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Phnom Penh, the Pearl of Asia

Jan 28 – Feb 11, 2017

Phnom Penh

Love it! Or hate it!  We got both these reactions when talking to other travelers about Phnom Penh!  We actually liked it and wished we’d spent more than a week there.

There is a sense of energy and excitement in the city and yet along the riverfront life takes on a slower pace during the day, with coffee shops and restaurants inviting tourists like ourselves to sit a while and watch the boats along the river.  At night the street turns into a backpackers party mecca!

It was here, one lunchtime, that we met an interesting couple from Chicago who had sold their home and all their possessions and had been traveling since 2015, house-sitting as much as possible.  They gave us the name of the agency they used to find house-sitting “jobs” and had our heads spinning with great ideas about our possible next adventure!

The hotel we chose was in a quiet part of town, one where Embassy and Government officials live, making it extra safe.  A $3 Tuk Tuk ride got us wherever we needed to go around town.

Situated on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh has been the capital of Cambodia since the French colonization in 1867.  Today it’s the center of commerce, government and diplomatic missions, attracting international business travelers as well as tourists.

Once known as the Pearl of Asia due to its beautiful French colonial buildings, today you have to search them out amidst the new buildings and traditional Cambodian houses.  Everywhere we looked we saw cranes rising into the skyline erecting yet another skyscraper – either a hotel, apartment complex or office center.

As in most Southeast Asia cities, markets and street food stalls abound offering food that is inexpensive and delicious.

A note about Visas in Southeast Asia

The first thing we needed to take care of when we arrived in Phnom Penh was our Vietnam Visas.  Vietnam requires that visas be obtained prior to arrival so we used Facebook Messenger to contact about a dozen travel companies in town to see who could assist us.  Within a few minutes we had a reply from 2World Travel   and arranged for a Tuk Tuk to take us there, fully expecting to spend about an hour filling out forms, producing passport photos, etc.

Much to our surprise, the agent took our passports, gave us a receipt for payment ($60 each for a 90 day visa) and said the visas would be ready in three days!  No paperwork or photos required!  We had taken copies of our main Passport page with us so we had identification while we were without our Passports.  Three days later, as we were enjoying breakfast at our hotel, a courier arrived with our Passports duly stamped with our Vietnam Visas!  Wow … we were impressed!  This was the most painless Visa process we had experienced on our trip!

2 World Travel also offers tours within Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia and if their tour service is anything like their Visa service, we feel confident their clients will be extremely satisfied.

Royal Palace

Unlike Laos, where the Royal Palace is used as a Government building and not open to the public, the Royal Palace compound in Phnom Penh welcomes visitors. The King, currently His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni, lives in the Palace which is also used for Court Ceremonies.

We decided to have a 45 minute guided tour and, although our guide spoke good English and was knowledgeable, we think it would have been better to use an audio tour instead so we could take it at our own pace.  The Palace closes at lunch time so it’s important to get there early to avoid being forced to leave!

The grounds and buildings are beautifully maintained and, in fact, reminded us of the Royal Palace in Bangkok.  Within the Palace grounds are several Stupas, the Throne Room and the spectacular Silver Pagoda, so named because the floor is inlaid with 5,329 solid silver tiles!   It contains priceless treasures including the Emerald Buddha made of Baccarat crystal dating back to the 17th century and another Buddha statue decorated with 198lbs (90kg) of gold and over 9,000 diamonds!

Shoes off and no photos in this building!  Although it was quite crowded inside, we were still able to appreciate the splendor of the building and its treasures.

We were fascinated with the mural on the inside of the compound wall which, we found out, was the Khmer version of the Ramayana.  Restoration work was in progress and, when finished, will add greatly to this superb Royal Residence.

What Else Did We Do in Phnom Penh?

After traveling through three countries and twelve cities, each one claiming to have the most famous Wat (Temple), one gets a little leery about visiting yet another!  Wat Phnom, located on the only hill in the area, close to Riverside was worth a quick visit to see the temple sanctuary and grand staircase guarded by lions and nagas (snakes).  An event was about to take place and many monks were arriving which made an interesting scene.

We also visited the National Museum of Cambodia, just north of the Royal Palace.  The striking traditional style building sets the stage for what is considered the finest collection of Khmer sculpture in the world. It’s a good idea to have a guide here to explain the many different pieces otherwise they all look alike after a while!

Of course there is plenty more to see and do in Phnom Penh – more wats, more markets, river boat cruises, etc. but we also needed time to relax so these will have to wait until next time!

Cambodia has a long and at times violent history and we expected it to be obviously Communistic.  However, we learned that it is a Constitutional monarchy governed under a Constitution enacted in 1993.  The Monarch is chosen by the Royal Council of the Throne from among members of the Royal Family, and the Government is headed by a Prime Minister. It’s interesting to note that the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge!

Cambodia is also listed in the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world although, as visitors, we were not aware of this.  The country has much to do to fight widespread poverty, lack of political freedom, damage to the environment and low per capita income, however, it has the fastest growing economy is Asia and the tenacity of the people leads us to believe that – with time – these challenges can be overcome.

As is so often the case, it’s the People who leave a lasting impression and, for that reason, Cambodia is definitely a favorite of ours!

Photo Link: https://goo.gl/photos/Ncd4jZdDanQSVNNs6 

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Mighty Mekong, Markets & Wats

Luang Prabang, Laos

Most of our sightseeing centered around the town of Luang Prabang although we definitely wanted to enjoy time on the Mekong River.  We decided to take a luncheon cruise to the Pak Ou Caves the next day because it was expected to rain for the rest of the week.

