Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cambodia - Day 15: Phnom Penh

New Year’s Eve morning arrived, the last day of the year, and Angela said she didn’t feel any better. She stayed in bed while Vito and I went down to the lobby, which doubled as a diner, for breakfast. I wasn’t feeling 100%, but I ordered a waffle and a cup of coffee and manage to keep it all down. When we were finished eating, Vito and I hailed a tuk-tuk and drove to the Russian Market for a little souvenir shopping.

In front of the Royal Palace.
The market was chaotic: vendors of shoes, jewelry and beads, dishes, cell phone cases, rice paper rubbings, paintings and wood carvings, bicycle tires, tools, housewares, garments and leather-goods, all of the kinds of tourist tchotchkes that you might expect. Outside the market, there were trays of snails covered in salt and peppers, inside, soup stalls were billowing smoke throughout the heart of the market, tiny plastic chairs and stools and aluminum tables and counters, mannequins without heads, leaking mopeds lined up along the outer wall, modified tuk-tuks with extra plastic fuel tanks, fire-pots and BBQs, birds of all proportion on spits, young and old on mopeds, mopeds in varying states of repair, dust-covered red oblong lanterns with red tassels, misshapen sidewalks and cars and bicycles parked willy-nilly, people wearing masks on their faces. Many buildings were covered with corrugated blue roofs, Buddhist flags flew everywhere and everywhere elephant statues, rusted iron fences in front of dilapidated buildings, an old ferris wheel, a plant nursery, a man selling inflated mini-Power Ranger toys, etc. Vito bought a keychain to add to his collection, I bought a rice paper rubbing for a friend, and then we returned to the hotel. It really wasn’t as enjoyable to go sightseeing without Angela. Before returning, the tuk-tuk driver gave Vito and me a tour around of the city, driving us through a wealthy neighborhood and showing us where all of the New Year’s Eve action would be going down.

When we arrived at the hotel, I grabbed a Sprite in the lobby (it had soothed my own stomach the day before) thinking Angela might want something to help settle her stomach, and went back upstairs. Angela was feeling good enough to go out, and, after some preparation, we left for a bowl of noodles. It was Angela’s turn to eat rice, and everyone ate without further ado.

The Silver Pagoda.
We left the noodle restaurant and walked around the block to The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Angela wasn’t feeling very lively, but we walked around the site, which was quite beautiful and well maintained. In particular, there was a long continuous mural of scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer version of the Indian Ramayana, a classical Hindu literary tale) along the inner wall of the courtyard of The Silver Pagoda. After taking in as much as we could, we returned to our hotel to look for a place to eat our New Year’s Eve meal. We didn't really have the celebratory spirit, but we felt obliged to mark the occasion.

I found a restaurant nearby called Dine in the Dark, wherein we did exactly that. We ate our meal in complete darkness. After waiting a bit in the lobby, we held onto each other (I had my hand on our blind server’s shoulder), and we were guided up the stairs into darkness and then to our seats. The food was not outstanding, but the experience was unusual and memorable. I thought Vito would be too scared, and we all were a little uncomfortable or claustrophobic at first, but, after the second of four courses, we were all fine.

Unusual flower. Do you know its name?
After dinner, we took a tuk-tuk to the river and, as we had a few hours to kill before midnight, we walked to Diamond City, the epicenter of Phnom Penh’s New Year’s Eve mayhem. The streets were crowded with vehicles of all variety, and the sidewalks were full of Cambodians eating and drinking and making merry on every sidewalk or patch of grass in the vicinity. We arrived at the main stage, which featured some Cambodian boy-band, and then turned around to go back. We bought a bag of popcorn for Vito and, after making our way to the main street, hailed a tuk-tuk to take us nearer our hotel.

We found a seat on a stone wall along the Mekong, and sat down to wait the final hour until midnight. Vito was quite tired and fell asleep. I bought a can of beer for myself and a bottle of water for Angela from one of the vendors wheeling around their orange ice-chests, and the sidewalk, lawn and streets around us got progressively more and more choked with people. Party boats cruised by on the river. Periodically, someone would light one of those long bottle-rocket fireworks we had seen in Sihanoukville, and, at about three minutes before midnight, individuals all along the waterfront began firing their pyrotechnic joy-buzzers. Smoke and sparks were spewing into the sky all around us. Midnight arrived with the thunder of the featured fireworks show in the sky above that everyone had been waiting for, and Vito woke up and hugged us. We watched until the show ended, and then headed up the street toward our hotel. It was closed up and locked when we arrived, but I noticed a small dimly-lit button on the wall, pressed it, and, within moments, a door opened and we were admitted into the hotel and then went promptly to bed. Happy 2015!

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