Ernie goes to Phnom Penh (Feb 2019)

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The Place of Four Rivers

Of all the possible places we could have taken Miles for his first ever trip abroad, Phnom Penh was probably pretty far down the list. Back in December, when Ashley was still on her maternity leave and I was on a planned month-long break in between jobs, we threw around all sorts of potential holiday destinations to take advantage of our time off together. We considered far-off places like Vienna and Sydney, as well as much closer locations like Taichung or Chiang Mai, though, in the end, we decided that we really weren’t quite ready to travel with a baby yet. Cambodia never once crossed our minds, for several reasons.

One, the only place in Cambodia we were somewhat interested in visiting was Angkor Wat, and we didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off with baby in tow. Two, Ashley had spent part of her childhood in Asia and she’d taken enough holidays in Southeast Asia growing up that it didn’t really hold much appeal to her anymore. Three, when we thought of baby-friendly destinations, places like Okinawa or Taiwan came to mind – Cambodia wasn’t really on our radar. And four, Cambodia always seemed like a place we could visit at any time, and consequently it was never a priority for us whenever we had time to get away from home. That’s pretty much how we spent the last ten years or so in Hong Kong, individually and together, without once visiting the Khmer kingdom.

This state of affairs lasted until early January, when Ashley’s sister and her family announced that they’d be spending their Chinese New Year holidays in Phnom Penh, and invited the rest of the family to join them. We made a fairly quick decision to tag along, recognizing that traveling with family would likely make a huge difference for us and Miles, and Ashley’s parents soon confirmed their participation as well. The fact that we’d have Ashley’s family around to help out was really the deciding factor, rather than the destination itself, and we knew that we likely would not be able to see much of Phnom Penh during our four days there.

Still, I knew almost nothing about the Cambodian capital, and I wanted to at least come away with a slightly better understanding of the city by the four rivers. I’ve been to a number of Southeast Asian cities over the last few years, from the more developed metropolises like Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, to rapidly growing cities like HanoiHo Chi Minh City, and Yangon, so my frame of reference for Phnom Penh was somewhere in that range. I was aware of the usual monuments and temples, the palace complexes and the royal museums, and, time-willing, I’d be able to see them all. But I also had a desire to see the lived-in city, the patchwork of urban spaces where people have built up generational layers of meaning and emotion. If that sounds like too much to cover in just four short days, you’d be absolutely right, but, with a holiday like this, you make do with what you get. So, In between time spent with Miles and Ashley’s family, I hoped to be able to see the city on my own terms, if only a small part of it.

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The Central Market

We stayed at the newly opened Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Phnom Penh, conveniently located just a few minutes walk from both the Royal Palace and the Psah Thom Thmey, otherwise known as the Central Market. The iconic X-shaped structure was completed in 1937, during the last decades of French Indochina, and its art deco architectural stylings lends it a sort of retro-future look – especially when compared against the nondescript, cheaply-built, 1990s-ish cityscape surrounding the market. When I found myself with a 45-minute window in between Miles’ naps one morning, I immediately set out for the Central Market with my camera, not even bothering to take off the baby carrier strapped across my torso. As I walked north along Preah Trasak Paem Street, under brilliantly blue skies, the stepped dome of the market loomed like an alien spacecraft or a galactic spaceport above the busy streets below. This was, without a doubt, the most eye-catching market building I’d ever seen.

One of the things that Ashley and I have in common is we’re not very shopping-oriented people. This has greatly impacted the efficiency of our travels, not needing to account for time spent browsing souvenirs or making other knick knack purchases. We do sometimes make an effort to check out local marketplaces, such as the goat market in Nizwa, the Muttrah Souq in Muscat, and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but we’re not as much interested in the products being sold there as we are in the people doing the buying and selling. The Central Market was no different.

Around the outside of the market, a covered ring of makeshift stalls and booths sold all sorts of clothing apparel and souvenirs, geared towards locals and tourists alike. Young children sat on stools playing games on mobile phones while mothers sorted through piles of scarves and linens. Shopkeepers mingled with the throngs of buyers, running back and forth while haggling over prices, while bored shopgirls slumped over stacks of denim pants and leather purses. In another section of the market, styrofoam boxes stacked high with tropical fruits filled the air with sweet scents, while morning commuters hovered over metal countertops, slurping down bowls of hot noodles. Forty-five minutes was not even close to enough time to take in everything at the market, taking into account the twenty minutes it took just to get there and back, but traveling with a baby comes with its own schedule, I’ve learned, and it’s definitely not mine.

