Exploring Phnom Penh

Bar a small amount of excitement when we realised that Princess Beatrice was on our flight, our journey to Cambodia was largely uneventful. Having navigated our way through the pristine airport we secured a tuk tuk and set off through the hellish traffic of Phnom Penh. Our hotel was only about 10 kms from the airport but the sweaty tuk tuk journey took a gruelling 40 minutes through baking traffic.

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Our dawdling experience in Vientiane had spurred us to have a more robust plan in place to avoid getting lethargic so we spent that first afternoon making our itinerary. Once the sun had set we ventured on to the streets for our first taste of Phnom Penh. It was certainly busier than Vientiane. The largely unlit pavements made Caro feel a bit anxious and people emerging from darkened building sites as we passed did nothing to alleviate her feeling of unease. No one approached us though and we made it to the Independence Monument without incident.

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In the evening, the stretch of green from the monument to the waterfront serves as a power walking circuit and loads of people were marching anti-clockwise. We didn’t dare attempt walking in the other direction, but wondered, does the first person who gets there in the evening get to decide the direction that everyone will walk for the rest of the night? Or, has everyone agreed that you walk anti-clockwise and that’s that?

For dinner we went to the top rated cheap eats on tripadvisor, Feliz, it didn’t particularly impress us and we hoped that it wasn’t a benchmark for what we were to expect throughout the country. Getting to Feliz took us in to BKK1, the expat district and the location of Bassac lane, where a small hive of bars and restaurants has sprung up. We weren’t drinking that night so just went for a looksee. It was smaller than we had expected so after a quick spin under the fairy lights we were on our way back to the hotel. It would definitely be a nice stop for a few beers if that is what you are after.

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Day two dawned bright with the promise of a scorching day, the 6:45 alarm was most unwelcome and we were both a bit muggy-headed with the feeling of impending colds. Not ideal. Our morning was taken up with a half day tour at S21 and the Killing Fields. We will write separately about this experience. All we will say here is that we got back to our hotel and 1pm physically drained and emotionally exhausted.

We were both still feeling the stirrings of a cold and decided that comfort food was the order of the day. David’s Noodles provided this and then some. The noodles are made right in front of you, coupled with dumplings and a chilli broth they made for the perfect antidote to a drooping chicken.

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In the late afternoon we made our way to Wat Phnom. What struck us the most was that we appeared to be some of the only tourists who chose to see Phnom Penh on foot. Whilst most of the sights are easily walkable we couldn’t blame people for not wishing to walk under the flame thrower that is the Cambodian sun. Wat Phnom itself was quite cool, nothing spectacular but a good excuse for a leg stretch.

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Having climbed and circled the Wat we made for the waterfront. We had to skirt around buildings and carparks for the first kilometre or so but we then made it to the promenade and for the first time in a while, the promise of a lovely riverside walk was actually fulfilled. Tonlé Sap whizzed passed us at great speed and the long path along the bank was dotted with impromptu football matches and very low impact dancersize classes.

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We had dinner round the corner from our hotel and got an early night. (Given that we go to bed at 9pm as standard, it wasn’t really an early night for us, we just write that so that people who don’t have the sleeping habits of 80 year olds get what we mean.)

The following morning we were on the hunt for a really good breakfast. We haven’t really enjoyed breakfasts in this part of the world, noodles or rice in the morning is just not our preference and as a general rule “Western” breakfasts are not great. We ended up at ARTillery café, which is down a narrow lane peppered with street art.

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It was one of those restaurants where pulses are a main ingredient and everything can be “made gluten free on request”. Our scrambled eggs on toast, actual wholemeal toast, were delicious and an enormous fruit salad, minus papaya, left us very happy.

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After breakfast, we went straight to the Royal Palace. We had read that you need to be modestly dressed so Caro had trousers on and a scarf to put around her shoulders. It turns out that scarves are the epitome of immodesty and you have to be wearing an actual top that covers your shoulders. We suspect that this is just a ploy to get t-shirt sales up but it is how Caro wound up in possession of an impressively ugly t-shirt.

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It was so damn hot. To the point that every second sentence uttered was something to do with the heat. As in:

James: Wow, that pagoda is beautiful

Caro: I am the sweatiest person alive

The Palace is stunning, a veritable study in over-the-top and ostentatious. It works though, despite the fact that thousands of kilos of gold have been used either on the buildings or the furnishing, none of it seems gaudy. As usual, only exterior photographs were allowed.

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Several parts of the palace were undergoing rennovations but there was still plenty to see. Our favourite part was the Throne Hall, the goldest and sparkliest of the lot. The much-lauded Silver Pagoda didn’t float our boats so much, the bits of silver floor that you can see are severly tarnished and for some reason are taped down with sellotape. The Pagoda is surrounded by a powder blue fence which lends the place a Disneyesque feel or, to Caro’s mind, made it the perfect set for Beauxbatons.

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We made a cursory tour of the other buildings, which were all beautiful, before heading towards the National Museum. We politely declined the many offers of tuk tuks and the advice of one particularly persistent but friendly chap who told us us the museum was shut until 2pm and we should go on a tour with him first. It was not shut.

On the way we spotted a camper van with French plates and sign painted with ‘Coqs of the world’. The owner was stood outside having a coffee and we got chatting about how a French camper ended up in Cambodia. It was a fascinating story of their drive across the world and we picked up some tips on Cambodia.

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The National Museum was interesting, but is mainly filled with sculpture so unless you are really in to statues it probably isn’t worth the fairly hefty $10 per person entry fee. The building is really pretty though.

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That evening we continued exploring the riverfront and the streets behind. Our wandering took us through some areas which were definitely not catering to tourist or drinkers. There were stalls where local people were getting their bikes fixed, getting a haircut or eating. We walked along a road dedicated purely to selling sugar cane and dodged round a tarmac machine which was re-laying the road amongst the oncoming traffic.

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Once on the riverfront we visited Wat Ounalon. It is a very pretty complex of buildings though not as impressive as the others we had seen that day.

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Phnom Penh’s riverside night market is quite small and sold less by way of tourist tat and more by way of cheap clothing and bags. We weren’t ready for food yet but the picnic style food court at the back of the market looked clean and appealing.

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We made a quick pit stop at the compulsory Irish Bar.

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We had saved a visit to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for our last night in Phnom Penh. The building was less striking than we had been expecting but the view from the second floor terrace is gorgeous and the treasure trove of photographs on the walls are captivating. We toasted the start of a new adventure in a new country.

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