This morning the Amalotus was moored at a wharf in Phnom Penh. For the lucky folk on the starboard side, that meant sweeping views over the river. At this time of year the water is low, so for those of us in port side cabins we had a rather uninspiring view of the pylons and the mud flats under the wharf. That’s life on a river cruise. At the next stop we might get the nice view. We didn’t see much point in complaining about it, although one passenger did. She insisted she’d paid just as much to go on this cruise as the people in the cabins on the other side. Which was true, but I’m not sure what she wanted the tour director to do about it. Make the captain turn the ship around?
Today’s options were a Buddhist blessing ceremony at a place out of town, then a visit to a village making copperware or a slow trip on an oxcart. Although organised tours can be great, sometimes they become limiting. Together with Mike and Linda we decided to do pretty much what we’d done on our first day in Saigon and explore the city on our own.
Getting off the ship was a tiny adventure in itself, walking along a narrow catwalk under the wharf to a set of metal steps. When we emerged, we waved away the waiting tuk-tuks, insisting that yes, really honestly, we wanted to walk.
Phnom Penh’s traffic is rather like Hanoi’s. The biggest difference is the plethora of tuk-tuks which are used as commercial vehicles as well as taxis. Major roadworks were occurring not far from the wharf area and all the pavements were parking areas for motorbikes, so we found ourselves walking on the road. Eventually, not far past the hospital, having consulted Mike’s GPS, we turned right into a lane which was clearly an area where people lived. Stalls lined the roadsides selling clothing, leather goods, shoes. This would be where the locals shop. The prices were quoted in Cambodian riels – nowhere near the prices in the touristy markets. That’s understandable. US$1 is a lot of money for ordinary Cambodians. Average salary is US$270 per month and rent is around US$80. US$1 equals about 4,000 riels.
Cambodia, like Vietnam, is in the throes of an industrial revolution. Most of the population had been farmers but the younger generation don’t want to live on the farms anymore. They move to the cities to find work and earn more money and that results in overcrowding. Pete noticed an apartment building with shanties built on top. That said, we didn’t encounter any beggars although we did see one blind man playing a musical instrument being led by a kid who looked about twelve.
We noticed plenty of building sites along the river. These will become five star hotels or apartments for the very rich. There’s room at the top trough even in a communist country.
Our first stop on our self-guided tour was Putkhosacha Pagoda a large pagoda on the top of a hill in the centre of the CBD. Locals could enter for free but tourists had to pay – which was fair enough. The usual many-headed snakes and lion figures guarded the stairs but the carving seemed primitive in comparison with others we’d seen. It’s a fair hike getting up the stairs. The temple at the top is quite modest as these things go and clearly used by locals. A traditional orchestra played and visitors burned incense and prayed.
We walked back through the extensive park surrounding the building, heading for the city markets. This involved crossing roads but we’d had lots of practice. At the markets we split up, having arranged to meet at a café on a corner. The market was built in 1937 and boasts a beautiful art deco dome. That’s where you’ll find items like jewellery watches, cameras and the like. But the market spreads much wider than that into the surrounding streets. Pete and I wandered around the outside past many stalls selling clothes, a whole row of flower sellers, the usual knick-knacks and souvenir items and then, of course, fresh fish, meat, vegetables and fruit.
We went and found the designated café. Just as well I had Pete with me. I’d still be wandering around Phnom Penh like a restless wraith. I kept the seats warm while Pete went in search of a pharmacy for more paracetamol. When Mike and Linda arrived we ordered coffee, the closest we could get here to a flat white, which would be a latte or a cappuccino (no chocolate). Linda asked for tea. The coffee came pre-sweetened and Pete asked for a replacement. Linda had just finished telling us about hating sugar in her drinks when her tea arrived. It was sweetened, of course. Her face was a picture.
After a quick orientation on Mike’s phone we made our way to the museum which turned out to be closed. The entrance fee was quite steep and that was one of the tour options for tomorrow so we passed on that and hailed a tuk-tuk to take us back to the ship. The driver took us along a road beside the waterfront, where we admired a wide path with not a single motorbike parked on it. That was probably because the royal palace was a couple of blocks further down from the museum. It wouldn’t do to spoil the royal view.
Things progressed well enough, the driver negotiating the traffic with practised ease. Until we were about halfway there. Remember the road works I mentioned? This was like any huge traffic jam anywhere in the world. We’d move a metre or so, then stand for ten minutes. Motorbikes tried to get into spaces too narrow even for them. We almost got to know some of the other people – the lady riding a motorbike with her little girl, who clutched a balloon on a string, in front of her. Another tuk-tuk driver who grinned and waved at us. The fellow with his entire shoe shop on his motor bike.
Then suddenly a gate opened to our right and an official came out, blowing a whistle to let an Important Person’s car out into the road. Somehow the traffic snarl dissipated and we were back at the top of the stairs to the walkway beneath the wharf.
(The next day, when the Scenic ship arrived and parked behind us we noticed they had a different system. They’d erected a little bridge extending from the ship’s sundeck directly onto the wharf. Much nicer.)
That evening a group of children came on board to perform dances. They brought beautiful costumes and an orchestra with them and opinion was that they were better than the performance we saw at the hotel in Siem Reap.
After dinner those interested saw a documentary about Pol Pot, a suitable introduction for those people visiting the Killing Fields the next day.