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City Walks and Street Shots

On our second morning in Phnom Penh, I met up with Leakhena, an old classmate from journalism school. Back in 2016, I made the decision to go back to school and get a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong after hitting some dead ends with my previous career. That decision was one of the best I’ve ever made, and the fact that I’m now a journalist for a major global financial publication is still a bit of a “pinch me” moment. But aside from being able to learn from the veteran journalists on the faculty, one of the major takeaways from the programme was its international student body – in addition to classmates from Hong Kong, I studied alongside aspiring journalists from ChinaJapan, the PhilippinesIndiaRussiaItalythe NetherlandsPortugalFranceZimbabweSouth AfricaPeruCanada, and, most relevant to this particular post, Cambodia.

After we confirmed our Phnom Penh flights and accommodations, I reached out to Leakhena, a native of the city and an experienced journalist even before getting her master’s degree. She spent years reporting on current events around the capital, which, if you want a different perspective from the sanitised tours and itineraries that are a dime a dozen in places like this, you really can’t go wrong asking a journalist to show you their side of things. I knew hardly anything about Phnom Penh, other than its place in the context of Cambodia’s recent tumultuous past, and having her insight really added some interesting depth to my limited understanding of the city.

There were the usual hot spots – the Independence Monument, the Royal Palace, and the National Museum of Cambodia – but she also pointed out the mansions and villas belonging to high ranking politicians and industry tycoons, and which ones were generous enough to give out red packets outside their homes on Chinese New Year. We talked about the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument in Wat Botum Park and how Cambodians of her generation really feel about it, and the mixed feelings felt by those in Phnom Penh towards the abandoned colonial buildings and land plots bought by foreign (often Chinese) developers. We lamented the current government’s indifference towards New Khmer Architecture, the distinctive mixture of Khmer design with international elements created in the 1960s to herald the coming of a newly independent Cambodia, as well as the newly built glass and cement skyscrapers that are an eyesore to local residents who will never have reason to see the inside of one. And we stepped into her childhood memories of the palace, the public shrines along the riverfront, and the old Chinatown neighbourhoods where the dominant Teochew Chinese clans settled in the 1920s and 1930s.

I could have spent the rest of the day walking around the city in this fashion, mapping out the city on foot with equal parts national and personal memory. It almost didn’t matter what I saw, only that I saw it through the eyes of someone for whom the streets and buildings were more than just a postcard and an Instagram post. It was getting close to noon by the time we wrapped up in Chinatown, however, and Ashley had been back at the hotel hanging out with her family and looking after Miles all morning. It was about time for me to get back and lend a helping hand.

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Miles’ First Holiday

There are large parts of this trip that didn’t make it into the photo album: the hours in the dark hotel room huddled together on the couch watching Netflix while Miles napped; the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners spent passing him around the table while we ate; the plane rides holding him in our arms and laps; and the endless loops around airport lounges with him in the baby carrier, hoping to lull the little one to sleep. All this was expected, and, in truth, things went a lot better than we had hoped for. All our worries before the trip about how the travel and new surroundings might disrupt Miles’ pattern and schedule were largely overblown – in fact, he started consistently sleeping through the night for the first time in his life while in Cambodia. Miles is at an age where I think he’s able to take most things in stride, and he was his usual happy, inquisitive, and playful self throughout the holiday. It might be too much to hope for to think that this is how he’s going to be for future travels, but it did feel like we passed some sort of test – at least for the moment.

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Final Thoughts

I can’t pretend to have done anything more than scratch at the surface of Phnom Penh, or maybe I’ve only scratched at the surface of the surface. There’s so much more that I would have done, had we the time and the luxury – eating tours, architecture tours, sunset cruises, day trips into the surrounding countryside, etc. But I’m not regretting anything, either. I was able to see true glimpses of the city beneath the city through the eyes of a local, while spending quality time with family as well, and that’s perhaps more than what I had expected to accomplish prior to this trip. The length of the holiday was just right as well, and we were eager to bring Miles back to the familiar sights and sounds of our neighbourhood in Hong Kong by the fourth day. There was a slight delay at the airport on our return leg and we ended up putting Miles to bed that night way past his bedtime, but our resilient baby was right back at it the next day, cooing and spitting and laughing, none the worse for wear.

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