Tokyo, Japan: Love hotels

Kyoto Station, waiting for the Shinkansen to Tokyo

Kyoto Station, waiting for the Shinkansen to Tokyo

When I was in Japan, I didn’t plan my stays; the night prior, I’d simply read reviews about hostels and book and go. This applied to Tokyo, except that since everything was widely dispersed and there really wasn’t one best area to stay, all that mattered was that I was close to a subway station. And luckily for me, I was. Only, after reading more reviews about my district one night, I realized that I was in the vicinity of love hotels. “Oh, great,” I whispered to myself.

Something to note from my experience is that even in the midst of streets crowned with love hotels or the random anime sex shop — which I later learned that my abode wasn’t actually that close to — there wasn’t a time when I felt a sense of unease or discomfort. In other places of the world, I probably would have — but certainly not in Tokyo. Everything felt normal to me. Sometimes I’d even see parents and their kids or an elderly couple walking by these joints — life resumed as usual. These perks were part of Tokyo’s idiosyncratic identity in all its rays of colour, and frankly, I appreciated it.

The only glitch I experienced in Tokyo emanated from my own inadequacy as a human being. I had mentioned it in a previous post, but my sense of direction is abysmal. It was a common theme for me to do a tour around the world before settling into my abode. Again, I couldn’t find my hostel when I arrived in Tokyo, so I ended up walking in circles, and in the process, discovered some interesting love hotels. (Insert sarcastic laugh here.) “Not too shabby,” I thought as I walked into one to inquire about directions. The mysterious lady behind the reception desk and the warm air and smell of cigarettes made me think of Murakami’s novels (as does everything I encounter in life).

If there’s something I appreciated deeply about Japan, it’s the people. This was the second time I couldn’t find my hostel, and the second time strangers would go out of their way to ensure that I arrived at my destination. Even if they didn’t know the directions themselves, they’d ask fellow passersby for help. As with Kyoto, in Tokyo a stranger dropped what they were doing and walked me to my hostel. It’s been my experience that no matter where I went, I found home in the hospitality of the people around me.

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After checking into my hostel and doing my laundry — because that’s the first thing everyone would do when they arrive in Tokyo — I was on my way to Ueno Station to sniff out the Ameyoko Market, which I learned was similar to a Bangkok-style street market. There was a lot of food, stuff, and people. Especially people — so much so that our heels would kiss. Suffice it to say, I left immediately.

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Across the street from Ameyoko Market, I came across a sign outside of a bakery that advertised these cute animal-shaped sweet buns. “My people are calling me home,” I thought as I excitedly walked in. Look at those pandas! I couldn’t resist so I bought one and enjoyed it at Uneo Park. It was a pleasant surprise because it had a sweet custard in the middle.

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Here I could get a glimpse of Uneo Station, the entrance to the Ameyoko Market, and even the bakery selling adorable panda buns. Behind me was a set of stairs leading to Ueno Park, one of my favourite places to unwind in Tokyo.

What’s neat about Tokyo is that the hustle and bustle and the serene parallel each other at every corner. If I wanted to escape an overly crowded commercial area, then nature was awaiting me somewhere, and oftentimes it was only a few steps away.

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Tokyo must’ve been quite a glamorous sight after dark with its usual hustle and bustle, its bodies of people and cars in constant motion, and its infamous nightlife. But I don’t have a single photo of Japan at night — and that’s because I was never out after dark.

If there’s something you ought to know, it’s this: my sense of direction needs crutches, and on top of that, I have poor eyesight. Those two factors mingling together, and you have me: a lady sloth roaming aimlessly at night. I had to take photos of the streets surrounding my hostels just so that I could find my way back; and if that proved challenging during the day — I walked in endless circles every day by the way, which was quite the workout — then when night rolls around, I ain’t comin’ home, that’s for sure.

Nara, Japan: That darn deer

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I had time to kill and a JR Pass to make efficient use of, so I decided to leave Kyoto and explore a neighbouring city for the day. Walking towards Kyoto Station, I didn’t know where I wanted to go; it was only until I arrived at the train platform that I spontaneously chose Nara. And who knew a wild adventure was awaiting me? No one. Except that one deer, apparently.

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If you visit Nara, chances are, Nara Park is one of the sites that you’d want to visit — and for good reason: You get to feed the deer! I admit that this weighed heavily on my spur-of-the-moment decision to venture here. After all, the deer are cute and uber friendly. (So it goes.)

