Phnom Penh: A Cambodian Christmas

Just up from our hotel; the local slums

Phnom Penh was one of my favourite stops on our SE Asia trip. Considering I spent a large part of one day there (Christmas Day to be precise) in close proximity to our hotel bathroom, that is quite a compliment.

It’s not a pretty city, with only a few buildings of note. The Royal Palace houses many impressive buildings and temples. It’s not particularly old, with construction only starting in the late 19th century, but then Phnom Penh only became the Cambodian capital at that time, by decree of the French colonial authorities. For those travelling on a budget it’s a very expensive attraction at $6 a head. It’s easy to pass a couple of hours in the Palace complex. Be warned though that if you have arrived having recently seen the Grand Palace in Bangkok the Khmer equivalent will not look so impressive.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Beyond that you can visit Wat Phnom, a hillside temple on the only hill in Phnom Penh. The temple is worth a look but be aware that the surrounding area had the highest concentration of beggars we encountered in the city.

The waterfront area is where most tourists stay and we wandered along here several times for food and drink. It is wall to wall with bars, cafes, restaurants and guest houses, so obviously attracts plenty of touts, tuk-tuk drivers and beggars too.

Wat Phnom

I’m not a shopper but I did enjoy our visit to the Sorya Shopping Centre. This giant western-style shopping mall was full of young Khmers, evidently the rich and middle class of Phnom Penh. We watched as the kids enjoyed the rooftop skating rink, the amusement arcades and simulator rides (all of which were almost western prices, so incredibly expensive for a Cambodian), and we joined in with the ice-cream eaters at one of the many fast food outlets in the mall. The sight of so many people able to spend significant sums of money on leisure pursuits suggested a rosier financial picture (for a few at least) than our trip through the countryside had painted. We wondered what would Pol Pot have made of the new Cambodia?

Here we also saw the only Santa Claus in Cambodia, posing with a couple of young girls promoting a mobile phone company. Aside from this the only evidence of Christmas were the Santa hats worn by all waitresses serving in the tourist places and the occasional tree in a hotel or restaurant. It was only when we moved to Bangkok that Christmas kitsch was visible on a different scale.

The Central Market of Phnom Penh was a more impressive historic building, while almost anything you could never want was on offer here. Western perfumes and toiletries, photocopied Lonely Planet books and all the usual tat that you see at every other market. It was surprising to see the produce geared up so much to tourists when there were so few foreigners in the market. It would go a long way to explaining the attention we received.

Independence Monument

A final mention must go to Le Jardin, a little cafe close to our hotel where the yummy mummies of Phnom Penh hang out. With comfortable shaded seating in a peaceful garden setting, it was a very pleasant place to relax in the heat of the afternoon. It was great entertainment to watch the children of the great and the good (mainly ex-pats but some Khmers too) bring their children to play with the big selection of toys or to celebrate a birthday with a large cake. A cocoon of international privilege amid a chaotic and struggling city. And they served sublime ice-creams and shakes.

Phnom Penh is noisy, it’s dirty and smelly, and even in December the heat and humidity is sapping. But it’s also a place where you can see a population that’s trying to pick itself up from the tragedies of its recent past. The people we met made us welcome, and we were lift in peace to explore and enjoy this vibrant and lively city.

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One Response to “Phnom Penh: A Cambodian Christmas”

  1. Interesting post! We plan on spending next christmas in Cambodia – Christmas in Phnom Penh and NY in Siem Reap – more so to get away from Christmas! I am surprised to learn its hot even in Dec!

    January 18, 2010 at 12:04 am