Phnom Penh~ The capital of Cambodia and an enchanting city with a grim past.
Cambodia was a country that was on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I used to hear with rapt attention, stories about the grandeur and vastness of the Angkor Wat temple from my history teacher in school. Finally, my dream came true! It was Vinay’s birthday and we were looking at places where we could celebrate his birthday at. And Cambodia just popped in my mind! And just like that it was decided we were going to Cambodia!
Cambodia grants Visa on Arrival to Indians. But we did not want to waste time standing in queue at the airport to get our visas. Vinay just went to the Cambodian embassy in Delhi(located in Greater Kailash II), paid the 20USD in fees and was told to collect the passports next day. It was that simple! After getting our visas, we booked our tickets and we were off!
After reaching Phnom Penh, we went through immigrations(a breeze!) and collected our luggage and exited the airport and were immediately drenched in sweat due to the high humidity. Now, I must must mention here that there are several ways of reaching Phnom Penh city from the airport.
· You can book an airport taxi at the exit- costs 15USD.
· You can hire a tuk-tuk(found in abundance) for 8-10USD.
· Or, you can do what we did. Book an Uber using the airport wi-fi. Text the driver to meet you at the exit. Walk 100 metres to the exit and get in your cab and be off! The last option can cost you from 6-8USD! And it’s way more comfortable than a tuk-tuk!
We had booked an apartment through Airbnb and by the time we reached our apartment we were exhausted from our journey and the heat and we decided to take it easy for the day. It was late afternoon anyway. After resting a while, we decided to hit the town in the evening. Our apartment was a 15 minute walk to the central market area of Phnom Penh, but we loved the walk along the Mekong River. The cool breeze coming from the river while you walk hand in hand with your better half, enough said!
That evening we walked to the night market in Phnom Penh. Lines of shops selling anything from clothes to noodles and other Khmer cuisines line the perimeter of the market. You can order food and then take off your shoes and put in in a pile along with others and sit down on the mats placed in the centre and enjoy your meal, surrounded by loud Khmer families. It seems the entire Phnom Penh people come here to eat their dinner! It was loud and too crowded. Though we liked looking through shops and stalls, it was not really our scene and we decided to find some quieter place where we can sit down and eat in peace. It had been an exhausting day after all! From there we walked down side alleyways, weaving in and out of traffic all the while(Vinay was, he was simply pulling me with him!). Finally, we decided we will not test our stomachs with exotic Khmer food for tonight and so we went to Burger King, packed some food and picked up some groceries from a supermarket on the way back to our apartment. Back at our apartment, we had our dinner, and crashed from exhaustion!
The next day, we were still too tired from our journey, so we decided to take it easy and just do some local sightseeing. After a lot of coaxing and cajoling, I finally managed to get Vinay out of bed. Made some tea and breakfast( our way of skimping money is by making our own breakfast and tea/coffee!) and finally hit the road. We walked to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum( it was around 6kms from our apartment) and when we arrived, we were told it was closed and would reopen in an hour. What a downer! Instead of sitting around and waiting for it to open, we walked to the Cambodia-Vietnam Monument(about 2.5 kms). Then we visited the Independence Monument.
From there we visited the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk Monument(got our photo clicked here for 1USD by an old man. We didn’t really want to, but the disappointment on his face made us reverse our decision). By this time we were starving and thirsty and exhausted. The heat got to us and we were desperately looking for some water. We found a stall selling water for 2000 riel/50 cents/Rs 35 and gulped it down like it was some elixir!
Then we decided to go back to the Genocide Museum. Thankfully, it was open. We went in, had a look around and was reminded of the grim past this country had. After the tour of this place, we headed out for lunch. We decided to try out some local delicacy and after walking around for a good 45 minutes, found this little café called Park Café Sonthormok near the Samaki Market. We had some duck and pork delicacy.
The food was good and wholesome. We ate ravenously! By the time we finished lunch, it was already 4pm! So we decided to go back to our apartment, have some rest and then decide what we can do in the evening. On the way back, we bought a few more things from a supermarket and lots and lots of water. Dehydration is a real possibility there, even if you are from India! The heat is simply too much. By the time we were back at our apartment, I was having a raging headache and we decided not to head out anywhere, but rest in the apartment. After having some aspirin and some rest, my headache subsided. We just went out for a stroll along the river ad picked up some pizza on the way back. That night, we had pizza for dinner and some coffee. Come midninght and it was Vinay’s birthday. We both are not the cake-cutting-making-a-hooplah-over-birthday types. So, I just wished him a happy birthday and we had some cupcake(which we had bought from the supermarket earlier in the day) and went to sleep.
