6am: The river. Is it the Bassac? The Tonle Sap? The Mekong?
I’m still a bit confused about exactly which broad, muddy river swirls past this city, carrying silhouetted sampans and churning riverboats full of tourists. What I do know is that this is the place to be at first light—on Sisowath Quay with the rest of the city, strolling, sitting, selling.
It all happens between 5:30 and 8: urbane women collect in patches of shade to gossip; village folk in broad hats and kramas sell noodles, drinks, and flowers; small girls offer caged birds a moment of freedom…if you pay a few riels. Old men perform oddly jerky repetitive exercises, reminiscent of 4th-grade gym class—hip twists, knee bends. One man walks backwards in the same spot every morning, and another man makes the same halting steps every day, leaning heavily on his wheelchair and his companion. People take turns at a row of exercise equipment bolted to the sidewalk. Couples whisk a shuttlecock back and forth, and near the Royal Palace, a dozen young men play a volleyball-like game using only their feet, spinning and diving. A troupe of middle-aged Chinese in matching tracksuits practices a flowing martial art with swords some days, other mornings with red fans.
My first morning in Phnom Penh, I stroll the quay, my eyes wide as a five-year-old’s, full with fascination. Everything, everything is new, and my vision filters nothing. Shouting tuk-tuk drivers, motos carrying up to five people, street food vendors selling skewered snakes and crunchy crickets. A young student wants to practice English with me, and every single moto taxi driver (it seems) exhorts me to hire a ride. Crossing the street is a gut-shredding horror, and I gulp heart-fluttery breaths before plunging into the roiling traffic.
South to the Royal Palace: mourners pray at small temples by the river, a golden lion guards the bank, and thousands of students, monks, and women in white gather on a broad plaza, to offer their farewells to former King Sihanouk.
I accept a mourner’s black ribbon from a smiling woman dressed like me (and everyone)—white blouse, black skirt or loose pants. Incense hangs heavy in the air, stinging my eyes. By 11, heat assaults the city with sheer malevolence, and I turn away from the river, plunging into a teeming market.
An East Asian street market, I suddenly realize, offers more new information than the mind can accept. There’s too much to look at: raw meat clouded with flies, women balancing trays on their heads, an amputee propelling himself along on a rudimentary cart, motos penetrating the mass of bodies, tiny crabs scuttling over each other, fish flopping in wide baskets, fruit that hails from distant planets. Not to mention, the assault of extraordinary aromas.
After the teeming chaos of the small market near Wat Ounalom, the vast Central Market (Psar Thmei) seems almost calm—the calm of lower Manhattan, that is. Psar Thmei is a circa-1937 Art Deco wonder of soaring proportions, noise, and impossible variety. If it’s worth wanting, you can get it there; I wanted steaming noodle soup, kramas, and a Buddha for Hal. Done, and done.
By 2pm, only mad dogs and Englishmen still brave the Phnom Penh sun. It’s my first day in country, I’m crusted with sweat, I can’t face my windowless hotel room, and I don’t know a soul within 8,000 miles of here. So like all lonely and exhausted expats in PP, I retreat to the fabled Foreign Correspondents’ Club, the FCC, for lunch, a cool juice, and a breezy seat high above the quay.
Granted, being a traveler means not retreating to the world’s FCCs every time the sun heats up and the sights overwhelm. It means plunging in, inhaling the powerful aromas, and pressing ahead, sweat be damned. But on day one of my Cambodian adventure, after a good 7 hours of eye-shattering new visions and drilling heat, I was glad to pull up a stool above the fray, breathe a bit, and cadge some wi-fi—a tenuous thread that reached home, if thinly so. Because that day, more than all the others, home seemed so far away that I had to remind myself it was still actually out there.