Shall We Gather at the River?

Amidst a conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I found myself in a country I knew next to nothing about. Aside from being near Vietnam and once housing one of the darkest genocides in human history, you don’t hear a lot about it. But during a short afternoon I had free, I set out to explore Phnom Penh.

I took a taxi from my hotel to the royal palace area to quickly find that Cambodians take their royal family very seriously with enough ceremonies to make Queen Elizabeth II scoff.

Since I was basically oblivious to Cambodian culture, I paid for a tour guide to show me around. Most of the information you’re about to read came from him.

Cambodia is mostly Buddhist, so there are Buddhas everywhere you look in the palace area. But outside the place area, there are Buddhas surrounded by much smaller and less-decorated Hindu deities. The guide explained this is because many people were Hindu in Cambodia’s past, but they don’t get nearly as much clout as the Buddha statues.

The king’s actual home is off limits to the public, but his residential area is EXTRA. I unfortunately couldn’t take photos inside, but picture a Vegas casino with lots of Buddhas.

We reached the throne room and I couldn’t help but notice that there was a regular-looking chair slightly elevated from the ground. However, behind the regular-looking chair was an immaculate seat that stood approximately 30 feet in the air. It was shimmering in gold and pristine accents. It was obviously the throne, BUT the guide stated that royalty will only ever sit on the throne once in their entire lives—on their coronation day. After that, they will rule from the basic seat in front of the throne. It’s to symbolize their humility and closeness to the people, which—if you ask me—sounds like a justified gesture despite the thousands of dollars worth of gold behind them that merely serves as a seat once every few decades.

Another element I found intriguing was the burial tombs. Cambodians construct these massive, cone-shaped monuments to hold their deceased rulers. Once a royal dies, he or she is sealed in the tomb along with several of their jewels, gold, pottery, clothes, and other valuables. The tomb is never to again be opened for all of eternity… supposedly. It’s all very Egyptian. And you know an Indiana Jones-type has probably cracked open a tomb or two through the years.

If this were a movie, these tombs would connect to underground tunnels that lead to a hidden temple full of treasure that only Nicholas Cage or the Goonies could find.

After my tour through Cambodian Buckingham and my brief history lesson from the tour guide, I decided to walk to a nearby Buddhist temple for some more culture-marveling. It was a brief walk according to Google Maps and quite the recommendation by locals.

No sooner than I began walking, it started to slightly rain. It was subtle, so I continued. But then the subtle rain went from zero to a hundred and I found myself in a full-fledged Asian monsoon. I ducked under an awning of a tiny massage parlor before I was too drenched and I decided to wait it out. The forecast didn’t call for rain that day, so it was a safe bet that it would end quickly. But it didn’t.

The monsoon pressed on and within a few minutes, the streets were flooded in half a foot of water. At that point, I gave up on marveling at the Buddhist temple and decided to get a taxi back to my hotel.

Reliable taxis in Phnom Penh are done almost exclusively through taxi apps like Uber. But—as in most of Cambodia—I had no cell service, and wifi was non-existent in that part of town. So, I waited a few more minutes in hopes that a regular taxi would drive by, but thanks to the new river in the street, traffic was scarce. My mind forked at the thought of staying longer under the massage parlor awning (where a woman was very adamant about charging me for a massage) or embracing the elements and start walking to a more-populated road where I could find a taxi.

I decided on the latter, but just before I walked into the literal monsoon, I noticed two Americans emerge from a shop next to the massage place. They, too, were huddled under the awning, and they seemed to be calling themselves a taxi.

I shimmied from awning to awning and reached their spot.

“Hi, I don’t have any service,” I said pathetically. “Would you guys mind calling me a cab?”

“Sure. The girl replied in an accent almost identical to mine. It turns out that they were a husband and wife from Indiana who have been living in Cambodia for three years and working against sex trafficking. So I instantly knew they were much cooler than me.

Anyway, my taxi arrived, but it wasn’t a car; it was a traditional Asian tuk tuk, which was fine with me. The tuk tuk driver, however, could not pull up to our awning thanks to the raging river in the street. Therefore, I had to embrace the elements after all to reach him. I became instantly soaked, and I had to step in the street river to enter the vehicle—I try not think about how unsanitary that was.

The inside of a very soggy tuk tuk.

The ride was a fun one though. We jetted in and out of traffic like I was a local. When I reached my hotel—wet as if I had swum in the street river, I had to laugh at my little adventure. I also had to wash my shoes; that street water was highly questionable.

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