”Don’t bother staying there for more than a night.”
”That place is a dump – it’s just really dirty.”
”We only passed through. There wasn’t anything to see there.”
I don’t know why, but during my seven months in Asia… whenever I was told such things of a place, the stubborn part of me couldn’t help but surface. I simply had to stay there longer to see for myself. Because how can someone completely disregard an entire city after one or two days there? What will two days tell you about the atmosphere at night, the opposite part of town, or the locals who call it home? To me, labelling an entire city boring or dirty after spending a single night there is like scratching at the ground with your fingernails for an hour before declaring that the field is void of artifacts.
To me, this sentiment has never proven more right than my time in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Had I decided to leave the city after my first night there, I would’ve surely had the same opinion as the travellers I’d talked to before going. Instead, I ended up staying for two weeks – not nearly enough time to fully embrace the soul of the city, I know… but more than enough time to fall in love.
I arrived three hours late in Phnom Penh by bus from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was just getting dark, and I remember my very first impression of the city was an odd one. For some unexplainable reason, the streets seemed divided into themes. While one street would have rows upon rows of pharmacies, another would solely consist of furniture shops. I couldn’t help but think how impractical a business strategy that seemed.
After a slow tuk-tuk drive, I spent my first night at a hostel with dark spots and stains on all their bedsheets. Just the mere thought of potential bedbugs made my whole body itch. Thus, the following day, I packed up and walked to another hostel, dirty clothes in hand. Now stressed and uneasy in a city whose buildings and streets lacked obvious, aesthetic beauty, I couldn’t help but think that the other travellers might’ve been right. Maybe Phnom Penh really didn’t have much to offer.
Despite the unimpressive start, I felt inexplicably drawn to the city. So with a quick visit to a local animal clinic and rescue shelter named PPAWS, I had sealed my faith. I would stay for at least two weeks to volunteer there.
Throughout those two weeks, Phnom Penh would slowly open up to me a little more each day. After a couple of days, I moved to an Airbnb in a more local area, close to ‘the Russian market’. The host told me animatedly about the Golden Age of Khmer music, giving me a glimpse into a rich culture. His stories and livelihood soon made the themed streets less illogical to me when I had to find a housewares store to get pots and pans for the Airbnb.
During my weeks in Phnom Penh, I just about tried out every one of the local vegetarian restaurants, as well as multiple Western cafés. I spent my evenings wandering through night markets and down streets. And every day, I would stroll through a new or familiar market, absorbing the energy there and carefully choosing vegetables and fruits for my next meal. During the day, the streets and markets were bustling; humming with life. And as the air cooled slightly and the sun started to dip each night, the city seemed changed. In the evenings, Phnom Penh was equal parts vibrant and peaceful; locals enjoying meals outside, chatting on the streets or running errands.
It became routine to wake up early every morning and walk to PPAWS, always crossing through a busy local market on my way. PPAWS was situated far away from the touristic areas and in the middle of a dusty residential area. Each day, I walked two or three dogs around the local streets, from one dead-end to another. I got more than a few odd stares from the locals – a Western girl walking dogs between their homes was probably a strange sight to see. But the stares always came with welcoming smiles that then slowly turned into warm greetings. The mothers and grandmothers in the area had seemed to accept me as part of the landscape. The children playing on the streets went from shyly smiling at me to bravely introducing themselves to greeting me or asking to pet the dogs whenever I walked by.
Everywhere I went in Phnom Penh, I was met by genuine kindness and open arms – something I would come to find throughout Cambodia. And after spending two indescribable and sombre days slowly making my way through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields, I couldn’t help but be astonished by Cambodia and the Khmer people. Unimaginable horrors had scarred every person in the country mere decades ago, leaving much of the country in ruins. And still, they had managed to build up thriving cities again; reclaiming a rich culture and welcoming foreigners like me with open arms and hearts.
To me, the Khmer people are the heart and utter beauty of Cambodia. And while Phnom Penh might seem dull and boring at first glance, it’s a colourful and culturally abundant place to discover if you have the patience to dig a little deeper.
In Phnom Penh, I fell in love with an anxious dog named Bot and discovered a new affection for cats. I slowly won the trust of local children and was invited to tea in the home of a Christian missionary couple for a strange but lovely afternoon. Phnom Penh was utterly authentic while at the same time adapted to the needs of Western expats and modern trends. And two weeks later, as I’d started to feel something akin to settled in Phnom Penh, I boarded a bus to continue my journey, leaving with the knowledge that the city still had much more to offer me.
And so, I challenge you. Go to those places you’ve been told weren’t worth it. Stay there for a while. You might very well find a hidden gem – a place that has more to offer than just tourist attractions and tacky souvenirs. Instead, you’ll likely find authenticity, a rich culture, genuine locals, and a hidden beauty that runs deeper than just a pretty façade.