Indochina Day One
02.02.2020 - 02.02.2020
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 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
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.
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
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.
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.