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Phnom Penh: arrival and street food

Indochina Day One

View Indochina 2020 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Evening by the Mekong

We were on our way to Phnom Penh via Bangkok and after an eleven hour flight and a long walk through Bangkok airport I was very weary - added to which the sun was rising at a time my body told me I should be going to bed! But instead here we were, boarding our Thai Smile Airbus for the final stage of our long journey.

The plane took off on time for the short flight to Phnom Penh (less than an hour). A second small breakfast was served in a rush, but I didn't eat much of it as I'd had a full breakfast on our previous flight. I had a window seat but there wasn't much to be seen until shortly before we came into land, passing over a landscape of fields, small groups of houses, the odd temple and a wide, rather muddy-looking river with several branches which I later realised was the famous Mekong plus its Tonle Sap tributary.

Flying over the Mekong

Arrival in Phnom Penh

We had opted to wait until our arrival to get our visas and the process was relatively speedy despite having to queue at three desks (one to hand over our passports and landing card, one to pay the required $30 per person, and one to be handed back our passports now with visas inside). There was no queue at passport control and our bags appeared at the baggage claim belt just as we did, so we were soon outside meeting our guide, Van, who seemed immediately very pleasant and friendly.

I had been very tired at Bangkok Airport, missing my bed, but the drive through Phnom Penh's busy streets (although Van said it was 'quiet' as it was Sunday) was so stimulating that I was soon wide awake again! There were cars, motor scooters and tuk-tuks all jostling for position at every junction, and shops spilling their varied wares onto the pavement (sofas, car parts, clothing, flower wreaths and garlands, etc. etc.) Meanwhile Van was chatting to us about everything from the horrors of the civil war through the complexities of the Cambodian language to the local custom of eating just about anything! She had gifts for us too - a beautifully wrapped book about Angkor, packed with wonderful photographs, and an aluminium water bottle each. The latter gifts were an initiative from our tour company, Selective Asia, in their efforts to help reduce the use of plastic bottles - although at this point I had no idea how we would keep them filled when we'd been advised not to drink the tap water.

Gifts from Van / Selective Asia

We arrived at our hotel, the Anise, and I was immediately struck by its welcoming appearance, with an attractive terrace cafe around two sides, partly sheltered from the road with lots of greenery. The good impression continued inside, only slightly marred by the need to climb three flights of stairs to our room! This was really nice - a good size, traditionally furnished, and with an outer seating area which opened on to a small balcony.

Our room at the Anise Hotel

But we didn't spend too much time settling in, as we'd decided to take advantage of our early check-in to get a couple of hours of much-needed sleep, or at least to try. And I surprised myself by nodding off quite easily, despite some street noise and the buzz of our arrival in the city. When we woke up, we freshened up and went down to the pleasant terrace for cold drinks - refreshing mango smoothies.

Anise Hotel and terrace
~ our balcony is visible above the trees and our bedroom window to the right of it

Hotel flower arrangement

First walk in Phnom Penh

Then we headed out on a little stroll to get our bearings. We walked in the direction of the Independence Monument but before we got there were distracted by the Wat Langka temple so went in to explore the peaceful courtyard and take some photos.

Wat Langka

Wat Langka temple and entrance gate

Wat Langka is said to be one of Phnom Penh’s five original wats, established in 1442 to house holy writings. The temple's name derives from Sri Lanka, as this is said to be the spot where monks from that country first shared the teachings of Buddhism with Cambodians. The building survived the mass destruction of Buddhist temples during the Khmer Rouge reign because it was used by them as a storehouse, and since then has been completely restored.

Wat Langka Buddhas

It is said to be of relatively little interest to tourists but as our first Buddhist temple of this trip, and very different from those we have visited previously in Japan and China, I found the various details of its ornamentation both lovely and fascinating, and we appreciated the peaceful courtyards after our tiring journey.

Wat Langka details

Cannonball tree flower, Wat Langka

Independence Monument

After the tranquillity of the temple grounds we continued to our original goal, the Independence Monument, which is modelled on the central tower Angkor Wat. It was built in 1958 to mark the country winning independence from French rule five years earlier. Photographing it without too many vehicles in the foreground was a bit of a challenge as it forms the centrepiece of a busy junction.

Independence Monument

Local streets

We then followed a parallel back street back to the hotel, taking a few more pictures as we went. I couldn't resist asking two young local guys for permission to photograph the tiny cute dog on their table at one of the many coffee shops we passed!

Mobile coffee shop

Street barber shop

Coffee shop dog

Street food explorer tour with Van

We had a break and a more thorough freshen-up back at the hotel before meeting up again with Van for our first evening out in Phnom Penh. We had a tuk-tuk for the evening with an excellent driver who made negotiating the manic streets look, if not easy, at least feasible!

