Saturday, November 20, 2010

Nom Pen

When we were taking the 45-minute cab ride from the Phnom Penh airport (pronounce that Nom Pen to sound like a local), the friendly cab driver told us about the Water Festival that's taking place Saturday through Monday. He warned us that our hotel is right in the middle of it, and the festival goes 24-hours a day, and it's crazy and loud, and that most people change hotels to stay farther away from the middle of it all. 24 hours a day. Crazy. Crazy traffic, and crazy people, he said. When we checked into our hotel, the smiling woman at the front desk said a million people are coming for the festival, from all over the countryside (a million, I asked? And she smiled - I liked her immediately for the emotional exaggeration.).
Well, this may be a problem for people who haven't come from New York City, but for us it was just more of the same, and we love it.

I don't know where to start, except with the emotion of it. I love this place. Love it love it love it - there's such a wonderful energy, streets crowded with people all going in every direction doing everything, selling buying. Streets crowded with scooters and tuktuks and cabs and cars. Scooters carrying young men with women sitting sidesaddle behind them, sometimes wearing regular clothes and sometimes very dressed up. Families of 4, with a little child in front and another child between - baby father child mother. Scooters laden with plastic bags of stuff. I hope I remember how it feels to be here. I hope the photos help me remember. We'll shoot some video, but it's the whole sensory package and nothing electronic can capture all that.

Having been to Vietnam, we already knew how to be a pedestrian here: you can't wait for a pause in traffic, because there isn't one, so you just walk out into it. Back in the atari days, I played Frogger and it's a lot like that - I even imagine the sound effect as I'm squirreling my way across the street through the cars and scooters. You just gauge your starting point and walk into it, and you don't hesitate or change your mind because the drivers are gauging where they're going to go based on where you are headed. It all works, somehow, and we get across the street.

We had breakfast at our hotel this morning, pretty good, and then we went out for a short walk. When we passed the big temple, I saw three monks standing behind the gate, holding pinkies and smiling. It made me so happy. We wandered down the busy side street next to our hotel and found ourselves in the market -- HAPPY making. The aisles were tiny, but not as choked with scooters as the Hanoi markets, which meant we could look around a little more easily. No stacks of fried dogs, but live chickens, just-dead fish, lots of produce, some kind of small brains (Marc suggested that they were weasel brains, of all things), little stalls of people making amazing-looking meals, skewered grilled fish. The banana market, which Marc especially loved.

Except for one very young begging boy who aggressively jabbed Marc in the back until we had to just leave, we haven't been bothered at all by people wanting things from us. Everywhere we go, men assertively offer us tuktuk rides, and they use a friendly strategy - "hey! You again! I saw you yesterday!" and then the conversation is going and they press press press, offering to take us to the Killing Field memorial, to the temples, everywhere. There's a bit of misleading going on, with them assuring us that some things are closed but that they know what's what, but it's not an all-out assault like it was in India. After a short conversation and saying no several times, they quit pushing us. It doesn't feel aggressive and impossible. It helps that everyone smiles so much - since I smile a lot, it feels comfortable and familiar to me.

We had dinner last night at a little "swiss" garden - who knows why it was swiss, but the food was AMAZING. i had tofu clay pot, which was full of seafood i think. tiny squidlets, some shrimp, some unknown stuff but i didn't stop to think about it it was just so so good. marc ordered fried river lobster but they had run out, so he got fried shrimp with garlic and pepper. usually we've planned where we're going to eat, after doing research - and we'd done that last night too, but the restaurant we'd picked was closed for the water festival. so for once, we just walked along the street and picked a place and went in. it was really great food, just what we needed after our very long day of travel.

So the Water Festival. We had no idea what to expect, I was wondering if it would be motorboats racing up and down the Mekong (the Mekong!! I'm staying in a huge room with an enormous wraparound veranda overlooking THE MEKONG RIVER!!). But no, no motorboats. Instead, there are these extremely long boats filled with people rowing like hell. The men in the back stand, and those in the front sit, and there's a guy in front yelling the rhythm. We can't figure out how the racing aspects works, they just seem to be randomly going, not competing with each other in any way we can tell. Perhaps the time is clocked when they take off and when they come back, and everyone just starts whenever they want. We can't tell. Most boats are clearly well-organized teams, with every person wearing the same shirt and hat... the red boat, the green one, the pink one, etc. But now and then you see a long boat filled with kind of random-looking people.

 distinctive architecture here
 such a young population, and temples everywhere you turn

 this is the presidential palace, we think

 this wat is right next door to our hotel

' a wat complex - photo taken from our balcony
 the long boats - these guys all row HARD

 fruit with our breakfast

 wait....what? COFFIN SHOP?

 Ministry of Cult and Religion?

don't know if this was just set up for the Water Festival, but it's huge

 Marc heading for a banana vendor

 busy people on a busy street

 chicken vendor in the market, squatting among her still-live (but kind of zombie-like) chickens

 great-looking fruit in the market

 a lunch stall -- those are skewered grilled fish near the bottom of the photo, on the table

 this isn't even the main market, but it was wonderful

 i kept seeing these everywhere; maybe they're places for offerings? there were often little piles of things scattered about, and sometimes even half-empty glasses of beer.

the view from our room

My posts aren't usually this scattered and random; getting started is always a bit of a mess, because so much happens by the time I'm ready to post the first time. Anyway - so far it's been amazing. I love Phnom Penh and can't wait for the rest of the day.

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