“It’s not every day that I get a chance to feed deer in Japan, so I might as well buy deer biscuits and do some good in my life,” I rationalized when I saw a stand selling deer biscuits for 150 Yen at the crosswalk. Little did I know, I was inviting trouble for myself.

Walking off with a package of biscuits in hand, I found my first pal, a seemingly well-mannered and friendly deer. At first it nodded and bowed its head in compliance, but soon it grew impatient and demanded all the biscuits I had in my hands, plus my clothes and pretty much everything in existence I had on me. Tugging at my shirt repeatedly, its teeth grinded into the skin of my abdomen. (I still have scar marks. Not sure if I’ll die from infections, but hey, at least I got some vaccines.)

I thought one was bad. Then came a second one. “Aw, shit,” I thought. To get Clyde off of me, plus its partner in crime, Bonnie, I did what any sane person would do: feed it my pamphlets and jet. If you have deer climbing you like a tree, you sure as hell ain’t gon’ stand there helplessly. (I’m sure it was a comedic show for bystanders to watch.)

Moral of the story: Don’t trust any deer, or anything that looks cute for that matter.

After the incident, I laughed at myself (a common theme and occurrence in my life). I even bought a coin pouch with a deer on it from a souvenir shop to remind myself of the comical experience, because frankly, there’s no better memory of Nara than this.

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I had spent only a day in Nara, but I loved it, especially this park where I ate lunch and proceeded to spending the rest of my day. With subtle winds brushing against my cheek, it was the perfect atmosphere for me to do what I do best in my natural habitat: zone out, disconnect, and recharge. It was also entertaining watching school kids in uniform taking group selfies.

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Evening rolled around and I made it back to Kyoto. I did what I usually do when I arrive at my guesthouse: sit on the chair outside and just breathe.

Across from me was a local family-owned restaurant that tickled my fancy since the first day I arrived, as it specializes in tonkatsu, a Japanese dish that consists of a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, which I’ve been wanting to try. Since it was my last night in Kyoto, I knew I had to give this place a go.

Walking in, I was greeted by a lovely grandmother who led me to my table and gave me a menu. Her daughter, which I’d see playing with a little girl (presumably her own daughter) every day, was the cook. I watched her work her expertise, while wishing that the next plate was mine.

Minutes later, the food arrived. The tonkatsu was served with cabbage, mashed potatoes, miso soup, and pickled veggies. The food was plenty with my side order of rice, and I tried polishing my plate to no avail — everything was delicious.

The establishment exuded a peaceful atmosphere with only the news on the television as background noise, which the grandmother would pause to absorb every now and then. Locals, all of whom were men, ate away in silence; and as a foreigner and a young woman eating alone, I didn’t feel alienated as anticipated — I felt like I belonged.

The night was young, but still, I had some packing to do, so I sheepishly walked out the door and into my guesthouse. The next day was a big day: I was off to Tokyo.

Kyoto, Japan: Gion District

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With the sight of lovely geisha walking down ancient streets lined with traditional wooden-style homes and merchant shops that stood the test of time, you really do feel transported through history in Gion. (Except that the crowds of tourists will kindly burst your dreamy bubble.)

View from Yasaka-jinja Shrine

View from Yasaka-jinja Shrine

Yasaka-jinja Shrine

Yasaka-jinja Shrine

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Continuing straight ahead from the Yasaka Shrine I found myself in Maruyama Park. I didn’t know that this park served as the main attraction site for Sakura or cherry blossoms in Kyoto, until now, when I read about it. This knowledge made me shrivel a bit in sadness, because of all things I wanted to witness in Japan, were cherry blossoms in the springtime.

Kyoto, Japan: Nishiki Market

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Look what I found. I’m a big fan of green tea and red bean desserts, and this little guy was a combo of the two. I don’t know any liaison between two lovebirds more dainty than this one.

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A stroll around Nishiki Market later, led me to this adorable little alleyway between shops and cafes. Hidden alleyways were one of the pleasant things to stumble upon in Japan, and were often very picturesque.

Kyoto, Japan: Fushimi Inari Taisha

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The Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine in Kyoto dedicated to Inari, the god of rice, and is famous for its thousands of torii gates that seem to extend forever into infinity, lining nature’s path all the way to the top of Inari mountain. Of all places in Kyoto, this site was among my top favourites, for the long and arduous climb for me was more than a physical one: It was also symbolically a process of transience and perpetual self-growth.

