The Cambodian leg of my South-east-Asian odyssey begins in Ho Chi Minh City, still deciding and working out how I should make my way to Phnom Penh…
the options being train, boat and plane with the last two available in varying standards. From what I’d been told up to this point, if you have the time, a truly enlightening way to enter Phnom Penh is on board one of the many ferries that travel from Vietnam along the Mekong, passing tiny villages, floating markets and fishing boats which would have been great if they were still running but alas, no. Choosing the alternative, I make it to Chau Doc by bus and spend a night there which was fine by me as the place is lovely. A speedboat in the morning was on the cards though a good breakfast beforehand is highly recommended and alot of water as the trip can be several sweaty hours and depending on the time of year, the river can flow in both directions due to the tides thus creating potential delays.
One very alluring thing about travelling the Mekong Delta is the charming insight you get into everyday life of this region, the kind that has been untouched by tourism or what we call modern life. Our speedboat driver tells me in his rather impressive english, about the floatingt markets of Cai Be and Sa Dec; colourful riverside markets where you’ll find tropical fruits tumbling and frogs twitching and any number of local delicacies more likely to be found spinning webs or climbing branches than at any corner store. The Mekong river courses through both Vietnam and Cambodia and while the two countries share some similarities and a torturous modern history, they’re culturally more distinct than you might think.
I’d been living in Vietnam for about 6 months by this point and it was easy to see how much it had been influenced by China over the last 1000 years from incense-swirling temples and Confucian ideals to bonsai and calligraphy. Cambodia on the other hand looks towards Thailand (and even India) for inspiration with it’s main religion being Buddhism. The traditional wai greeting, curries and Hindu architecture are obvious.
It’s not long before we arrive at Phnom Penh near the Palm tree-lined Sisowath Quay Riverwalk, alongside the west bank of the Tonle Sap river where it meets the Mekong.Strolling the riverwalk after dark you will come upon the night market as well as the opportunity to ride in one of the cycle rickshaws as I did though unfortunately these cycles are slowly being replaced by motorbikes and tuk-tuks right across south-east Asia though some like the one I’m on continue. Footsteps in Asia, which custom-designs tours of Cambodia and Vietnam use cyclos supported by a non-government organisation called Cyclo Centre that is helping to keep the tradition alive and thus food on the table for those who might not have had otherwise. Taking one of these rides gives you a close-up view of the city and its people including Wat Phnom, the capital’s tallest temple and a gathering place during the annual Pchum Ben, the festival of the dead. According to legend the temple was built in 1373 to house several Buddha statues found washed up on the banks of the Mekong by a woman named Penh.
The next stop is the Royal palace in the heart of Phnom Penh, a majestic palace complex using classic Khmer architecture, elaborate gilding, soaring spires and golden temple nagas (carvings of mythical reptilian creatures) where you’ll find a lush French-style garden housing life-size sculptures of Khmer warriors and Buddhas in a range of poses. Within the complex there is also the Temple of the Emerald Buddha containing religious and cultuaral artefacs with its floors covered with more than 4000 silver tiles.
As is well known, Cambodia’s more recent history is tagged with grief and sorrow and although The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for less than four years, the devastation wrought on this part of the world is unfathomable. Even when visiting the numerous sites, it’s difficult to process.
Choeung Ek for example, is a very sombre and rather macabre place where Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge slaughtered an estimated 20,000 Cambodians and buried them in mass shallow graves and is a 35-minute drive from Phnom Penh Entrance costs $US3.
Toul Sleng, on the fringes of downtown Phnom Penh is a former high school that became known as S21, a centre of torture and interrogation of political prisoners that is now a genocide museum showing in graphic detail the beatings and humiliations dealt to more than 17,000 who passed through the doors.
Beyond the city, there is also of course Angkor Wat Temple complex at Siem Reap, one of the country’s main tourist attractionsand the most recognizable symbol of Cambodia with it adorning the national flag. Far from being solely a tourist attraction, Angkor Wat is also an active prominent religious center that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
With its five beautiful towers,
the complex is built around Hindu mythology as it was intended to represent a sacred mountain known as Mount Meru. Mount Meru, which is thought to be the abode of the gods
as well as the center of the universe, was later adopted by Buddhism and integrated into Buddhist mythology.
Following on from Angkor, there is Kep, a former French resort that is slowly returning to life potentially becoming the next Goa, but not any time soon. Kep’s bay is beautiful and the jungle rubs up against the the town’s backstreets, though the beach is, well, not much of a beach though there are plenty of local boatmen are willing to take you out to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), where you’ll find a number of good beaches and fabulous seafood restaurants.
And for the more hardened traveller: Kampot, about 20km away, is a bumpy two-hour ride up Bokor Mountain, one of the few places in south-east Asia with enough intact forest to maintain a population of elephants and tigers roaming free.
Not many walking tours for this one.
Aside from the monuments and scenery, Siem Reap is also for the bravest of heart and stomach with a vast array of exotic food sold throughout the city. If you have always wondered how snakes, frogs, worms, crickets, beetles, wild birds, cockroaches, and tarantulas taste, this is the place to satisfy your curiosity and then there is also the slightly less brag-worthy but equally delicious, Amok or Khmer Curry – Cambodia’s national dish and one of the must-try meals in Cambodia. The traditional recipe uses fish, but Amok is now cooked with a variety of ingredients such as vegetables, beef, chicken, and even fruits to suit the customer’s preferences.
If after all the sights have been seen and you still want to discover more of the city but at your own at your own pace, renting a bike is one of the best ways to explore Siem Reap with there being numerous establishments in and around that offer bike rentals very cheaply or ask your hotel recpetion. As someone who as cycled many parts of the world,I can vouch for it being truly something special.
Numerous markets are also scattered around Siem Reap, but the Noon and Night Market is the only one that is open until the wee hours of the night and has a lot of shops and stalls where you can buy sculptures, clothes, authentic Khmer fabrics, spices, utensils, hammocks, and more. Getting through customs with them is another story for another time.