Of Tuk Tuks and Dancing Kings – Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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The plane cruised over vast forest and flooded fields as Cambodia is suffering from extreme monsoon waters and the government has issued warnings to those living out in the stilt houses. It poured rain my first evening there.

I secured my eVisa online in advance, the approval took about a day before I received my email stating, “The Kingdom of Cambodia Welcomes You” with my eVisa. It is simply presented to the customs officer (Note: You skip the Visa On Arrival line, you already have your visa).  On the plane ride from Yangon they handed out the immigration form and declaration form and going through the customs line was seamless and straightforward.

Phnom Penh’s airport is small but modern and are at least five ATM’s outside the building immediately past baggage claim and declaration. I used free airport WiFi to book a “GrabTukTuk”, Grab is the equivalent of Uber/Lyft for Southeast Asia, which I used for all of my ride bookings during my stays all around Southwest Asia.

However, before leaving the airport I tried to take out some of the local currency before getting into a tuk tuk. I discovered that the machines would only disperse US dollars. Assuming that because I had an American card, the machines were only offering US dollar, and not wanting to be without any cash, I took out some US dollars. I checked each of the ATM’s and they all gave me the same option – US dollar. What I wouldn’t find out until the next day is that U.S dollar is a readily accepted as the local currently, and perhaps preferred. I also didn’t find an ATM until the next day that offered Cambodian Riel (KHR).

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During my visit $1 equalled 4,101 KHR. You can imagine my troubles with the quick conversions. 

If you pay for your tuk tuk ride with a $5 or $10 bill, you’ll likely be given a mixture of U.S. dollars and Cambodian cents (all of their cents come in paper bill form, no coins), so good luck converting between the two to get a converted amount owed to you! All ridesharing (cars, scooters or tuk tubs) are very cheap. My half hour to forty five minute ride to the airport from my hotel was $3 (or 16,300 KHR). Tuk tuks really are the best way to get around the city, they aren’t just a fun novelty, and if scooters aren’t your style, the tuk tuk is almost as efficient as maneuvering around the larger vehicles on the roads. I was glad to have opted for two carry-on suitcases rather than one big international bag because I don’t think the international bag would have fit int he tuk tuk. If you have international size travel bags, I’d recommend booking a Grab Car.

FOOD

Khmer Breakfast

With such a short stay in Cambodia I opted for my one main meal out to be the country’s traditional  dish – Khmer Fish Amok. A savory mixture of fish and spices cooked in thick coconut cream and galangal, served with a bowl of rice. Delish. I even bought a bottle of the Amok spice to take home.

WHERE TO STAY

The iRoHa Garden Hotel and Resort was a phenomenal choice and arguably my favorite place I stayed at during my Southeast Asia travels. What a haven! And the kindest people you will meet. They promptly ask you to sit on the couch at check in and bring out your “Welcome Drink,” a common Asian hotel perk. Mine happened to be a mango smoothie. Many of my hotel stays encouraged a sitting check in, where they came over to me and sat on a couch with the paperwork, rather than the typical standing at a counter.

They called me sister and said welcome home in the afternoons upon returning from my travels and adventures. The owner and managers’ desks are situated in the dining area and can see when you return and head up to the rooms so they happily greet you each time with what felt like legitimate joy at seeing me again. I wouldn’t expereince this again during my travels.

Both the owner and managers came over to chat casually in the evenings or breakfast, to ask how I was doing and how I enjoyed my stay and even the owner came out to give me a whole hearted goodbye and a bow as I tucked my two carry-on sized travel bags into the tuk tuk.

On the day of my departure they offered a “reading room” with a shower and other amenities for just such cases when guests’ flights happen to leave late in the day, long after checkout (12pm).

I think I will forever miss my stay here. IMG_4719IMG_4618

ihRoHa Hotel

Phnom Penh was really a breath of fresh air after long travels. Perhaps I was longing for a bit of modernity after Yangon, or perhaps I really fell in love with the tuk tuk lifestyle, but Cambodians are wonderful and have a long and painful history that they are learning to overcome. I met many friendly faces and spaces here.

TO SEE

I had a very quick trip in Phnom Penh but took my few extra moments to explore the Cambodian Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. I covered my shoulders, elbows and knees in preparation for entering the palace. If you are not properly covered you will be required to purchase a shirt to use during your touring of the palace grounds. There are two opening times for the palace, I entered at the 2:00pm opening and had been hoping I could find some sort of tour guide to make sense of everything I was seeing.  The tour options online can be overwhelming, as can the swarms of people offering tours at many corners around the tourist areas. Entry to the palace costs $10.

While heading towards the entrance booth of the palace a kind elderly gentleman asked if would like like a tour. The palace guides wear bright blue shirts and a badge and I saw another American with his own guide wandering the palace. I found it beyond helpful to know what I was looking at, what was appropriate and where, and even to have someone to take my picture in front of the palace. Ah the struggle of the solo traveler.

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My guide had been sent out to the land to work during the Khmer Rouge which took place in the not so distant past, being forced to work with the cattle manure for farming. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced millions of people in Phnom Penh and the surrounding areas to work in the countryside during the communist regime. The big city was emptied (I recommend watching First They Killed My Father directed by Angelina Jolie if you’re curious to learn more about this tragic event). Thousands of people died during the evacuations – through lack of medical services, starvation, execution, or exhaustion from overwork. This continued until 1979 when the Vietnamese fought their way into Cambodia and to lesser extents until 1999 when, “all of its leaders had defected to the Royal Government of Cambodia, been arrested, or had died” (Cambodia Tribunal).