We started our evening down by the water, on a promenade opposite the meeting of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. As it was Sunday local families were out in large numbers enjoying the relatively cool evening.

Van had already assured us that most people wouldn't mind us taking photos and we were hoping to grab some good candid shots and perhaps to ask some to pose. When we saw this cute toddler riding in a basket at the front of his mother's bike Van offered to buy some of the prawn crackers the woman was selling in return for photos. The toddler seemed to think that the crackers were all his, as he looked quite mournful when his mother handed us the bag. But after we had each had a couple of crackers Van passed the rest back to him, making him much more cheerful!

'Who took my crackers?'

'Phew, they gave them back!'

We continued our stroll, taking lots of photos as we walked, as the light was perfect, with the sun just starting to set over the Royal Palace on our left, shedding a pinkish glow on the river to our right.


Sunset over the Royal Palace



Boats on the Mekong

And as Van had assured us, no one seemed to mind our cameras, if indeed they noticed them as they were all busy either enjoying their relaxation together or selling all manner of goods to those out to enjoy themselves. There were flower sellers, fortune tellers, food hawkers, balloon sellers and more.

Sugar cane and street food sellers

Further on we came to an area where several people had small cages of sparrows. Van explained that worshippers heading for the nearby shrine would pay to have two or more released (never only one, because it would be lonely) and would make a prayer or wish as they flew off. She decided to buy the entire contents of one particularly small cage and did so, watched wistfully by a tiny kitten who had obviously been hoping one of the sparrows would somehow fall into his clutches. There were six birds in total, two each, so in turn we took our pair, held them gently (I had never held such a small bird before, never mind two!) and sent them on their way to freedom.

The sparrows we released, and Chris holding one of his

In due course we came to the Foreign Correspondents' Club, where we should, according to the original plan, have been stopping for a drink. But the FCC was closed for major reconstruction, so we went instead to the bar next door where we got a prime spot on the first-floor terrace with views over an immense tangle of wires and cables to the river beyond.

My pomegranate margarita, and the tangle of cables


Chris ordered his first Angkor beer and I had a pomegranate margarita - excellent. We continued to take photos from our perch until it got too dark.

The Mekong at dusk

Monks out for a stroll


Sunday evening by the river

Insect delicacies

The price of this drink was included in the tour so Van reappeared, paid the bill and we were off to our next stop. The traffic was very heavy, and we were held up for a while for what our driver later learned was the prime minister being given a police escort to his home. Eventually however we stopped by a stall where Van assured us it would be safe for us to sample some Cambodian delicacies. The people here are famed for eating just about anything and this stall was proof of this. Van steered us away from the large beetles and cockroaches (she needn't have bothered!) but encouraged us to try some small deep-fried crickets (surprisingly tasty, or at least not bad!), tiny fish, small frogs to be crunched on bones and all, and silkworm cocoons. The latter were softer and less unpleasant than the ones we'd sampled last year in North Korea, but not by much, and I left the stall feeling glad I'd tried (almost) everything but in no hurry to repeat the experience!

Insect snacks stall

Frying the crickets

Silkworm cocoons and beetles

Large crickets and little frogs

The Russian Market

From here it was a longer drive, through slightly quieter streets, to the Russian Market, which gets its name simply because it was in the past the favoured shopping place of Soviet ex-pats, here to help Cambodia rebuild after the war - and according to Van teach the people that there was a better form of Communism than Mao's.

Street food stalls at the Russian Market

Here we strolled around, sampling some of the food Van suggested (jack fruit, rambutans, pork scratchings, a churro-like bun) and declining others. I decided against trying one of the most popular delicacies, a duck embryo in its egg, cooked in coconut water, but Chris declared himself happy to have a go (when I asked him afterwards he simply said, 'it's just an egg') so we sat down while he and Van had these, and she also ordered beef and pork skewers and green papaya salads, all of which were excellent.

Grilling meat skewers at the Russian Market

A very poor photo of Chris's duck egg with embryo

By now I was both tired (two hours sleep since yesterday morning!) and full, but we had one more stop to make, at a roadside seafood stall. Disappointingly they had sold out of squid, which was really the only thing I fancied, but I shared a dish of prawns in curry sauce with Chris and we all shared some steamed crabs. Although, and perhaps this was down to my tiredness, I didn't feel the admittedly tasty meat was worth the hassle of extracting it.

Steamed crabs

Van tried to press more food on us but by now we had had enough to eat and were unsurprisingly tired, so she called our driver who was quick to pick us up for the short drive back to the hotel. It had been a very long couple of days.

