Saturday, April 6, 2013

First view of Cambodia in Phnom Penh

The Thailand sojourn is not over yet. After Chiang Mai, the plan was to visit Cambodia and get back to Thailand to fall in the Andaman sea at Phuket. Hmm, this is what happens if spouses have different interests. Velu doesnt understand the interest I have in visiting "one stone after another to another". The sea is such a nice place; you lie on the sand and sip beer all day and thats so much fun. So when we have to travel together; we make sure we take into account my interest and also his. So the vacation always ends with beer on the sea shore.

The first impression of Cambodia was looking at people after we got through immigration. Immigration was itself a breezy process; unlike at Thailand. Visa on Arrival in Thailand is a pain; crowded, long waiting time and acceptance of only Thai Baht. Cambodia is different; they depend on tourism heavily and thus US dollars are used extensively; in fact its only US $ de facto. They collect your passports and seamlessly all things get done; in less than 10 minutes you are out with your passport and visa.

So the first impression, I thought most Cambodians looked like Indians. You only realize they are of different nationality once they start speaking to you; thats natural since we share ancestry. As you walk out of the airport; the feeling is that here are your long lost brothers. You hit the road and the first thing that hits you is a feeling of being in India during the 80s. Yeah, it takes you back by 30 years.

The country is picking bits and pieces of itself after the civil war during the 70s along with the American-Vietnam war when the Cambodian lands were used for war. Its a sad but intriguing story. More about it later. So you see dirty children begging on the streets; most of them super smart and shrewd. You will learn about their plan of actions sooner than you think.

Most tourists generally skip Phnom Penh. There is hardly anything to see, only a couple of prison and killing fields which is going to leave you sad, pained and chilling. Cambodia's tourism lies in the heart of Siem Reap - the Angkor Wat and other cluster of temples. So understandingly, the airport at Siem Reap is bigger and well equipped to handle international flights than at Phnom Penh though the latter is the capital.

I knew which area we will have to stay at; but didn't have a reservation in any hotels. Typical me! The taxi ride cost 9$; as we got out of the taxi; we had to face desperate tuk-tuk drivers wanting to ferry us in their tuk-tuks for 1$. The currency of Cambodia is Riel; but very low in value and people don't prefer transactions in riel. It has not gained public acceptance even after 30 years when it was first introduced.

Cambodia gets strong international support in economic assistance. The infrastructure development is mostly aided by foreign countries as a token of friendship. In fact, the temples at Siem Reap are renovated by various countries' archeological departments like China, France, India.

The destination was Riverside. Riverside is a boulevard where the rivers Tonle Sap and Mekong confluence to form Bassac on one side and the other side is laden with hotels, restaurants, bistros, cafes and bars. Its also called Sisowath Quay and very famous since it also has the Royal Palace of HRH the King of Cambodia and the Emerald Temple.

Riverside is like Point Zero and is busy throughout. Its the downtown with fairly easy access to transport and food. Also, options to stay range from 5 star to backpacker's den. With range of options to stay and eat, its obvious the place exists for tourists and are thus priced for tourists. So its better to get a bit away from the Riverside view hotels to find decent holets with great service but at a lesser price

We found one 500 m away from the Riverside proper and a 100 m interior from the main road and paid just 10$. While initially the desperation of the tuk tuk drivers may give you a wrong impression that they are trying to fleece you; its not. These folks are essentially trying to earn some money and they are good. For the hard work they do, 1-2$ is all they earn sometimes per day. In fact, a tuk tuk guy was continuously pursuing us on the first day. It was raining and we decided on a quick refreshment at a restaurant. He was waiting for us to finish; when we did; we chose another tuk tuk. It was not intentional; it was just that we chose randomly. This guy felt so bad that he actually came up to us and expressed his unhappiness. He was waiting in the rain for nearly an hour just to earn 1$ but he had lost it. I felt very very bad for what we did or didn't do. But the way he was pursuing did give us jitters.

On the second day, we were walking on the Sisowath Quay to relax, when a guy on a motorcycle came close to us. It flustered us and then he went away realizing we didn't need a drop. Only later did I realize that locals hitchike on strangers vehicles and pay them 1000 or 2000 riels. Sometimes you can see 3-4 people on a motorcycle hitchhiking!

