We arrived in Phnom Penh after roughly a 6 hour bus trip on the Mekong Express through the Cambodian countryside. Although there wasn’t any evidence of “express” given the traffic entering Phnom Penh! We engaged in the obligatory, ritualistic haggling of fares with our tuk-tuk driver and headed off to “The Artist” guesthouse. We’d chosen it as it’s centrally located for the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum and just a stone’s throw from the river side where bars and restaurants abound.
The Cambodian capital moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh back in the 1430’s. Not only was it more centrally located in the Khmer territories but its location on the Mekong river meant that it was perfectly situated for trade with Laos and China. Indonesian and Chinese merchants were drawn to Phnom Penh and by the mid 16th century it had become a powerful centre in which to trade. The 90 year French rule from 1863 – 1953 is mainly displayed in the architecture and also reflected in some of the Cambodian cuisine.
The city grew rapidly post independence (9.11.53) to a population of around half a million in 1970. The population reached almost 3 million by early 1975 as refugees fled into the capital as the Vietnam war spread into Cambodian territory.
The 17th April 1975 was a fateful date in Cambodian history. The Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and seized power. Their extremist ideas forced the entire population into the countryside within days. Families were separated and thousands upon thousands of former Phnom Penh inhabitants were murdered. This included the vast majority of educated residents. For more about Cambodia’s dark and disturbing history please see The Killing Fields.
Early 1979 saw the arrival of the Vietnamese and Phnom Penh’s re-population, although this was tightly controlled. The 1990’s was a prosperous time for many and this was aided by an influx funding with the arrival of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Certainly there’s been huge investment and development in Phnom Penh in the last 20 years or so.
It might have been mid November but it was very hot. Whilst this is tolerable, coupled with the sticky, high humidity we constantly felt like a pair of wilting lettuce! Reminder to self not to visit in July and August! We walked toward the muddy waters of the Tonlé Sap river, where it merges with the mighty Mekong, hoping that the air would be cooler. It was, but only slightly. There was plenty of activity to capture our interest: people of all ages exercising along the broad promemade, children kicking about balls and youths playing keepy-uppy with a shuttlecock-like thing. We sauntered along the river to the night market where the stalls were full off t-shirts, jeans, leather belts, sun glasses and tacky souvenirs. At the back of the market were food stalls forming a square. In the middle was a large area of rafia mats where groups gathered and families and friends sat and ate.
We arrived at the Royal Palace feeling hot and bothered at about 11am only to find that it was shut between 11am – 2pm! Hmmm… rather a long lunch break I thought! We noted the dress code which applies to all temples and royal palaces throughout south east asia (clothing has to cover the knees and shoulders,) and checked with a security guard at one of the the gates regarding opening times and the correct entrance.
It was baking hot but not far away was Wat Ounalom, the HQ of Cambodian buddhism so we thought we’d take a peek. Luck wasn’t on our side as the upper parts of the main building were closed (there were apparently good views of the Mekong,) but we were able to go into a part of the temple. Strangely, buddhas with garish electric halos were being worshipped although the temple was practically empty and eerily quiet.
When we emerged from Wat Ounalom we were pounced upon by a tout offering us tours in his tuk tuk across to the island in the middle of the Mekong, incorporating the “Golden Temple” and some other sites. His english was very good but we politely told him that no thanks, we have other plans and that we were planning on going to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda later on. He proceeded to tell us that the Royal Palace was closed this afternoon due to the preparations for the impending Water Festival. We looked at each other a little confused, thinking how bizarre, as the guard at the palace hadn’t told us that it would be shut! He tried to persuade us for the next 5 minutes that it was closed and that we should take up the offer of his trip! We stuck to our guns, politely telling him that we weren’t interested.
Before returning to the Palace we visited Wat Phnom buddhist temple set on a 27m high tree covered ‘hill’ or ‘phnom’. Legend has it that the first pagoda was erected in 1373 to house four Buddha statues which were deposited by the Mekong and found by an old lady named Penh. Thus giving the town that subsequently arose here its name.
Lions and naga balustrades guard the entrance as you enter via the eastern staircase. Many people who visit here pray for success and good luck in exams and business affairs. When a wish is granted the devotées return with the promised offering such as oranges, jasmine flowers or bananas. There’s a brightly coloured ceiling and a large, cross-legged golden buddha sat high up on a plinth with a canopy like structure and six columns surrounding it.