Posted by ToonSarah 05:49 Archived in Cambodia Tagged people food sunset monument temple hotel cambodia phnom_penh river buddhism city insects monks mekong street_food street_photography

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If it's possible, we usually buy one bigger (~5l) bottle of water and use it to fill our smaller (0,5l) ones. Doesn't stop the use of plastic but atleast it decrease it a little.

I bet the sleep came quickly that night, you kept a wake surprisingly long!

As usual, I like the photos, and loved the ones from the Royal Palace! Especially the one with the streetlamp and the one with the palm trees! Must have been nice change to your previous trip not to have to worry so much what you can and what you can't took photo of! :)

by hennaonthetrek

Hi Henna. As it turned out the drivers in Cambodia and also in Laos had huge chilled water containers in their boots from which we refilled :) It was harder in Vietnam where they insisted on dishing out small plastic bottles of water.

Yes, no worries on this trip about what we could and couldn't photograph. There was just one museum here in Phnom Penh that didn't allow photography inside, otherwise it was fine everywhere, including inside the temples

by ToonSarah

Your hotel looks a lot nicer than the one we stayed in in Phnom Penh. We had bats dive bombing the swimming pool at dusk and some of them got into the central atrium of the hotel. It's a shame the FCC was shut, I remember going there, but the restaurant you went to on the river had pretty much the same view. Your sunset photos are really beautiful. You were a lot braver than us on the street food.

by irenevt

Thanks Irene :) The hotel was lovely, although I would have liked to have had a swimming pool, and I rather like bats ;)

I surprised myself by being that brave with the street food. Maybe I was so tired from the long journey that I wasn't thinking straight

by ToonSarah

What an amazing first day1. As always a really fascinating read and very evocative photographs. Looking forward to tomorrow's episode.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Thanks for the lovely feedback Yvonne :) May be a day or two before the next post but I think you'll find it very different but hopefully still interesting

by ToonSarah

What a day!! Don't know how you managed to fit in so much, and that being after a very long flight. I give you lots of credit for trying the unusual foods there -- I know for certain I could not have done so, but I can happily live on rice alone. Love all your photos!

by Syl

Hi Sylvia! Actually, it didn't seem that we did much until the evening - a nap, a short walk, a few photos (naturally!) But the evening, although lovely, was quite full-on. We loved the atmosphere down by the river and I think with so much activity there it revived us - for a while ;)

by ToonSarah

What an introduction to Cambodia! the markets look amazing, and all that exciting food! Good for you for mostly trying it!

by Grete Howard

Thanks Grete, it was a super start to our trip!

by ToonSarah

Hello again mate and a great first "full day" entry. I have never done straight shot to PP and I can understand how knackered you must have been but a foodie walk like that seems a good way to kick off your time in the city.

It's a shame the FCC was shut although there are similarly plush bars along that stretch of the riverfront and Van seems to have picked well. It is the history of the place that is so interesting rather than the bar itself.

I am quite annoyed that I never saw those embryonic ducklings in Cambodia as they are a bit like Philippino balut which I love although balut is not cooked in coconut water and is chicken rather than duck but the same principle applies.

I am loving this series already!


by Fergy

Hi again Fergy. It was a shame about the FCC but we had such a good evening nevertheless!

The balut sounds interesting. From what Chris said after eating his duck egg I think I would be brave and give it a try another time :)

by ToonSarah

You must have been soooo tired after such a long travel! Love your photos of course!! And they bring back many memories of my own trip here a few years ago. I wasn't so brave to eat the insects though ;-)

by sim1travels

Thank you Simone :) Glad to have brought back good memories!

by ToonSarah

A bit of sleep can do good, I had the same when I landed into the country. It is nice to read all the different things you did in the city and we also wanted to go to the Russian market, but there was just not enough time ... always a reason to go back, but sadly enough I have to have 9 nine lives like a cat to do it all!

by ils

Thanks Ils :) We had really only seen Phnom Penh as a staging post but we really liked the city and would happily go back if in that region again :)

by ToonSarah

Fabulous photos! I especially like the one you took out of the plane, the one right hand. And what a lovely hotel you had. I think I could have spend hours on the terrace :-)
Interesting food, but I think I would have opted out of insects and other stuff. (reminds me that I perfer to be vegetarian in various countries, my own included)

by Trekki

Thanks so much Ingrid Yes, that terrace was lovely - we enjoyed having breakfast there each morning and dinner one evening too :) There's plenty of good veggie food in Indochina, but I'm OK trying different things as long as I'm with a guide I trust and as long as it is freshly cooked and not been sitting in a buffet!

by ToonSarah

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