The King had passed away. The state was mourning. This is the Royal Palace on Riverside with the portrait of the King

Cambodia was a French colony for a while and one can see lot of French colonial buildings. Here is one. Interestingly, it seems if the French had not colonized Cambodia, the country wouldn't be in existence today.  Part of it would have gone to Thailand and remaining to Vietnam.

Sisowath Quay is the best place to stay; since most of the destinations are walking distance - the royal palace, the national museum, night market... This is the entrance to National Museum, showcasing pre Angkor and post Angkorian era; artifacts and other items.

View of Riverside

The Independence monument; about 1 km from Riverside. It was built in 1958 after independence from France in 1953. Its dome is styled like Lotus after the Khmer temples of Angkor.

Away from the central district. The real Cambodia. I did not click pictures of Financial district since its obvious its going to a be a wide boulevard, neat and clean. This is the essence of Cambodia.

Public transportation are only tuk tusk and taxis. The roads once you get out of the central business district is bad and broken and at most places; doesn't exist.

Woman selling street food with her shoulder baskets

Housing complexes

Inside Wat Phnom. The legend of Phnom Penh is that a Lady by name Penh built a temple long ago on a hill. Phnom means Hill and Phnom Penh means The Hill of the Lady Penh. The temple has a stupa, murals depicting stories from Reamker - the Khmer version of Ramayan can be seen on either sides. It sits 27 meters above ground level and is the tallest religious structure in the city

Tuk tuk for the day

The Silver Pagoda temple located within the Royal Palace complex. The interior of the temple is inlaid with silver tiles and is now covered with carpets; but one can still walk on it and feel the tiles if you can push the carpet a bit. The temple also houses national treasures such as several gold and silver statues of Buddha. They are exhibited in the temple and one can see them. Most of the other complexes within the palace was shut as a mark of respect for the King and it was the official mourning period. It was only the Silver Pagoda and a couple of other external structures that were open and yet the ticket prices remained at 6.5$ per person. I thought it was not worth. Also, we entered when the complex was to be closed for the day; around 5:00 and so had to rush. Again I thought 5:00 was too early to close. Photography is not permitted inside the pagoda. I would have gladly missed visiting it.

A couple of patriots going to offer lotus flowers to the King; outside the palace compound. The Cambodians revere their king a lot and they have immense respect for the King and the Prince

Buddish monks at the Complex. Interestingly the coronation I have read of the Prince happens with the presence of Hindu Brahmin priests; they give a go ahead kind of stuff. Its interesting to see how a Hindu country embraced Buddhism in 14th century at the behest of Sri Lankan Buddhist monks but still has Hindu practice imbibed in their daily life.

Girls taking a break amidst their sales.

Entrance to the Royal Palace

Lotus, black badges were sold heavily; and the sellers pursued everyone to buy them as a mark of respect for the King. Seen here is the portrait of the King and his casket on the giant LCD. Crowds of people thronged at the entrance; some of them chanting prayers, some of them with their family. The place was a mess, dirty and chaotic. Some of them saw business opportunities; selling food and other things. Again, it was best to move about in caution; you don't know who could snatch your bag or pick your pockets.

Probably a rag picker; he had lot of empty cans and bottles with him. He readily stood for a photo when I requested him. I am reminded of an incident that happened the previous day. We found an Indian restaurant; and were sipping chai sitting outside enjoying the view of the rivers when a cute boy of not more than 5 years came by. He could communicate in impeccable English; he looked dirty and shabby. He said he was 4 years old. He was hovering around our table and trying to grab attention. I picked up my camera to take his picture and he ducked under a chair. He didn't want to be photographed I thought. But once I placed my camera; he said "Lady, give me 1$ and you can take my picture". I was stunned at first. But later realized this is how the kids are trained; kids are sent to sell stuffs so that tourists take mercy on them and buy really compared to being sold by elders. This boy was so shrewd that he knew he had to be paid for the service. 1$ was not too big money not to part with but somehow I did not want to encourage this behavior. The kid was around for 5 more minutes trying all things to grab my attention and then when he realized I didnt mind not having his picture; he left. Bunch of kids like these exist everywhere demanding money and they know that "Its just 1$" and not a big pinch in your pocket!

