Play dates

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Last Thursday Roo and I decided to take the day off work – him writing articles about the Khmer Rouge trial and ‘sixties music in Cambodia, me preparing five training courses on harm reduction for the Red Cross – to hang out together and explore this city that is our temporary home.

Siamese fighting fish 1We started out walking to Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, the sort of place where I could go crazy on an unlimited budget buying books on travel, food, politics, architecture, not to mention novels and kids books. To keep it real, we swung past D’s Books where I picked up a second-hand copy of a Peter Temple novel. Our breakfast venue was The Shop; Harriet and Dan recommended this Street 240 cafe as Phnom Penh’s best and they were close to the mark: my ‘breakfast melt’ on herb foccacia was worthy of Melbourne standards. (Foccacia in Cambodia – what’s the world coming to!).

We spent the rest of the morning meandering to and around the Central Market area (Psar Thmei) in search of hand-painted signs and general ambiance. Roo is an expert at walking without a destination, and though it required some recalibration on my part, I soon got into the groove. It resulted in my highlight of the day: stumbling upon stalls selling Siamese fighting fish at the west end of Street 174.

Siamese fighting fish 6The fish are displayed in rows of glass bottles on shelves in open-air shops that line the exterior walls of the buildings in this stretch. Playing cards propped between each bottle block the fishes’ view of each other to prevent them from fighting. Sapphire blue, orange-red, opalescent, I was dimly aware of other pets being on sale – guinea pigs, chooks, goldfish – but they paled next to these jewels with fins. I plan to take Tash to see them sometime soon.

From Psar Thmei we caught a tuk-tuk north to Boeung Kak, the backpacker area bordering a lake slated to be filled in and ‘redeveloped’. Roo and I were curious to see what had become of this former brothel area, and it was considerably more peaceful that either of us expected. Sure, the tuk-tuk drivers all doubled as ganja dealers, and signs on the bars boasted about how cheaply you could eat/get drunk. But it was very mellow.

Our afternoon was spent shopping, first at up-market supermarkets (Bayon and Lucky) for supplies, then in the Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market) area. Roo had a complicated shoe order to lodge at the aptly named Beautiful Shoes cobblers and I was on a mission for clothes at the Russian Market itself. Lucky I was with the Shopping Sensei or else I’d have thrown my hands in the air and left after the first row of stalls failed to deliver on L let alone XL fittings. Despite the heat, my low tolerance threshold for clothes shopping and even a power blackout, thanks to Roo I left with three new T-shirts, three blouses and two frocks for under 30 bucks.

Meanwhile, Tash had a play date Friday with her new friends Jax (3) and Penny (18 months) at the home of our new friends David and Martel. Tash and Jax have bonded over their shared obsession with ‘The Little Mermaid’ DVD, though Tash’s favourite part involves a shark at the beginning and Jaxie’s the wedding at the end. David, Martel, Roo and I have bonded over our shared love of alcohol and our enthusiasm for living in Phnom Penh.

This city allures and repels me, at times in equal measure. I came out of the house Sunday morning to find our street blocked off by a wedding marquee in glorious pink polyester, a floral arch at the front topped by a pink polystyrene heart bearing names of the happy couple and the date they were due to be married (Monday). I passed beneath the arch, Tash on my hip, and almost stepped on two large dead rats lying on the road. It must have occurred to someone other than me that this wasn’t a good omen given the impending nuptials, as the corpses had gone by the time we returned.

For the most part, though, Phnom Penh’s charm easily wins out over its flaws. And for as long as that’s the case, I’m happy to be staying.

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