The effects of that war are still a very real part of daily life  for many Cambodians. Many of the most educated people in Cambodia were killed leaving the country with no means to rebuild itself. Teachers, doctors and the people trained to be able to repair the damaged buildings (including the damaged but still remaining Royal Palace) were virtually nonexistent. As my guide put it, “Cambodia went back at least 20 years from that war and is still struggling to rebuild itself.” My guide was able to learn English after the war ended and he returned Phnom Penh.

I had to wonder what happened to the King of Cambodia (it appears their royal family has always been very much loved) and so did some research. The King under the constitution has no official power.

King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and held on to some form of power for the next 60-plus years. He served as monarch, prime minister, figurehead of the Communist revolution, leader in exile, and once again as monarch until he abdicated in 2004. He handed the crown to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, after which he was known as the retired king, or the king-father. (NyTimes)

Sihamoni is the current King, known as Cambodia’s Dancing King and studied classical dance and ballet in Prague for much of the war. He has now returned to the palace and lives a more monk-like life than his father, who had some 17 wives (throughout his life) and 14 children during his reign (many of which were killed during the Khmer Rouge)

King Sihamoni was born to love the arts. His father, the late and much-revered Norodom Sihanouk, produced 50 films during his lifetime, wrote more than 48 musical compositions and was a great advocate of traditional Khmer arts (Culture Trip).

King Sihamoni no longer houses elephants in the royal palace as was custom until his reign, and he is unmarried. The only single King of Cambodia.

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Huts outside of the Elephant Stables

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The Silver Pagoda

The Silver Pagoda (within the Royal Palace grounds) was my next stop with my guide, after a thorough description of the painted walls of the palace, adorned with the fading Reamker Mural. He explained that the people trained to complete, preserve and restore the special mural were killed during the war and specialists must be brought in from the outside (currently Poland) to restore it. It’s a hot topic among artists who fear the mural may never be itself again as only a small section as so far been restored (more updates on that here.)

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A restored section of the 100 year old Reamker Mural, badly destroyed in the war

Photos are not allowed inside many of the palace buildings, but inside of the grand Silver Pagoda lives the Emerald Buddha.

“An extraordinary Baccarat-crystal sculpture sitting atop an impressive gilded pedestal. Adding to the lavish mix is a life-sized solid-gold Buddha adorned with 2086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats. Created in the palace workshops during 1906 and 1907, the gold Buddha weighs 90kg. (Lonely Planet)”

“The structure was preserved by the Khmer Rouge to demonstrate to the outside world its concern for the conservation of Cambodia’s cultural riches. Although more than half of the pagoda’s contents were lost, stolen or destroyed in the turmoil that followed the Vietnamese invasion, what remains is spectacular. (Lonely Planet)”

After my tour of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda I walked to Wat Phnom. I took the walkway through the Royal Park and along the waterside to scope out the local restaurants and little shops alongside a quick glimpse of Phnom Penh’s waterfront where people go in the evenings to dine or relax in the parks at sunset.

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Being mid-september while I was there I was drenched in sweat from the (90 degrees with 60-80% humidity) heat after my half hour walk but enjoyed seeing the city in the process.

The entrance fee to Wat Phnom is $1 (literally a US dollar) and since I was on the lookout for postcards anyway, I was glad to run into a man selling postcards, pictures and other trinkets by the entrance. He stood on one leg with a sign that says, “I’m not begging, I am working for my money.” I’m sure you can guess as well as I can why he was missing a leg. Millions of mines were laid by the Khmer Rouge and government forces, which have led to thousands of deaths and disabilities since the 1980s (Cambodia Tribunal).

He was lovely to chat with, knowledgeable and spoke flawless English. I purchased my most favorite cards from him. “Did you make these yourself?” “No, I purchased them from the market in town,” he said with a toothy grin.

Cambodian Postcards

Good enough for me, I wasn’t going to make it to the market and here they were.

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The story goes that the temple was built at the request of a Lady Penh upon finding a Buddha in a tree alongside the river. Today, there are offerings pouring out of every piece of the buddha inside, from home cooked meals, to bananas to cash. And the city itself was named after hill and the woman who inspired it. The temple was rebuilt in 1434, 1806, 1894, and, most recently, 1926. People come here for good luck and notoriously apparently for good luck before school exams.

ODDITIES AND THINGS I NOTICED

One of my other favorite things about Phnom Penh was the gorgeous bobtailed cats that are everywhere in city. What the city lacked in stray dogs it made up for in gorgeous cats.  In fact, my hotel had at least two permanent cats on the property.  I found a neat story about the more cats of Cambodia here.

I happily would have stayed a week and took a trip out to the silk island and Angkor Wat, but alas left again too soon. Vietnam was calling. The Cambodian people seemed curious about tourists’ interest in their country, and were happy to share it with us.

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The tuk tuks have their own unofficial lane at all times, which could be in the center of the street, or on the far right side of the street with one wheel skimming the curb. Oftentimes they would dive out into the oncoming traffic lane to pass a car.

In Cambodia they drive on the right side of the road and Grab cars did not offer seatbelts.

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