What’s it going to be? Bangkok or Phnom Penh? Thailand or Cambodia? Both can be damned infuriating but will make you feel more alive than trading turgid Euro beats on Koh 'Anywhere.'
Bangkok’s over nine million inhabitants crowd into a crazily expanding sprawl around the sinuous Chao Phraya river. Don’t expect to get around by walking. You’ll melt in the smog-filtered sun that lights up this mega-city of the future. Around 600 kilometres south west, Phnom Penh’s population of 1.5 million huddles in the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. After Bangkok, it feels provincial as soft river breezes waft through run-down French villas. Unlike Bangkok, there are no strident skyscrapers and the traffic is leisurely after rush hour in Auckland.
Bangkok’s glorious past shines at the Grand Palace. Golden temples and shimmering Buddhist stupas stud the skyline near the river. Head to the massage school at nearby Wat Pho to get pushed and pulled while relaxing in a breezy pavillion with jangling wind chimes. More authentic than the diversions of the flesh of Patpong Road, and the masseuses at Wat Pho definitely haven’t been sold by their families to be there. There’s no glory in Phnom Penh’s recent past. The horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime are laid bare at the Killing Fields in nearby Choung Ek and the heart of darkness of the S-21 torture centre at Tuol Sleng.
Getting from A to B
If you’re travelling by road in Bangkok, the only practical option is to jump on a motorbike taxi. Normal taxis and tuk-tuks get submerged in the flow and crossing the city can take hours. Instead tuck your knees well in, and hang on for a wild ride straight out of a Bond movie. It’s a ride best enjoyed with the short-term confidence from a couple of beers but don’t overdo the Singhas. You’ll need all the balance and concentration you can muster. If the moto-taxi option doesn’t appeal, combine Bangkok’s shiny new Skytrain and subway with traditional river ferries. More leisurely Phnom Penh has both moto-taxis and tuk-tuks, and the more relaxed option for short journeys is the bicycle rickshaw or cyclo.
Mmm... Deep-Fried Arachnids...
Forget chips and a cheesy dip with your beer. In Bangkok, team a cool Singha with crunchy, deep-fried grasshoppers. The stakes are raised higher in Phnom Penh with roasted tarantulas from the village of Skoun. The crunchy chilli-infused legs (all eight of them...) are pretty good with a hoppy Angkor beer but you’ll need something stronger than a lager to cope with the creamy bitterness of the body.
How Much for the Gourd?
It’s the perfect irony. Two of Asia’s most hyper-real cities are great places to buy stuff that’s not as real as it seems. In Bangkok, head to the backpackers’ ghetto Khao San Road for bootleg beats and dodgy designer gear. Bypass Patpong for the night market at Suan Lam. Nearby, a huge beer garden combines Europe’s best brews with great Thai eats from pumping food stalls. No grasshoppers but spicy Thai sausages to eat with a tangy German weissbier. In Phnom Penh, the Russian Market is a great place to pick up DVD boxed sets of those must-watch TV series. Anyone for the entire four-disc set of Series 5 of The Sopranos for the cost of a six-pack?
Before You Go
Bangkok – Wildly entertaining martial arts action in a neon-splashed Bangkok. No wires and no CGI, and the tuk-tuk chases are horribly real after you’ve experienced Bangkok’s rush hour on the back of a Honda. Reading: Bangkok by John Burdett. Just maybe the world’s first existential Buddhist cop thriller and the authentic heart of Bangkok explodes off the pages like a tiny red chilli.
Phnom Penh – Watching: The Killing Fields (1984). Filmed in Penang but the movie captures the relaxed lethargy of Indochina that still exists in Phnom Penh. Essential viewing to understand Cambodia’s tragic recent history. Reading: Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls and Ganja by Amit Gilboa. What you missed out on just a decade ago. Scratch the surface though and the city is not that different today.