We flew from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh via Cambodia’s Angkor Air (yes, the same flight we booked in the travel agency in Siem Reap). The service on board was way way better than my national carrier Kenya Airways, who could take a leaf out of this local airline’s book and improve its service tenfold. Despite it being a 45 minute flight we were served a nice breakfast on board (a warm croissant, Danish pastry, fruit cup, fruit yoghurt and a cupcake with orange juice, and a choice of tea or coffee) and we landed all ready to take our footsteps in Phnom Penh.
The airport is about a 40 minute drive away from the city centre. We arrived and checked in to our hotel, Nagaworld, which happens to be a casino and hotel in one, reminding us a little of Las Vegas. Our room was plush, to say the least. I really enjoyed the 2 nights we spent there, despite it being part of a casino complex.
The difference is striking – from sleepy (yet in so many ways modern Siem Reap) to Phnom Penh, with its motorbikes and cars whizzing on the streets, you can tell you are in a major (so to speak) city.
Being the ever ready explorers, we took our map and walked across to the Royal Palace, which was a convenient 10 minute walk away from our hotel. We walked around the complex, photographing the various buildings making up the complex, working our way up to the Silver Pagoda (where the floors are made of silver and you can see the Emerald Buddha made of Baccarat Crystal and various other artefacts depicting Buddhism) and the stupas surrounding it. We found a beautifully tended garden just a few metres away from the stupas, which were surrounded with Buddha’s of various shapes and sizes. I could have spent eons soaking in the calm atmosphere there.
Riverside Bistro was our choice for a nice lunch (chicken cordon bleu seems, for some reason I am yet to figure out, to be a prominent dish on every Cambodian continental menu) after an afternoon of trekking around the Royal Palace. This is a lovely place to people watch, if that is your thing. It certainly is a good starting point to get you accustomed with the craziness that Hanoi in Vietnam has to offer. One particularly striking moment was watching this lady below, circumnavigating her way across a street where there were cars and motorbikes whizzing past, absolutely calm, shopping on one arm, toddler in the other, holding the hand of a young child. Only in South East Asia.
We spent a nice afternoon, sipping some chilled wine and people watching, only to get off our seats and get accosted by the numerous vultures named tuk tuk drivers. Argh they drove us mad! We hadn’t even stepped off the terrace and there were six or seven touts, plying for our business. If I never hear the word “tuk tuk” again, it may be too soon! We chose to walk back to Nagaworld, freshen up and then head back out again and sample some night life.
We headed back to the Riverside Quay area for dinner, and then to a club where sadly, we were the only patrons though I must say I was fawned over like a queen (which was really fun).
Day 2 in Phnom Penh gave us the chance to wander around Psar Thmei and soak in the vibrant market atmosphere. We were in search of Anthony Bourdain’s Cambodia, that is, the place where he went to eat fried insects but sadly we didn’t find it. We did find some amazing stalls that did seafood and other delicacies, and we sat down to a sumptuous lunch of chicken and prawns that were soon devoured.
We also got to sample a rather funny looking but absolutely delicious fruit – the mangosteen, which looks rather like cloves of garlic in a purple skin but tastes nothing like garlic! It tastes akin to a cross between an apple mango and a lychee, and we found ourselves buying a few of these over the next few days and savouring the taste, as well as dragon and Sharon fruit.
The afternoon was perhaps the most memorable stint in Phomn Penh. We had booked a quad biking adventure with Nature Cambodia (we specifically booked the Blazing Trails Cambodia Adventure) which I cannot recommend enough. We got the contacts from TripAdvisor and would happily endorse the company. We chose the Killing Fields and Villages Tour, which they combined with the Sunset Tour for US $ 25 per person, and was worth every penny.
We were picked up from our hotel in a tuk tuk, and taken out pretty close to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The same tuk tuk driver took us to the head office of Nature Cambodia, where we were briefed on the afternoon’s events, and then taken to the Killing Fields themselves. The experience itself is harrowing and does bring the reality of the Khmer Rouge Regime home. I would say do spend the extra few dollars to purchase the audio guided tour, as it does explain what happened in those fields otherwise the tour is pretty much pointless. There were some instances where I was close to tears, wondering just how cruel humans can be to each other. It is a short tour, ending at the Memorial Stupa where the skulls and bones of the bodies that were exhumed from the mass graves are now displayed by age and sex. A peaceful place today, one shivers and shudders, imagining the atrocities committed against humankind in the days of the regime. A museum on site tells of the ongoing Khmer Rouge trial, where one hopes justice against these crimes against humanity prevail.
The remainder of the afternoon was a complete turn of events from the visit to the Killing Fields. We drove back to the head office, where we mounted our Quad Bikes and took off amidst the fields and villages of Cambodia, for a one hour quad bike ride, full of adrenaline and excitement. Again, I cannot endorse this company enough – book an adventure, it will give you memories of a lifetime. The friendly village children come rushing to shake your hand, cheering as you ride by, while on one end, a bullock cart is pulled lazily along by a villager. Sipping a coconut by the meandering Mekong River, while watching the sun set on your quad bike before heading back to headquarters, is a fitting way to end a ride that you want to go on forever.
Back at the hotel, we decided to order in room service (having had an adventurous day) and then get ready and hit the club, Darlin Darlin in the hotel. It seemed to be very popular with the locals and again, we spent a few hours sipping on drinks, dancing and whiling the night away. Not a bad last night in Phonm Penh.
Our final day and we got the late check out we had asked for, thank you Nagaworld. We had a heavy breakfast (the spread at this hotel is quite something) and then we headed out again, by tuk tuk, to Wat Phnom, a temple up in one of the hilly areas of Phonm Penh. A wish or prayer at this temple is said to be granted, and locals return with offerings to the Gods at Wat Phnomn, the most bizarre one I witnessed being this whole roasted suckling pig:
An hour or so later, we headed away from Wat Phnom and walked back to Nagaworld, crossing the Independence Monument and finding one of our favourite shops, Giordano across the street (where we did shop somewhat), and heading back to try some Chinese fare at the Fortune Palace in Nagaworld (really good Chinese Tea served with pomp and glamour, and yummy all you can eat dim sum), check out, have a Chocolate Martini at the bar, toasting to the end of round one of our trip, footsteps in Cambodia and onward to the airport to our footsteps in Vietnam, via Vientiene Wattay Airport, Laos.