A mooch around Phnom Penh

This isn’t our ship but it’s a similar design. That’s how Amalotus was tied up

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.

The catwalk under the wharf.

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.

Where the ordinary people live

The electricity commission. Government, of course

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.

Those stairs are steep and there’s a lot of them

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.

The orchestra at the temple

Worshippers

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.

The cupola at the central markets

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.

The museum

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.

The elegant esplanade near the palace

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.

His shoe shop is on his motor bike

Caught up in traffic

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.

 

 

Day 13 – Father Rhine takes charge

Some of the debris caught up in the mooring rope

Some of the river debris caught up in the mooring rope

We were supposed to go to the highlight of our trip – as far as I was concerned – today. A walk in the Schwarzwald in the mountains away from the river. But Father Rhine was in no mood to accommodate travellers. Our delay at Mannheim was, of course, multiplied by the hundreds of ships and barges that traverse the river every day. The locks were busy, the river full of debris, and we would make dock at Breisach too late to get to and from the excursion, and still make it to Basel for disembarkation, not only to make onward connections for those for whom the tour was finishing, but also to allow time for the crew to prepare the Scenic Jade for a new bunch of visitors.

So the best we could do was wander around the little town of Breisach, take a few photos, and go back to our room to pack.

Breisach is on a hill with a commanding view of the Rhine, so needless to say there has been a fortress here since before the Romans. And also needless to say the town was flattened during WW2. Still, enough has been restored to give a visitor an idea of how it used to be.

The Rhine from the hill. Those white birds across the river are swans

The Rhine from the hill. Those white birds on the French side of the river are swans

Houses stepping up the road

Houses stepping up the road

It's a steep climb to the fortress

It’s a steep climb to the cathedral

The view from the hilltop

The view from the hilltop

St Stephan's Cathedral

St Stephan’s Cathedral

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I don’t know what this was about – a bull rising through the pavement with an abstract figure raising a star to heaven – Greek myth?

That’s life. When traveling, there’s no point complaining about the weather. Or the state of the river. Six months ago there was a real risk the Amavenita wouldn’t be able to get as far as Regensburg because the water was so low. Record low water levels were recorded for the Rhine and the Danube. I suppose we could count ourselves lucky the river wasn’t in flood. That would have meant a bus journey to Basel.

On to Switzerland.

Day 12 – A visit to France

The river is high

The river is high

Remember I mentioned the Rhine was running high? Uh-huh. So high the river controllers closed the river. We were stuck at Mannheim. We were meant to be higher up the river, at Germersheim, which is why we had to travel further for our shore excursion to Strasbourg. Our tour director was on the phone for hours, rescheduling buses and tour guides. She earned her pay today. The tour started earlier and since we would be out later and unable to return to the ship for lunch, she provided everyone with lunch money to buy their own lunch in Strasbourg. It was one of the few days when the weather was poor, with light drizzle and temperatures around 10-12 degrees. I was glad I had my leather coat, but perhaps I would have been better off with the thick waterproof, less elegant garment. Never mind. The weather cleared.

These days Strasbourg is part of France. But it hasn’t always been so. As usual, the city dates back to the Romans and it has a fascinating history, which you can read about here. Crossing from Germany over to France wasn’t a problem – no control, no guards. no border patrol.

After a two hour bus ride, the driver stopped at a point where public toilets were available. There were two Scenic buses, and another couple of buses from Viking. There must have been somewhere close to one hundred people milling around waiting to go to the lav. I decided to hang on.

It’s a very pretty city with a fascinating history. Interesting that the most picturesque part of town used to be the smelly, horrible tanners’ area. It doesn’t smell anymore, of course. But it would have.

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They’re putting the tables out for lunch

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The tanner’s district on a canal

Note the cops on segways

Note the tourists on segways

Strasbourg, like most Rhine cities, was started by the Romans, but it has changed a great deal over the centuries. It has a baroque cathedral, Notre Dame de Strasbourg, which was originally supposed to be a copy of Notre Dame de Paris. But as usual, the burghers couldn’t leave well enough alone, and added bits and pieces. Our local guide was an old man who clearly had a passion for architecture. He was perfectly willing to explain the nuances of various styles of buildings ad nauseum. Not everyone shared that compulsion, of course. That said, Notre Dame de Strasbourg is a magnificent example of Gothic architecture and well worth a visit.

Nore Dame - with only one spire

Notre Dame – with only one spire

The nave

The nave

Beautiful stained glass

Beautiful stained glass

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The cathedral’s famous astronomical clock

One thing we found – interesting – about Strasbourg was the beggars. They are everywhere, usually silently sitting with a sign. But there were more in Strasbourg than we saw in Germany. A number of them parked outside the cathedral, and actually approached people to ask for handouts. I was surprised the Strasbourg authorities allowed it, especially when we saw a platoon of heavily armed soldiers passing through the street. (Sorry, no picture – it didn’t seem like a good idea.)

Butenberg - a clever man with no business sense

Gutenberg – a clever man with no business sense

We also admired the statue of Guttenberg (built the first printing press) and heard about his lack of business acumen. Lunch was coffee and a pizza in a local café, paid for with lunch money provided by Scenic. It took a while to arrive, but it was fresh made and very tasty.

