Although we went to Siem Reap three years ago and visited Angkor Wat, we regretted not seeing more of Cambodia. So we were delighted when we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia‘s famous capital [see our earlier blog entitled, ‘Insights to Angkor Wat & the Cambodian Countryside‘]. We flew AirAsia from Krabi, changing planes in Bangkok. The visa-on-arrival process worked without a hitch – we just handed over our USD70. The ATM dispensed brand new USD100 bills and we headed in to the arrival hall. The hotel had sent a car and Alf quickly spotted a Cambodian version of his surname, ‘Odman’, (that’s debatable!)
We spent a week in an amazing boutique hotel, right in the center of the city, behind the Royal Palace – the service was spectacular, the staff were so helpful and it was surprisingly inexpensive by international standards. The guests were from around the world but mainly French and Chinese. The building was French colonial, built in the 1930s and in the ‘Art Deco’ style; it included a large pool area, with a lush tropical garden, just like an oasis in the city center. All the staff seemed hand-picked and went out of their way to assist in any way possible. However, we were a little wary when we were advised by the hotel’s security staff to be careful on the streets and in tuk-tuks – they recommended not carrying valuables, wearing jewelry, handbags and cameras etc. Also we received a caution against walking at night. This was all a bit off-putting, but we later discovered that the hotel security were just acting on the side of caution and we never saw or experienced anything untoward.
After unpacking, we set out to explore the local neighbourhood, on foot of course. Alf checked the map and after about a hundred meters asked a European couple the way to the river. Yes, Alf got it wrong, yet again! The couple was English and gave us some useful tips. Walking the streets of Phnom Penh reminded us of Vientiane, Laos – the pavements (or sidewalks for North American readers)
seemed to be used for parking, food stalls and all manner of things, except pedestrians walking. It was often easier to walk in the road but it was stressful with the large number of motorbikes vying for every inch of road and honking their horns continually. After two sides of a block, we arrived at the National Museum, on the way to the river - we soon saw children running naked and playing in the street and all manner of people, including the disabled beggars, who clearly lived rough on the streets. We continued another block and we were at the river-side, where the Tonle Sap River meets the mighty Mekong River. Had we turned left, we would have entered the heart of the tourist area, with lots of bars and restaurants - it's called 'Riverside'. But we turned right and walked with the river to our left and the Royal Palace boundary to our right. Marilyn commented that there were no westerners on the streets, just vendors and tuk-tuk drivers, all trying to get our attention. After some debate, we finally found a tuk-tuk with whom we were comfortable and paid USD2 for the trip back to the hotel.
That night we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant and ordered a delicious Cambodian fish meal. The restaurant is situated on the first floor terrace with a picturesque view of a lily pond and fountain below.
The concierge provided us with a map and highlighted the important sites, he also suggested a few restaurant recommendations. With a week in Phnom Penh, we planned to experience as much of the city as possible.
We had a good night’s sleep and Alf used the hotel gym for an hour before breakfast. Breakfast was outdoors, next to the pool and tropical garden. The staffs were very attentive. We had a light breakfast with plenty of local fruits, fresh yogurt, oven hot bread plus coffee. After breakfast, we travelled by tuk-tuk to the Royal Palace. We used a local guide who spoke good English. The palace has been occupied by the Kings of Cambodia since circa 1860, with an important period of absence during the terrible Khmer Rouge era. Our guide told us that these days, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy and the king’s powers are ceremonial. The beautiful palace was constructed after King Norodom relocated the royal capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh in the mid-19th century. Apart from the description of the palace, our guide shared his personal life – he was a child in the Khmer Rouge period and described how his family struggled to avoid starving and being killed by the terrible communist regime of that time. Despite limited formal education, our guide had excellent English and his story was deeply moving [open this link for photos of the Royal Palace].
We left the Royal Palace when it closed and walked to the National Museum of Cambodia.
Somewhat exhausted, we took a late lunch at ‘Friends’, a popular and inexpensive restaurant recommended by our hotel. We enjoyed ‘Friends’ so much that we returned later that night. It was to become one of our favorites. It’s a major expat haunt and a large part of its revenues help Cambodian children in need, an extremely worthwhile cause.
We spent a lazy late afternoon relaxing by the pool at the hotel. The next day we planned to visit two important sites remembering the Khmer Rouge period. We had by this time we had found a favored tuk-tuk driver, recommended by the, now friendly, hotel concierge, whom we liked and trusted – we tended to use him whenever we could.
Before closing, we want to try to share that the Cambodian people are truly delightful. They are warm, friendly and quick to smile. Cambodia is one of the world’s poorer countries and still relying upon foreign aid, however; they do have what is beginning to become a buoyant tourist industry but it is still trying to recover from a tragic past.
Watch this space, Cambodia is very special.