Sights and Scents in Cambodia


Planning on visiting and getting to Cambodia is one thing but arriving to this country is an entirely different matter. Flying from the New York City area to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s odiferous yet vibrant capital, is an enormous mental endeavor in itself. From J.F.K. International Airport, most flights fly indirectly to Phnom Penh and these flights can take anywhere from fourteen to sixteen hours depending on the aircraft type. An Airbus 380 keeps travel time to a tidy fourteen hours or so if you fly, for example, Asiana Airlines, which will route you through South Korea but a Boeing 777 can take up to sixteen hours to arrive via Hong Kong. Now think about that notion. Fourteen to sixteen hours cooped up in a plane with sometimes as many as four hundred other souls is actually a long time as you can only watch so many movies or solve so many Sudoku puzzles!

Once arriving at the change-of-aircraft point, it can take another five to six hours to reach Cambodia. Using Asiana once again as an example, this carrier takes another five hours to get to Phnom Penh. One can be in Europe from New York in five hours! Getting to Cambodia is a “journey” on so many levels: literally, figuratively, mentally. But the worst part of travelling to this destination is the long-haul flight which requires mental endurance at the very least.

When preparing for such a trip, it is a great idea, naturally, to do a lot of research. I always recommend the Lonely Planet guides. So the most recent guide is a given as well as a phrasebook and a Siem Riep city guide for Cambodia’s famous temple area (all published by said company) are great places to start. Since the main attractions of Cambodia are the temples of Angkor Wat (designated an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992) and the surrounding area of Siem Riep, a smaller more condensed guide that focuses mainly on these temples should be very helpful, never mind less weight to carry around in your bag. These books offer a plethora of information from visa and vaccination requirements to weather to local currency and Cambodia (i.e. “Khmer”) customs and history. All things Khmer (pronounced “kmy” and rhymes with sky) are mentioned, in short, in these books, but nothing prepares you for actually physically being there. You can read and research your visit voraciously but nothing prepares you for the ultimate reality of Cambodia, at once and obviously, a third-world country, yet, simultaneously a beguiling and intriguing mess of sights and mysterious sounds and scents.

So upon disembarking the final flight into Pochentong Airport, which is about five miles southwest of Phnom Penh city center, you are immediately slammed by an invisible wall of ninety-five degree heat and what could only be described as a drenching humidity. The latter may be redundant but this heat and humidity lacks better (any?) words to describe its intensity and the surprise by which it takes you. Add to that the scent of fog, diesel, food, people, and an entire day’s worth of sweltering and unrelenting heat, it can really knock your senses out of kilter. Throughout the duration of the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, insidious plumes of black smoke were exhaled by exhaust pipes of trucks and tuk tuks (small, motorized, four-wheeled, cart-like passenger vehicles with adjustable tops) and seemed to disintegrate almost as instantly as they became visible.

The temperature also all but underscored the enormous and extraordinary feeling of weakness, particularly, mental weakness or fatigue, if you will, that overpowers you, having travelled continuously for thirty hours if you include all time since locking your front door. It is quite hard to describe accurately this kind of jet lag, particularly, if you did not sleep much during the flights. I recently had a conversation with a friend who has never travelled further than from New York to Florida in which she asked me to describe jet lag because she had no idea what it felt like. I felt that I could not describe it adequately. On arrival to the hotel which was located by the Royal Palace near the Tonle Sap River, I passed out in the delirious state of confusion and horror that often accompanies sleep deprivation. The hotel room felt quite sterile and austere and the lights contained those energy-efficient bulbs that give off that really cold and almost blue white light. Tomorrow is another day, I thought.

After breakfast in the morning and feeling much stronger, I ventured out with the goal of a leisurely stroll to the former Tuol Sleng “Security Prison” otherwise known as “S-21” and now maintained as a museum chronicling the Cambodian Genocide under the notorious regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979. A big player involved in the now infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a nearby suburb of Phnom Penh, it took a good half hour to find this prison and interrogation center, formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School. En route there was a lot to take in and absorb. I walked for many blocks along the Tonle Sap River before turning off onto side streets and was confronted with many pagodas, prayer houses, university buildings (one was even amusingly named “Ministry for Cult and Religion”), tons of scooter, motorbike, and tuk tuk traffic, and many people lining the sides of the road either peddling their wares or just begging in general. In addition to all this sensory stimulation, it was barely eight thirty in the morning and it was already ninety-five degrees in the shade and one hundred percent humidity.

Along the way to the museum, there was so much to see. And smell. The habit by most locals seems to throw their litter right onto the street. I saw this multiple times throughout the trip. The litter seemed to be comprised of various things but mostly food remains, fruit peels, grocery bags and empty plastic water bottles. It was both sad and vile to witness and, no doubt, contributed to the strange and indescribable aromas that one would often inhale. I crossed a road (also a feat to be mastered due to traffic and an apparent lack of traffic lights!) and came across a canal. As I walked over the canal and as I passed a number of people sitting on the wall next to it, I suddenly gagged, never before having encountered such an awful smell. It could only be described as a combination of decay, filth, and death! I can never remember a time when I smelled something so nefarious that I was actually made gag. I could only conclude that it was due to dead things in a continual process of decay in the endless and merciless heat. What made the matter worse for me, if that were even possible, was that there were all these locals hanging around this fetid canal who didn’t seem to notice the rancid stench at all!

These aforementioned snippets are meant to illustrate very few of the many sights and scents that I encountered while travelling throughout Cambodia. The country is so very poor but so very beautiful at the same time. The people are lovely and always smiling. While with each other, they seem to be laughing all the time. The glaring poverty does not seem to bother them, so much so that I pondered often the old adage that ignorance is bliss. The beauty and splendor of the shining gold pagodas are littered frequently among rampant human squalor and ramshackle corrugated steel shacks in which people live and call home.

A scent also frequently hanging heavy in the Cambodian air was that of the many frangipani trees everywhere with their waxy yellow and white blooms. Apparently they are very tough plants that can survive neglect, heat, and drought and will only burn at extreme heats (over five hundred degrees!). I noticed that in some of the hotel bars, these flowers were used to decorate their cocktails. The trees are beautiful and aromatic and, in Vietnam, which neighbors the Kingdom of Cambodia, myth has it that ghosts live in trees with white and fragrant flowers.

By the time I reached Tuol Sleng Museum, it was sweltering outside and almost impossible to stand in the sun. There was a hose spraying on the grounds that I think was meant to be working as a grass sprinkler. I put my cell phone on a nearby bench and walked through the water jets and thought about how something so simple such as these simple splashes of water could feel so over-the-top exhilarating at that moment. And although the sun was shining brightly, the environment of the museum was dark and somber; after all, terrible events occurred here. There were very few survivors but two men who had survived were on hand to talk to the museum’s visitors. You could also buy their book/s and they would also even take a picture together with you. One explained that due to his ability to fix machines, he had a talent that kept him alive and useful to his captors. To support the museum, I bought a T-shirt.

After nearly two hours, I hailed a tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel with jet lag tormenting me in full force. I welcomed the air-conditioned lobby as I walked in from the unrelenting heat. It was time for a nap as I had two more weeks of sights and scents to discover, identify, and unravel. I walked onto the waiting elevator and went to the third floor.

Before and After, 2015