Renate, our guide on the bus, entertained us with stories about German life. Eg if you rent an apartment you have to provide your own kitchen, and take it with you when you leave. And getting a driver’s licence costs two thousand Euros – but you only pay it once. Unless you lose it for traffic misdemeanours, like tail gating on the autobahn.

Day 11 – and now for something completely different

HockenheimRing

HockenheimRing

Today we tied up at the modern city of Mannheim. It was flattened during the war, being an important centre for engineering, but unlike many other German cities, the people didn’t rebuild in the old style. Noted for invention, Mannheim is home to Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Siemens.

We had elected to forgo the bus trip to the medieval city of Heidelberg. I’d been there before and we were getting to pussy’s bow with cute medieval towns. Instead, we went to the Hockenheim Ring, the home of car and bike racing in Germany. They run their F1 Grand Prix there every second year. Although there were no F1s, there’s always some sort of racing at Hockenheim, and today was no exception. Car clubs and vendors such as Mercedes Benz hire the venue to run races, trials, and prepare advertising for their models. It’s booked up 360 days in the year.

Before we got to the circuit, though, our guide told us a couple of interesting stories. First there was Bertha Benz, intrepid wife of the engineer. This is such a great story – please take the time to read it. This lady took the first long distance drive in an automobile. Ever. From Mannheim to Pforzheim, in her husband’s brand new three-wheeler, ostensibly to visit her mother. She took her sons along, too. Benz might have been the engineer, but she was the force behind the operation.

The other story we heard was why it’s a Mercedes Benz. The car was named after a 9-year-old girl. Read about it here.

We’d now arrived at the racetrack, a select little group of about 15 motor sport die-hards. And me. But it’s not just an F1 track. They race motorbikes there. A little bit of interest wriggled up my spine.

First we visited the museum, where Pete and I floated around the array of motor cycles. Nortons, an Ariel Square 4, a few Triumphs, BMWs, AJS, a machine made entirely of wood – wonderful stuff.

Wooden motorcycle

Wooden motorcycle

Just a few of the bikes in the museum

Just a few of the bikes in the museum

Back at Hockenheim, we got to see the track from the VIP stands. Up there you can see the whole track. It’s not just a blur as a car travelling at 250kph+ whisks past. Our guide, who works for the Hockenheim corporation, told us lots of interesting facts, such as the G forces on drivers. One point in particular was a standout – the long straight (3) that ends in a hairpin bend (6). Drivers have to decelerate from around 300kph down to around 70kph to get around that bend. Something like 3G force is on them.  We visited the control centre from which all races are controlled. All decisions are made there. A quick visit to the winners’ podium and then we went for a walk through the pits. The boys admired the new hardware, especially the new Jaguar models on display.

A schematic of the modern tracks

A schematic of the modern tracks

The tracks from the executive level of the stadium

The tracks from the executive level of the stadium

The control centre

The control centre

Boys and toys

Boys and toys

The new Jaguar

The new Jaguar

Then we went back to the ship, tired but happy.

I’d have to agree, it beat the ABC* tour.

*Another Bloody Castle

Day 10 – back to the Rhine Gorge

Today the Scenic Jade travelled back to the Rhine. Last year we cruised to Rudesheim and then through the Rhine Gorge. This year we did it the other way round, through the Rhine Gorge and on to Rudesheim. Going through the Rhine Gorge was a different experience to the one we had 6 months ago when the Rhine experienced record low water. The river was full, flowing at a great pace. It was also a little overcast, so not the very best for photography.

The ship has just passed around the Lorelei (right side of photo)

The ship has just passed around the Lorelei (right side of photo). The three triangles on the left are part of the river’s navigation system to control shipping passing through the winding curves of the river. It’s dangerous water at the best of times.

People wind surfing on the Rhine

People wind surfing on the Rhine, overlooked by one of the many, many castles.

A railway tunnel disguised as a castle

A railway tunnel disguised as a castle. In WW2 the Allied bombers kept to a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ not to destroy castles, so the Germans disguised tunnel entrances to mislead pilots.

Last year I talked about the Rhine Gorge and the Robber Barons,  and Siegfried’s Musikal Kabinett in this post. However, because of time constraints caused by record low water levels in the rivers, we hadn’t had enough time to visit the village, and the cable car up to the Germania statue was closed. So the first thing we did after the ride in the little train into the town centre was go up to the monument.

In this day and age, the statue is very Victorian and over the top, shouting at France, “We WON!!!” It was erected after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, won by Prussia (who’d have guessed?). The war led to the formation of the German nation under Kaiser Wilhelm I, who had been king of Prussia. Remember him on his warhorse back at Koblenz? The German Empire didn’t last long – Wilhelm’s grandson, Wilhelm II, went into exile in the Netherlands after Germany lost WW1, and the ill-fated Weimar Republic was formed.

Anyhow, although the views were great, it’s not a patch on the Wachau Valley or the Moselle valley when it comes to picture-skew. IMO, of course.

Riding the cable car

Riding the cable car

The statue of Germania victorious

The statue of Germania victorious. That’s PT with his arm raised, right of centre.

The Rhine from the monument

The Rhine from the monument. The river is a highway.