Smoking buildings and thunderstorms

I couldn’t even get off the bus at Phnom Penh : there were moto and tuk tuk drivers voluntarily jammed into the doorway like sardines, all waving their laminated guesthouse flyers or keys to their vehicles, in my direction. Unfortunately this time none of them were offering free rides but we bartered one tuk tuk driver down to 2000RIEL. We asked to be driven to the Number 9 (original name!) Guesthouse on the lakeside. After 5 or 10 minutes we were dropped at the end of a small lane, and by the time we’d gotten out of the vehicle two guys had removed our backpacks and were carrying them down to the end of the lane. We paid the tuk tuk driver and then followed them. However, we’d only been taken to a completely different guesthouse, and the tuk tuk driver was fully aware of that fact. Aw, that annoys me!

Angry at the principal of the matter, I refused even to look at a room at The Green Lakeside, and stomped off down the road to our original choice. The rooms at Number 9 Guesthouse aren’t up to much and the shared bathroom is small and a little on the dirty side, but the restaurant/veranda/chill out area is a reason in itself to choose this guesthouse as a place to stay. As soon as we’d checked in, one of the local tuk tuk drivers, Kim (who lives at the guesthouse) met us outside our bedroom door, introduced himself, followed us downstairs and asked me, “you wanna smoke?”. We also got asked the same question by numerous other tuk tuk drivers as we wandered around the streets of the small backpacker ghetto that is the Lakeside. So, although I’ve had no experience with guns (thank God!) and I’m the wrong sex to know much about the ‘girls’ in the city, it seems that Amit Gilboa was right about Phnom Penh being THE place to come if you want to smoke ganja.

Kotoe and I, upon my instruction, ate dinner at the wonderfully named Lazy Gecko cafe, which also sells T-shirts and offers a book exchange facility.

The following morning Kotoe and I decided to change rooms. Ok, so the room at Number 9 hadn’t been quite as bad as my bungalow at Mr Tho’s on Don Det (where I had to get up several times during the night, have a cold shower and then get back into bed!) but I still woke up several times in the night, feeling feverish, the sheets damp with sweat. The cooler rooms downstairs were $5 ($2 more expensive) and the shower head was broken in the only available room, so we moved nextdoor to The Lakeside Guesthouse, to a downstairs $4 room with bathroom inside.

Once we were settled into our new surroundings, we decided to take a walk around Phnom Penh, by way of orientating ourselves with the city. We walked down to Sisowath Quay (the main shopping/eating/drinking street that runs parallel with the river) and stopped at the Mekong River Restaurant to watch the antics of the resident monkey, Aladdin, who was on a leash in his makeshift home, at one end of the restaurant. Kotoe decided, on the advice from restaurant staff that Aladdin wasn’t dangerous, to say hello to the resident pet. However, in a series of comical incidents which ensued, Aladdin jumped on to Kotoe’s head and tugged at her hair, whilst she crouched in a corner, hands over ears, looking like one of the wise monkeys herself!

We continued on down Sisowath Quay to the National Museum. Over 5000 objects are on display here, including Angkorian era statues, lingas and other artifacts, most notably the legendary statue of the ‘Leper King.’ We wandered around the museum until The Royal Palace re-opened at 2:30pm. Entrance to both the Natioanl Museum and the Royal Palace is $3 but there’s an additional $2 at The Royal Palace if you have a camera in your possession, even if you don’t plan to use it. The Royal Palace was built in 1866 and is the site of the famous Silver Pagoda. It’s the city’s most visited pagoda because of its display of priceless historical objects.
It was 5pm by the time we left the grounds of the Royal Palace, the sky was an ominous blue/grey colour, pre-empting rain. We began our walk home along the river front, passing numerous market stalls selling barbequed bugs and spiders and the tiniest little chickens. The shouts of “2 beers for $1!” from a member of staff as we neared the Happy Phnom Penh Pizza Restaurant, were enough to lure us into the establishment. We were quite grateful to be eating hot pizza, nibbling peanuts and sipping cold beer under the shelter of the restaurant, when the angry grey skies opened and it rained like it hasn’t rained for months.
Whilst finishing our beers we started joking around with a couple of the tuk tuk drivers who had parked their vehicles outside the restaurant, probably hoping for a fare from us, providing that the rain persisted as heavily, pounding the pavement and leaving numerous puddles in its wake. The driver wearing a funny rain mac wanted $3 to transport us back to the lakeside, which prompted my question, “do you charge more when it’s raining?”, but we managed to barter the other driver down to 3000RIEL ($0.75)
When we arrived back at the lakeside, it was like we’d walked on to a film set, it was so surreal. There’d been a fire at the Family Restaurant and smoke was still billowing out of the windows and filling the air. The rain was still pounding down, the ground covered in about 3 or 4 inches of muddy water. There were crowds of people gathering in the street, others running, splashing, through the smoke and the rain. As we got closer to the smoking building, there were local people brandishing iron poles and attacking the wrought iron bars on the windows, attempting to smash the padlock on the door and ripping chunks out of the wood with a macheti, in a frantic attempt to get into the building. There was such a determined desperation in their eyes that i thought someone was trapped inside, and the more they broke parts of the windows, doors, and framework, the more the smoke escaped, blinding and choking people in the street and polluting the clear night sky.
For the most part I stood there in helpless awe, my jaw locked open, catching rain water on my tongue and feeling it run over my lips and down my chin. I never believed it was possible for it to rain this hard : this was how it rained in all those war movies, it couldn’t be real. At one point Kotoe disappeared into the smoke, in an attempt to give her torch to one of the men trying to break into the building. I stood there for a while amidst the crowds, surrounded by people running past me in all directions and shouting to each other. Managing to break out of the trance I appeared to be in, I started running into the smoke in an attempt to find Kotoe, but I was forced back by its intensity, blinding me instantly and attacking the back of my throat.
Kotoe re-appeared seconds afterwards, having failed to locate the people who may have needed her torch. We both stood in the doorway of the internet cafe opposite, where one of the locals informed us that fortunately no-one had been hurt in the fire. It was an electrical fire, possibly brought on by the storm, but the residents were out when it started. Feeling relieved, having learnt that no-one in fact had been trapped inside the building, we ran, laughing, through the muddy, water-filled streets and thick rain, back to our guesthouse, flashes of lightening giving a bright purple hue to the black of the night sky.
Everyone back at our guesthouse was also rushing around, as if they were in the middle of a natural disaster. This did worry me for a while, especially when the ceiling in our room began to leak and it sounded like there was water lapping around just inches beneath our window. When we eventually dropped off to sleep, I had rumbles of thunder in my ears and flashes of lightening behind my eyes and the sensation that there was water rushing over my body.
Photo is of Kotoe with monkey on her head, Mekong River Restaurant, Phnom Penh.
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