Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Phnom Penh by Tuk-Tuk

(c) RRCaroll. Source: Flickr.

It's been two months since we've been to Cambodia and I am trying to remember why I liked its capital city that much. Not an easy task, since we spent not more than 18 hours spread over two days. The shabby roads, the no-traffic-lights system, and the sheer poverty of most neighborhoods make that even harder. But truth is I had a great time and felt more at ease than anywhere in Asia. 

After an 8-hour bus ride by Mekong Express from Saigon ($22 for a round trip), which is supposed to take only 6 (but, well, welcome to Asia!), we "landed" in an air-conditioned van that took us on a guided tour to four of the most important sights in the city: the Royal Palace, the Independence Monument, the National Museum of Art, and Wat Phnom.

The main entrance to the Royal Palace.
The Throne Hall
The Royal Palace was built in the 19th century and amazingly survived all horrors of the 20th century. The complex houses the Silver Pagoda and the Temple of Emerald Buddha, as well as a series of perfectly executed stupas and shrines. 

The grounds are wonderfully maintained and really worth seeing. The Palace is open every day between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and in the afternoon, between 1 and 5. 

Inaugurated in 1958 as a memorial to Cambodia's war dead after the gaining of independence from France in 1953, the Independence Monument, built in the Angkorian style in the form of a lotus-shaped stupa, consists of five levels decorated with 100 snake heads and dominates the intersection of Norodom Blvd. and Sihanouk Blvd. in the center of the city. The best time to visit it is in the afternoon, just before sunset, or at night, when it is fully lit.

The Independence Monument
The next stop marked a 45-minute visit to the National Museum of Art (Street 13, Sangkat Chey Chumneas, Khan Daun Penh, Phnom Penh), just opposite the Royal Palace. You really don't need more time unless you are a historian or an archeologist: the museum is fairly small, but very interesting, and the guides are really effective. No pictures are allowed inside the museum.

The exterior of the National Museum of Art.
The last attraction on our guide's agenda was Wat Phnom, the temple on the hill (St. 94). The namesake and symbol of the capital city of Phnom Penh sets prominently atop an artificial 27-meter hill (or Phnom) near the Tonle Sap River in the northeast section of the city. Legend relates that Daun (Grandmother or Lady) Penh, a wealthy widow, found a large koki tree in the river. She hoped to use it for a house, but inside a hollow of the tree she found four bronze statues of the Buddha (and possibly a stone statue of Vishnu); she erected a small shrine on the site to protect them. Eventually this became a sacred site and sanctuary where people would make wishes and pray for good luck and for success in school or business.
Inside Wat Phnom.
Well, that was the first time we went on a guided tour. No tourist's remorse at all, especially because the time was short and we couldn't have possibly seen so many things by ourselves in only 3 hours. But the best thing came the next day, when I discovered how pleasant a tuk-tuk ride can be.

The advice I will give to anybody who visits Phnom Penh is to get up in the morning, have a good breakfast, and jump in a tuk-tuk. Tell the driver to give you a tour of the city starting on Sisowath Quay, the boulevard that parallels the bank of the Mekong. This quaint neighborhood dotted by picturesque hotels, cafes, and chi-chi shops and fronted by manicured lawns is the best place to start and finish your $3 or $4 city tour.

Cafes along Sisowath Quay.
One of the hotels on Sisowath Quay which offers great views of the river.
Then tell the driver to head to the Central Market. You'll pass en route by most of the attractions I mentioned before:

The Park in front of the Independence Monument, where most national celebrations are held.
The Independence Monument itself.
The area around the Royal Palace.
 Then he will take you along circuitous streets that made me think about Thessaloniki, imagine! 

And the closer to the market you get, the more delicacies like these ones you'll see:
River shells roasted with salt and chili. 
Pastries and assorted fruit.
I didn't spend more than half an hour at the market as it seems to me most tourist markets in Asia sell just about the same things, like these ones:
More stuff to add to your luggage. At least it's dirt cheap.
Well, even if you decide to give up and shop like crazy for GAP T-shirts for $2 and 50-cent souvenirs, you can still take the tuk-tuk back to Sisowath Quay for lunch and drink a cold Angkor beer for me. To Phnom Penh!

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful country indeed :) One of the most fascinating countries I've visited so far. I'm glad you love it too, makes us more fans :)
    Hugs& Kisses