Written blessings by visitors

Written blessings by visitors

Foxes abound here, for they are said to be Inari's messengers

Foxes abound here, for they are said to be Inari’s messengers

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After twists and turns and going in the wrong direction, I made it to the top of Mount Inari, which stood at 233m high. For those who persevered, reaching the summit was a treat. Unlike on the grounds, the summit was deserted with only a small number of fellow hikers — a pleasant breather! More importantly, as a foreigner to religious and cultural customs in Japan, it was an honour and a beautiful moment to witness locals paying their respects.

Yotsutsuji intersection - resting area offering a neat view of the city, which was reachable within 30-45 min of the ascent

Yotsutsuji intersection – resting area offering a neat view of the city, which was reachable within 30-45 min of the ascent

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I hadn’t eaten anything since waking up, and feeling hungry from the hike, I sure was glad to see food stalls lining the entrance, especially one that sold takoyaki (octopus balls), a popular Japanese street snack which consists of batter, octopus, pickled ginger, green onions, takoyaki sauce, mayo, and tempura flakes! It was a food item that I’d intended to try while in Japan, and finally, I got to check it off my list.

Kyoto, Japan: Root and flow like a bamboo

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The Shinkansen (bullet train) ride to Kyoto was not only a fun experience — like a kid I was deathly amused the whole journey — but at the depths of it all, it was also a meditative one. In fact, for me, one of the highlights of Japan was riding the Shinkansen.

There’s something of a romantic and philosophical dimension to riding trains for long hours and observing the naturesque sceneries, alone deep in thought. I was tired and my body demanded sleep, but more than anything, I longed to witness Japan’s marvellous sceneries. With vast green fields, imposing mountains, and dark and mysterious skies in sight, I felt at peace again; and at that moment, I believed that wherever I tread in the world, I’d eventually find my way home.

Home was a feeling, one of safety, love, connection, and belonging. I found home in Kyoto, in the kindness of people, in moments of solitude and contemplation, and in nature — a reflection of myself and life in its authenticity. If my early moments in Fukuoka had shaken my core, and unravelled the unchartered territories of my psyche, then Kyoto had restored my balance and pointed to me the way back.

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It was my first day in Kyoto and after checking in to my guesthouse — and snapping photos of the vicinity to make sure I can find my way back, because as everyone knows, I have no sense of direction — I took the subway to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

Entering this magical realm felt surreal; the green bamboo stalks were colossal, and at such an impressive height, seemed to kiss the cosmos; and the sound of birds chirping was music to my ears. I was saddened that the majestic sight was over within just a short walk. However, that didn’t mean the exploring had stopped. There were still nooks and crevices to explore, and off the beaten path I went.

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I guess some things appear in your life when you need it or when it resonates with your soul. Sitting in my room that evening, I opened up the YouTube webpage, and there it was: a title of a song that appeared at the right moment. The song was called “Alone in Kyoto” by Air, and when I listened to it, I knew it was meant for me — the rhythm, the story, the emotion. And for what remained of my time in Kyoto, I’d listen to it every night, earbuds plugged in, until I fell asleep in the early hours of the morning.

Fukuoka, Japan: Taking a leap

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Breakfast on the go: spam onigiri and a cafe latte. Something I really appreciated about Japan was the abundance of convenience stores. My hostel was only a few minutes’ walk from 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart, which housed a pleasant variety of healthy and delicious food items — affordable, too, especially when you’re on a budget. Oftentimes I’d pick up some onigiri, croquettes, or sushi when I wanted a quick bite. Admittedly, I was also hooked on their cold cafe lattes and milk coffees.

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It was my second day in Fukuoka and I dedicated it to deciphering Japan’s holy grail of subway and train systems, and to visiting shrines and temples. I liked walking along the streets as well; they were quiet and surprisingly clean and spotless. Interestingly, while there weren’t garbage bins around, there was never any garbage on the streets, either. I became a garbage bin myself, and carried my garbage with me everywhere I went until I found a mall or until I got home. Many things about Japan were awe-inspiring, including the strive towards sustaining the environment.

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The Shofukuji Zen Temple is the oldest Zen temple in Japan. Taking a stroll here in the quiet away from the crowds was relaxing; no one was around and I was alone, with only temple cats and vocal crows for company.

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Here’s the Tochoji Temple. The complex facing the entrance gate (which I didn’t take a photo of) is home to the largest wooden sitting Buddha in Japan.