The Tonle Sap and the Mekong from the other side meeting to form Bassau

Manicured lawns, neat boulevard; in the evening its a nice place to take a walk and buy something to eat from numerous hawkers

The tuk tuk here are pulled by 2 wheelers; like the way food carts were pulled in Thailand. There are no restrictions on how these 2 wheelers could be used. But the tuk-tuk drivers have a hard way to be driving a 2 wheeler long distances; back breaking work for sure

At night

The Palace at night


  1. The never ending saga of journey!. Keep going B.
    I read somewhere that V.S.Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for his travel stories and not not for his fictions.
    I think, with a country like Cambodia next doors it is pretty odd why it has not been picked by us as a travel destination.
    Perhaps the only country where Buddhism entrenched sidelining other faith. It has always been the Buddhist losing out to Hinduism or Islam.

    The story of the boy is pretty street smart one. Well survival skills.

    When it is something about Cambodia , I'm reminded of the film "Killing Fields".

    The place look neat and clean in your pictures.

    1. Anil,

      Touchwood. :) Hope I can travel more and more.
      This is new to me; if VS Naipul was honored for his book on travel stories; thats great.

      I think there are reasons why we don't pick Cambodia as travel destination. One, its not advertised, so an average Indian does not know about Cambodia or an existence of such a country compared to how much he knows about Singapore and Malaysia (KL only) .
      Yeah, to most of us, what we know is what is been offered to us. How many go visit Malaysia beyond KL. How many of us know Mount Kinabalu?

      Second, we are safe travelers; we want everything planned and predictable. No adventures. No unknown territory.

      Third, offer me glitz and glamor and I am in. We are a country with insatiable appetite for glamor.

      Cambodia or Costa Rica or Vietnam doesn't come in any of these categories.

      Its sad to hear the tale at countries where Hinduism has perished - Thailand, Lanka, Cambodia... At anything that has to be covered up is vilified. So be prepared to hear the other version of how Hinduism was forced in such countries.

      such boys and girls are abundant in Cambodia. Killing Fields - I visited one. I will post on it later. Its grim, sad and controversial.

      The place is relatively cleaner than Indian standards. One - we are talking about a small country with small population. Also, these were all financial districts and after all country's capital. But yeah, it wasn't that worse as well

  2. woww you have been visiting so many places. That's really cool. And I love how you patiently describe the journey and the places. All I would have managed was to post pictures. Once again very informative post :)

    1. I am no closer to being called a decent traveler yet :) Thanks, I also want to document my travels so that I can read, look back and revive those memories.

  3. Wow! There's so much that I don't know about Combodia. Really, do they use only USD there? That's kool. And the tuk tuk is looking great too. The houses look typically like India, although the roads in the pictures looks clean and neat (much to the disgrace, unlike India!)

    1. Thanks yeah though Cambodia is very near to us, most of us dont know about it

  4. B, I do not see any historical instance where Hinduism was forced down the gullet like other faiths undertake Proselytism by duress, sword , now guns and bombs or even by virtue of empathy.
    There was no organised power center in Hinduism ( ignore the recent fringe phenomena) and hence it was one's pure volition and unfettered choice to follow a Hindu way of living or not.

    Hence the fall of Hinduism in countries beyond the subcontinent.
    Hindu kings and emperors of ancient and medieval India too did not force the faith or their ways on another. That is amplified by the free playing field given to Judaism, Christianity , Islam and other faiths in India.

    It will be a revelation to me if historical fact of aggressive brand of Hinduism ever existed is evidenced.

    1. Agree; in fact these kings converted to other faith to appease the large and sundry and to take the seat of power

  5. Comprehensive post! The tuk tuks remind me of chakdas they run in Gujarat. And Cambodia seems so alien yet by your post it does have its commonalities for us.

    1. Thanks Rachna. Anyone from India visiting Cambodia would be surprised at the commonalities and yeah then end up feeling like long lost relatives

  6. That was a nice armchair travelogue on Cambodia :)


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