Tourists Savor Quiet of Empty Capital Amid Heat

On Friday afternoon, as the temperature in Phnom Penh flirted with 42 degrees, 24-year-old Chilean students Mattias Carmona and Nicolas Orive set out on a lonely stroll to Aeon Mall.

“There’s no one here,” Mr. Carmona said, eyeing the empty walkways of Hun Sen Park. “It’s unreal, man.”

Tuk-tuk driver Nin Sakovey speaks with a customer outside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on Friday. (Ben Paviour/The Cambodia Daily)
Tuk-tuk driver Nin Sakovey speaks with a customer outside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on Friday. (Ben Paviour/The Cambodia Daily)

“We had heard there are many people coming here,” Mr. Orive said between sips of bottled water. “It’s a ghost town.”

Most residents left Phnom Penh earlier in the week to celebrate Khmer New Year in the countryside, abandoning the city’s streets to the dogs—and packs of sweaty tourists.

Visitors were struck by the disconnect between what they had heard about Phnom Penh and what they saw: a walkable city of empty boulevards, few culinary options and an early bedtime.

“It’s quiet, eh?” said 32-year-old Canadian tourist Matthew Sherwood, pausing for a reflective post-Tuol Sleng tour smoke. “It’s kind of nice to be in a big city without all of the people.”

Mr. Sherwood arrived on Wednesday after attending Siem Reap’s “crazy street parties.” He said he found the capital “way more relaxed, which is not what what I was expecting.”

Xavier Brandy took advantage of the quiet to embark on a mid-afternoon walking tour that included stops at the Royal Palace, Independence Monument, and the riverside.

“I just walk around—it’s easy to walk,” said the 40-year-old Frenchman. Dressed in board shorts and a Singha beer top that revealed a sleeve-length snake tattoo, he was not intimidated by the heat.

“I lived in Dubai before,” Mr. Brandy said, adding that there was ample opportunity in the city for rehydration. “It’s not expensive, just $1 for a beer.”

For those who prefered motorized transport, the city’s tuk-tuk drivers were happy with the extra business and lack of competition.

Nin Sakovey said he was on track to earn $45 or $50 on Friday, while, outside of the holiday period, he would be lucky to make half that.

“For me, it’s busy,” Mr. Sakovey said as he waited for a customer outside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. He had already made two airport runs and two trips to National Road 4 with a visiting Chinese factory owner.

The 44-year-old credited his tuk-tuk’s powerful brakes and protective windshield for his high earnings.

As the sun set and the city finally began to cool, tourists gathered at the usual watering holes. The Chilean students were keeping their expectations low.

Though the thin crowds might have been good for sightseeing, “It’s worse for party,” laughed Mr. Orive.

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