Melon-pan with green tea ice cream

Melon-pan with green tea ice cream

My pal introduced me to dessert heaven at Hakata station. Frankly, I think she wanted to kill me (it’s no secret given her homicidal tendencies). I felt lightheaded when I saw the abundance of sweet treats; my world was rocked and I began seeing stars, rainbows, and unicorns. I couldn’t decide what to try! Alas, since it was my mission to eat melon-pan in Japan, a popular type of sweet bun, I did just that — only this one came with green tea ice cream! The best of both worlds. Needless to say, the rainbows and unicorns returned after that due to a sugar overdose.

Manu Coffee

Manu Coffee

Upstairs sitting lounge

Upstairs sitting lounge

Manu Coffee's latte and iced cap

Manu Coffee’s latte and iced cap

That evening, it was pouring rain by the time my friend and I were about to leave Manu Coffee, a cute-as-a-button local coffee shop. As we were leaving, the barista asked us if I had an umbrella, and then proceeded to give me his with a warm smile. I was grateful for his generosity and couldn’t thank him enough. This was only the first instance where I had been met with kindness from strangers, and as I travelled some more, I found a sense of belonging through people’s generosity, kindness, and hospitality.

Fukuoka, Japan: Heavy spirit, hungry stomach

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Looking down from the airplane and seeing the views of mountains paradoxically contrasting the tall, modern buildings, I felt an air of fresh excitement. This was my first trip to Japan, and I was travelling alone — another cause to feel free and uninhibited.

However, it was when I arrived at my hostel that suddenly the atmosphere turned somber for me and I longed to return to Phnom Penh. I missed my loved ones and daily life there; I was anxious about their well-being and safety in Phnom Penh; and more than anything, for the first time, I felt disillusioned and disconnected from my surroundings.

In its air of modernity, Fukuoka looked and felt much like what I had always seen and known, and I felt a gentle punch to my gut. Yet the city, and everything about it, was starkly different. And it was both the paradoxical similarities and differences, that incited in me a feeling of gloom.

I was even surprised I felt this way. For a long time, I longed to embark on a journey far away from everything that was familiar. But when I finally got the opportunity to travel to a foreign place on my own, suddenly, I felt misplaced and estranged — a strange and perplexing emotion even for myself, an adventurous and free-spirited individual who appreciates the unknown.

Yet it wasn’t so much because I was in a new country; of course I can attribute my emotions to the fact that everything was new — the language, the culture, and people’s mannerisms and dispositions, among other things — but there was something deeper than that. The collective energy felt different — there was a feeling of gentle sadness looming in the air. And for an empath, I felt it deeply and was helpless in mirroring it.

Walking along the streets of Fukuoka, I studied the motions of passersby, ordinary people going about their daily lives. Each individual walked with purpose and precision, the majority of them dressed in neutral-coloured business casual attires. Sometimes a passerby and I would exchange a discreet smile; other times, if we made eye contact, we’d kindly look away. There was an air of politeness and modesty in the way the Japanese carried themselves. But, I wondered, beneath the social graces and the strive to uphold group harmony, were people happy? Did they feel themselves free?

Times like these, and time and time again, words fail me. I try tracing Murakami’s footsteps in his deepest thoughts, and I’m reminded just how eloquently he’s able to unravel the mysteries of the human mind and soul through the written word, exposing the imperfections of humanity, and all that is raw, vulnerable, and authentic — the result of profound self-awareness.

Green tea ice cream

Green tea ice cream

Eating ramen at a yatai stand

Eating ramen at a yatai stand

First ramen in Fukuoka!

First ramen in Fukuoka!

In spite of everything, my first day in Fukuoka was a real treat because I got to see a friend who’s currently working and living in Japan. How awesome it was to meet again, in a foreign place and at a different stage in our lives. As usual, we did what we do best when we see each other: eat. Some of the delicious eats I tried were green tea ice cream (you’ll find out later that my life in Japan revolved around green tea desserts) and ramen at a yatai stand.

Yatai stand: A common sight in the evening

Yatai stand: A common sight in the evening

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Jinxed

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The car ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was squishy with four of us sitting at the back — maybe five, even, if I count the fact that my cousin was pregnant. Yet it was a pleasant ride, for we all bonded. What’s nice about road trips, too, is that in the event of hunger strikes, food and fruit stalls are always readily available. If you’re Khmer, you’d know that a road trip isn’t complete without having bags of exotic fruits in the car. Sliced mangoes dipped in salt, sugar, and chili peppers were my favourite!

The sceneries were very picturesque. I enjoyed soaking in the beauty of my surroundings, especially the statuesque sugar palm trees lining the fields at sunrise — a national icon in traditional Cambodian paintings — and observing animals go about their daily lives in the wee hours of the morning. Away from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, the countryside was a breath of fresh air.