To the west of the vihara (temple sanctuary) a huge stupa contains the ashes of King Ponhea Yat who reigned 1405 – 67. Below the vihara there’s a rather eclectic shrine dedicated to the genie Preah Chau. Oddly, guardian spirits holding iron bats stand either side of the central altar. There are also drawings of Confucius and two Chinese style figures of the sages Thang Cheng and Thang Thay. Quite an eclectic group of temples.
We weren’t aware until we arrived in Phnom Penh that the Water Festival or rather Bon Om Tuk, was about to be celebrated. This festivals lasts about three days and celebrates the victory of Jayavarman VII over the Chams, who occupied Angkor in 1177.
The festival also marks the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the current reversal of the Tonlé Sap river. The festival commenced on the day we left PP but preparations were well underway.
Boat races are held of highly decorated dragon boats holding 40 rowers and we saw quite a few practising crews out on the river. Rather them than me in the glare and heat of the afternoon sun, we were sweating just watching them from the riverbank!
The river front was being decorated, temporary stands erected and junk style,highly illuminated boats graced the waterfront. The promenade erupted with food sellers and it seemed as though the vast majority of the city’s residents were out on the streets.
On the gardens in front of the floodlit Royal Palace families and friends gathered for picnics and socialising. Young children ran around playing with balloons, bubbles and neon gadgets bought from the riverside. We both commented on how lovely it was to see families celebrating together with hardly any alcohol on show and absolutely no evidence of any drunkenness.
Later on that evening we stumbled across a couple of streets of a more sleazy nature! Scantily clad girls vying for customers adorned the numerous bars, enticing men (particularly European men,) no doubt with a free first drink. Probably to be followed by overly inflated priced ones or “drinks for the ladies”. We watched with amusement (and a degree of sadness,) but did not venture in!
Jon has already written of Tuol Sleng museum and the killing fields of Cheoung Ek. However I cannot write about Phnom Penh without making a comment about this terrible atrocity. Its impact is profound and deeply upsetting. I simply cannot understand how Pol Pot and his muderous regime could kill tens of thousands of their own people. Educated, professionals were particularly driven out of the cities and slaughtered. Ironically the regime’s elite were for the main part, educated in France; although I did note that Pol Pot failed to achieve his degree.
We visited the Grand Palace and Silver Pagoda in searing afternoon heat but beautiful, clear blue skies painted a glorious backdrop for our photos.
As the palace is used as the official residence of King Sihamoni vast areas are out of bounds for tourists. The gardens within the complex are immaculately manicured; not a leaf out of place and the buildings are absolutely pristine. The classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding adorn the complex which lies just across from the river.
The Throne Hall is the main attraction and its 59m high tower is said to be inspired by the Bayon temple at Angkor. Coronations and ceremonies such as presentations to overseas diplomats are held here. Unfortunately taking photos of its lavish interior is strictly forbidden. Consequently its highly guarded and neither of us wanted to chance taking a sneaky photo! A group of several young monks were also visiting the Grand Palace and they often stood at various monuments in height order! A few Chinese women couldn’t resist having their photos taken with them.
Adjacent to the Grand Palace is the Silver Pagoda complex. So called not for it’s silver exterior as I had imagined but for it’s silver tiled floor! It has over 5,000 tiles each weighing a kilo… now that’s a lot of silver! Unfortunately nearly all of the tiles are covered to protect them but you can catch a glimpse at the corners of the room.
The emerald buddha sits high upon a gilded pedestal and is much smaller than I expected. However in front of this there’s a life sized 90kg real gold buddha which is decorated with over 2000 diamonds! In the buddha’s crown there’s a whopper measuring 25 carats! The walls of the pagoda are adorned with Khmer art and there are several dozens of small buddhas and intricate masks used for classical dance.
There are several other structures within the Silver Pagoda complex: the shrine of King Norodom, a pavilion housing a huge bronze footprint (and three smaller ones within it,) of the Buddha from Sri Lanka and a shrine to one of Prince Sihanouk’s daughters. We wander around them all in the baking heat and can’t help but laugh at the young “selfie generation”. The narcissistic poses and pouts pulled by predominantly young, Chinese women complete with victory signs, prompted us to mimic them and resulted in bouts of surpressed laughter!
One of the things we wanted to do was to have early evening cocktails from one of the city’s skybars. We donned our “best” backpacker clothes and enjoyed a couple of cocktails at a rooftop bar which had great views of the river and skyline with an inky blue backdrop.
We both enjoyed Cambodia: learning about its gruesome past was truly harrowing. However the next generation seems (at least outwardly,) to have a big, wide smile on its face. Without exception we found everyone to be warm, friendly, eager to help and extremely proud of their country.
Next stop Vietnam.