Preparation to move on began at about 6am this morning – leaving The Pavilion Hotel in Phnom Penh and joining the cruise aboard the Jahan to Siem Reap. I was very excited by this boat – only 26 cabins, but we had bottom of the line and it was still about 30sqm, with a big bathroom and huge shower (but very little drawer space!). The design and décor are very lush – a tasteful balance of East and West, with a hint of colonial thrown in. All very luxurious.
After a breakfast of spicy soup, we all climbed into cyclos for a tour of the city. These drivers work hard for their money; while Phnom Penh is a flat city, their thighs are propelling a lot of big, white tourists around. From our point of view, however, it was a delightful way to see the city, and the most environmentally friendly way of transport!
We were deposited from our cyclos at the front of the Royal Palace, and wandered across the grassy public area where there were so many gathered the night before. As we were taking our tourist pics of the regal gates, a small tanker truck with ‘inflammable’ emblazoned on it, pulled up in the middle of the road. It was a tad disconcerting to see the driver dismount, unhook a gigantic hose, and begin splashing clear liquid all over the road. Obviously, the intricacies of the English language can be more than a tad confusing (the fact that ‘flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ mean the exact same thing confuses even native English speakers) – but it was just water!
The Silver Pagoda was the first stop on our tour, and is situated right next to the Palace. Named for the 5329 silver tiles covering the floor, each 20cm square and weighing about a kilogram, the pagoda is now more a museum than a temple, and houses some pretty impressive relics. I was particularly taken by the life-size gold Buddha standing ‘centre stage’ that weighs 90kg, all ‘blinged up’ in diamonds from dismantled crown jewel collections. There was also a 2 metre long gilded wooden ceremonial litter that needed 12 men to carry it to transport the king on coronation day.
At the moment, the country is mourning the death of their old king, Norodom Sihanouk, the father of the current king, Norodom Sihamoni. Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 for his son, who keeps a much lower profile than his father. The old king was 90 years old and died on 15 October (nearly two months ago), and because of this the palace is closed to the general public – he is lying in state, awaiting cremation, which will take place when the glorious new funeral pyre next to the palace is completed.
Not being able to tour the palace meant that we moved on sooner than is usual on this tour to the National Museum. This impressive red building houses sculptures, relics and artefacts from prehistoric times to the present. While this museum opened in 1918 (designed by French archaeologist George Groslier), the collection was abandoned in 1975 when the city was emptied by the Khmer Rouge, and the place was looted and the director was murdered. It was a long road back to its glory after 1979 – a collapsed roof and the ravages of nature had done a lot of damage to the building, and it was as late as 2002 before they finally got rid of the bats living in the ceiling and defecating all over the exhibits!
Our lunch was at Malis Restaurant – apparently the ‘pinnacle of dining in Phnom Penh’ (according the their blurb in the local tourist booklet!). I guess the ‘pinnacle’ is in the trappings of linen tablecloths, peaceful courtyard equipped with pond and koi, and many wait staff. I found the service a little slow to start, and in some cases even a tad stroppy, but then they went like the clappers! When our first course came before either our water or wine, I asked the maître d’ about our order, so judging by the unsmiling face of our waitress and her sloppy pouring of our mineral water, I gather she had been given a stern talking to. As we were dining as a large tour group, there was a set menu. They were a little confused about what to do with us vegetarians, especially when we asked for dishes without fish! The first course was a delicious mixed mushroom stirfry in a sweet soy sauce, but the other courses were simply perfectly acceptable and unimaginative. I have no idea what the others in the group had, because we were seated on our own (maybe they didn’t want to contaminate the meat eaters, or maybe they didn’t want us vegos to make a scene if we had to sit next to dead animal!)
Instead of joining the rest of the group on the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields excursion, we headed off on a walk back to the boat. While we hadn’t seen the Museum the previous day, we decided to explore the city a little more and leave on a more positive note! Using my trusty Rough Guide to Cambodia with its sidebar on ‘Shopping with a Conscience’, we walked to Street 240 (around the corner from our hotel) and visited Mekong Quilts. This shop sells brightly coloured quilts, cushion covers and a wide assortment of fun gifts made by impoverished women. The profits from sales go to the provinces where the women come from, and the NGO behind the venture (Mekong Plus) provides scholarships and promotes health initiatives in the provinces.
We also popped into the Red Apron wine shop and, of course, managed another trip to the chocolate shop, whose prices for hand made chocolates was just ridiculously cheap compared to home! With goods in hand, we took a tuk tuk back to the boat – mainly because our chocolate would only be good for 30 minutes in the Phnom Penh heat, but also because it’s a really fun mode of transport!
Still wanting to further explore, we dropped our sweets in the fridge and went out again. We made our way back to Street 178 in search of the shop called ‘Daughters’, selling hand made, funky jewellery and accessories, and which also houses a café upstairs. “The shop is run by women who have been rescued from the sex trafficking industry, and profits go towards saving other victims. You can sponsor a girl and or donate directly to the foundation.” (Rough Guide to Cambodia) I also couldn’t help visiting an artisan jewellery shop, and managed to find some lovely earrings – easy to pack and light!
We discovered a long street that was home to a market for locals; very charming and atmospheric for several blocks, with perfect piles of produce stacked neatly in palm leaf baskets. It morphed into a junkyard as we progressed, with men tinkering with motors and bike parts, and kids running around naked and playing. But then there was an abrupt descent into a black and bleak sludge street that smelt of an open sewer and was barren of anything of apparent worth to a buyer. Not a nice sense memory moment to finish on!
Our first dinner on board was a BBQ buffet on the top deck, followed by the entertainment of traditional Apsara dancers to delight us. We had a smashing time with some lovely new friends, and with us chatting into the late evening, we were the last to head to bed. Luckily, we had restocked at the chocolate shop, and were able to ‘accessorise’ our nightcap of cognac!
One piece of bad news that was shared with us by our dinner mates was that due to the lack of rain this year, we would not be journeying into Tonle Sap Lake on the last day of our cruise. Instead, we would have to endure a 5 hour bus ride to Siem Reap – absolute torture to me!! I will have to dose up on ginger tablets and maybe take something to help me sleep through it all – anything to ward off travel sickness!!
The Jahan is a Heritage Line ship (this cruise began in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam and we joined it in Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Our travel agent on this cruise was Kelvin Do at Indochina Treks. We were very impressed with his efficiency, helpfulness, excellent advice, friendliness and price! His email is: email@example.com