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And finally, after years of dreaming and planning, we got to visit Angkor Wat — together as a family. It was a scorching hot day with many tourists resting at the footsteps of the Temple in complete exhaustion, and we knew that with Mother Nature against our human threshold, a single day wouldn’t be enough to explore the magnificence of Angkor Wat.

Yet after a brief round of exploration, skies darkened, thunder shook the grounds, and rain began pouring heavily. We all took refuge within the walls of Angkor Wat, many of us getting wet through the cracks and openings of the old Temple. Huddled close together in the quest for warmth and safety, we looked on in silence. And for me, it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.

My sister and I jokingly blamed our mother for the heavy rain.

“It’s because of you and your prayers, Mom,” we laughed. “What did you pray for?”

“Nothing,” she said with a look of innocence. “Just for it to cool down and rain a little.”

In all honesty, I’m not sure what my mother was chanting or praying upon entering the sacred grounds of Angkor Wat, but whatever it was, the gods of the Temple sure answered her prayers. We all got a good laugh out of it because we knew her ways, and she’s one funny woman.

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The following day, we visited the Bayon Temple along with other temples along the way. To my surprise, the Bayon was empty this year — so much so that I could capture photos anywhere I wanted without tourists hanging in the background. And then I understood: It was of course way too hot for anyone to travel in Cambodia this time of year.

It was also on this day that we got to dine authentically in Siem Reap, Khmer style. At lunch we ordered food from stalls and had a picnic by the water in front of Angkor Wat! The Khmer food was delicious — stuffed frogs, grilled chicken and fish, and prahok being my favourite — and the scenery was absolute eye candy.

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Visiting temples in Angkor was a treat as well because I’d often stumble upon local artists, who I enjoyed getting to know and supporting. In the strokes of every artist, there’s a gentleness that softens all that is cold and hard in our world, ultimately reminding us of all the beauty that remains.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: My inner Apsara

At the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

At the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

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A wat or temple in the outskirts of Phnom Penh

A year later, I found myself back in Cambodia for a second greeting, and as my time here reached an end, I experienced an array of emotions. Unlike last year’s trip, this year was ever more sentimental, as Cambodia had been narrated to us through my parents’ heart and soul, what was for my sister and I, a voyage into the past where we were given a chance to experience our parents’ lives from childhood right through to the Cambodian Genocide. It was also heartwarming to visit the temples where my family has long been active in building abodes and schools for monks.

We could see the Royal Palace from our hotel

We could see the Royal Palace from our hotel

Leaving a place is always hard when you’re tied to it through memories. I miss everything and everyone, especially my family whom I’ve met for only the first time. I even miss the bellmen at the hotel (whom I’ve met the year before) and the tuk tuk drivers, who never ceased to greet us with a smile. I also miss the atmosphere of our temporary abode and its warm and damp air upon entering the lobby, and eating breakfast by the pool on the rooftop. But most of all, I miss experiencing life on a daily basis — hibernating in a home with only arm’s length space, yet generous enough to house five dogs; taking the tuk tuk to crowded markets; and even the sound of beeping motorcycle and car horns every sunrise.

Food market in Kien Svay

Food market in Kien Svay

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There’s a great deal to miss about Phnom Penh, the food being unquestionably one of them. I had no filter when it came to food; I ate anything and everything. A bit reckless perhaps — which is why I was deathly sick in Siem Reap and my soul just about left my body — but alas, food is one of the wonderful ways of exploring a place, and I was certainly on no diet. Chives pancakes were among my favourite eats, and before I left for Japan, I visited the Central Market (Psar Thmei) for the last time.

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Another thing I appreciated about Phnom Penh: the Aeon Mall, just because the food section was heaven on earth for me. With a raging sweet tooth, naturally I’d gravitate towards the dessert section, only to find the love of my life: sweet sticky rice with durian and coconut milk, a classic Khmer dessert. I love durian. I think it’s the sexiest fruit in the world.

View from the rooftop parking of Olympic Market

View from the rooftop parking of Olympic Market

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Not many people can relate to my sentiments — not even individuals I’ve spoken to, who were born and raised in Cambodia — but some days, upon reflection, I feel like I could call Phnom Penh home. In the midst of chaos and unease, its crowded streets, polluted air and scorching temperatures, and the poverty and political injustices that loom at large, somehow, there’s a feeling of sweet serenity in Phnom Penh.