The next morning, since it was Vinay’s birthday, I permitted him to laze around while I made us some breakfast and some coffee! We had breakfast in bed and spent the entire morning in the apartment. Birthday boy was pampered the entire morning! It was midday when pangs of hunger struck and we decided to head out and have some lunch. The heat and humidity was extreme, so we quickly got some food from Burger King and some lemonade from a shop near our apartment (their strawberry punch was to die for!) and came back to our apartment to eat. It was only after the sun went down that we ventured out. We walked to the Old Market and the Night Market, strolled around a bit. Then we went down to Romdeng Restaurant to have some fried tarantulas! The restaurant was set in a charming villa and we were promptly served the tarantulas. Though I must add, I found it yucky and Vinay somehow managed to eat down his tarantula whereas I just managed to eat its legs(completely avoiding its puffed up belly). Too yucky for me! We ordered some normal food and it was pleasantly tasty! I guess everything tastes good after you eat a tarantula! We should add here that you should try to avoid eating insects and tarantulas and other stuff out in the street as they are made in unhygienic conditions and food poisoning and diarrhoea are a distinct possibility here! Not very good if you want to avoid visiting the Cambodian hospitals. After dinner, we picked up some more groceries. I got a lollipop to get that tarantula flavour out of my head(I was feeling a bit nauseous!) and we walked back to our apartment. We got some burgers on the way back for satiating late night hunger pangs!
The next day, after the usual routine, we headed out to visit the Royal palace. It is a complex of buildings which serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. The complex is divided by walls into four main compounds. On the south side is the Silver Pagoda, to the north side is the Khemarin Palace and the central compound contains the Throne Hall and to the west is the private sector or the Inner Court. Entry ticket is 10USD. Remember to dress modestly, covering your shoulders and knees, or you will be denied entry. The palace is huge and it takes up much time to explore.
From there, we walked to the Central Market, where we did a little shopping. Then we walked to the Wat Phnom (A Buddhist temple built on site of 14th-century pagoda and at 27 metres, it is the tallest religious structure in city). Here Vinay was tempted to try those eggs with duck embryos in them(I am forgetting their name), but he couldn’t garner the courage! We picked up some food from Burger King and KFC and headed back to our apartment to have our lunch in peace. At night we ventured out to see the Central Market again. This time we took the inside roads, instead of walking on the main road. And we discovered the vibrant night life of Phnom Penh. The streets leading to and around the Central market were teaming with bars(Girlie bars and Go-Go bars) and pubs(catering to foreigners mainly). We strolled along the streets(Vinay was getting a lot of stares from the girls sitting outside the pubs!), taking in the sights. Reminded us of walking Street in Pattaya! After walking along a lot, we decided to pack some food and head back to our apartment and call it a night!
The next and penultimate day in Phnom Penh, we decided to visit the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. We hired a tuk-tuk, which cost us 15USD round trip. Between 1975 and 1978,about 17,000 men, women, children and infants were detained and tortured at S-21 prison (now Tuol Sleng Museum),and transported to Choeung Ek for execution. It is a peaceful place today, where visitors can learn of the horrors that unfolded here decades ago.
Admission to the Killing Fields(USD 6) includes an excellent audio tour, available in several languages. It is about 15kms from Phnom Penh. It’s a macabre place with a grim history. A Buddhist stupa has been built here as a memorial.
While returning, we instructed our tuk-tuk driver to drop us off at the Russian market. It is also known as Tuol Tom Poung Market locally. It is a Bustling market with vendors selling a wide array of souvenirs, clothing & other goods, plus food. We spent a lot of time strolling around the place and hunting for souvenirs to take back home. After a couple of hours, we decided to have some lunch. We grabbed some lunch and headed back to our apartment. While walking back, we took a detour to see the Royal railway station. By then we were exhausted. It had been a draining day-emotionally as well as physically. Later, we dropped by the office of Mekong Express Bus and booked our tickets to Siem Reap for the next day. It cost us 12USD per person and we were set.
We spent the evening packing up, before deciding to head out again to get a parting view of the city. We walked along the Mekong River and visited the markets again. We went To view the wat Phnom at night again. It was quite a sight! Finally, we were too exhausted to walk anymore. So we again packed some food from Burger King and went back to our apartment. Back at our apartment, we had our dinner in peace and gulped it down with some coffee. Then we stood in our balcony looking at the city one last time. Tough it was hot and the humidity nearly killed us, we loved this city! The energy, the colour, the vibrancy appealed to us. But Siem Reap beckoned-the place I’ve always wanted to visit. And my wait was about to be over in a few hours…….
· Forget about getting sandwiches from supermarkets if you are short on budget(No supermarket keeps sandwiches(and we searched a lot, trust me!). Best bet would be Burger King, KFC, Mc Donald’s.
· Street food not recommended as you might get diarrhoea!
· Drink lots and lots and lots(like gazillion) of water to stay hydrated. Do not rely on tap water. Spend money on buying bottled water.
· Carry your own noodles ,pastas, tea, coffee, sugar etc from home to save money.
· If travelling as couple, or in a group, rent an apartment where you can make your own food, it’s much cheaper that way.
· Walk as much as you can even though its hot and humid. That way you can get a feel of the place.