Valentine’s Day!” while clinking glasses with each other. And at that moment, I feel a warm happiness bubble in my chest. Curiously enough, I pegged this feeling—of basking in the temporary camaraderie of strangers, knowing that I would never see them again—as one of the best feelings in the world. I’d felt it before on other bar crawls, dates, fitness classes. And, I think, this might be one of the most enjoyable Valentine’s I’ve had in ages.
The night ends several hours later with me tottering home by myself in a tuk-tuk at 6 am in the morning while I watch the sun rise from the city centre.
When I booked this trip, I may have had the rash, angst-tinged, almost businesslike intention to escape the stress of work, but it was, I realise now, a gift of reacquainting myself with the lust for living that so commonly escapes us in the grind of our everyday. And that, for me, was one of the greatest acts of self-love, surpassing any Valentine’s present I’d received from anyone else.
*Aeroisinusitis is basically what happens when air pressure builds up in your noggin causing a painful internal inflammation or sometimes, bleeding. I'd never experienced it before so when I first got it, I thought I was having a stroke. But a quick google revealed that I was going to be fine.
Valentine’s Day ends here for me, but I spend three more eventful days in Phnom Penh. From learning about the country’s dark past to coming back to a fire-ravaged Airbnb and battling a splitting hangover before I fly home—more exciting (mis)adventures ensue. That draft isn’t complete yet, but it’ll be up soon.