 

We dressed warmly and were at the boat dock in time for a 10:00am departure.  The cruise we chose was on the Nava Mekong boat  which had good reviews on TripAdvisor.  We were not disappointed.  The staff was very attentive and the Tour Guide, a young Frenchman, spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable.

Mighty Mekong

We cruised upriver for just over an hour and stopped at “The Whisky Village”!  As the name indicates, local whisky is distilled here and we had a small taste of two different types of whisky.  Both of them tasted like bad Moonshine and we decided to pass on buying a bottle!  We continued on a walk through the village where women were weaving traditional Lao fabrics.  To reach the village we walked across a “gangway” from the boat to the shore then walked up a fairly steep muddy slope to the village. This would not be easy for anyone with problems walking.

Re-boarding the boat, we continued upriver to the Pakou Caves. Dating back thousands of years this is one of the most respected holy sites in Laos, filled with hundreds of Buddha statues of all sizes.  The highlight of the day for us was the journey up and down the Mekong River, taking in the scenery along the Banks.  We passed villages, water buffaloes and cows grazing in the fields and a couple of elephants at work.

The people farm along the banks of the River at this time of year.  During the rains the river floods and deposits rich silt along the banks which is perfect for growing vegetables and herbs.

Our return trip passed swiftly as we enjoyed a delicious lunch and chatted with our table companion, a young woman from Venice, Italy.  We’ve now added yet another destination to our Bucket List!

Royal Palace Museum

Just around the corner from our guesthouse was the Royal Palace Museum  and we managed to visit it in between rain showers.  Set in beautifully landscaped grounds the Palace was built between 1904 and 1909 and was lived in by King Sisavang Vong and his family until the Communist takeover in 1975 when the Royal Family was sent to “Reeducation Camps”. The building was turned into a museum in 1995 and has been well preserved. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside the Museum and there are no pictures to showcase the exquisite mirrored walls of the throne room or the Reception Room decorated with murals depicting everyday life in Laos in the 1930’s.  Among the gifts from various countries was a piece of moonrock from the United States.

Bill was really looking forward to seeing the Royal Car Collection but what we found was a few old, dirty cars stuck in an outbuilding!  A Citroen; and a few Lincolns  given to the King by the US. No care has been given to these cars since the King was overthrown.  Definitely disappointing to a car buff!

Markets

For those who love Markets, Luang Prabang is hard to beat!  If food is your thing, visit the  Morning Market where the local people buy their produce each morning.  You’ll find everything you can imagine … and some, frankly, you don’t even want to imagine!  Many of the stalls sell exactly the same produce, all laid out on mats on the ground.  Fruit, vegetables and herbs, chilies and eggs side by side with fish (dead and alive), buckets of live frogs, some snakes, pigs feet …. it’s all there, along with the smells!

Around town there are several other day markets selling Lao silk, paper items and locally made handicrafts made by the Hmong people, but the most important daily event is the “Night Market”.  Half of the main street in town is closed to traffic and hundreds of venders set up their stalls on the sidewalk as well as in the street, most of them selling the same items!  We soon found it all too overwhelming and left it to other tourists to fight their way through the crowds and try to figure out the best deal.

We did venture down a narrow lane from the Night Market to have dinner one night.  Along one side of the lane are tables filled with large serving platters of food – noodles, rice, vegetables, meat, sausages, curries and more.  Each vendor tries to attract your attention and get you to buy from them!  When you’ve decided, you’re handed a plate and you help yourself to as much food as you want (or can fit onto the plate!).  The vendor then heats it in a wok, finds you a table and you sit back and enjoy the chaos!  All this … food, entertainment and meeting new people at your table – for $2.00!  You just can’t beat it!

Wats (Temples)

There are many beautiful temples in Luang Prabang and it’s difficult to imagine a more spectacular one than Wat Xiengthong. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers it acts as the gateway to Luang Prabang and was the temple used for the coronation of Lao Kings.  The mosaics throughout the temple are exquisite, particularly the Tree of Life mosaic.  Remodeling in the 1960’s brought the temple back to its former glory and it is well worth a visit.

Just down the street from our guesthouse was Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, one of the few monasteries unharmed when a mercenary army from China known as the Black Flag Army, looted Luang Prabang and destroyed many ancient Buddha images in 1887.  One day we happened to walk past when drummers were performing on the verandah.  What a treat!

And so our visit to Luang Prabang came to an end way too soon!  Looking back, we feel we should have spent more than ten days enjoying this special town but then we feel the same way about every place we visit!  We’ll be heading south the Vientiane, the capital of Laos next!

Link to Photos: 

https://goo.gl/photos/bqnWQ66C4zZDW7kLA

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Laid Back Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Saying goodbye to our friends in Chiang Mai on January 1st, we boarded our plane for Luang Prabang, Laos, the next stop in our Southeast Asia journey.  Our flight took us over heavily forested mountainous terrain and we landed at a small airport that reminded us of Orlando Airport in the “old” days when we walked across the tarmac to the terminal! Visa and Immigration formalities took a while but went smoothly and we left there with a 30 day visa at a cost of USD $35 each.  You are required to pay in US dollars and change is given in US dollars.

A shared taxi ride into town took about 15 minutes, dropping people off at different hotels or guesthouses.  Although it was almost dark by the time we were settled in our guesthouse on the Mekong River, we set out to explore the surrounding area and find a restaurant for dinner.  The streets were almost deserted and we walked in the middle of the road without fear of being run over!  It was quite an eerie feeling after the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai!  We later found out that the town closes down completely by 11:00pm!

Visiting a new country means that we have to get used to some changes and here are a few quick points about Laos:

Laos is a landlocked country bordered by Thailand in the west and southwest, Myanmar (Burma) and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the East and Cambodia to the southwest.

The country is officially known as Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) and, since 1975 has been a One Party Socialist Republic, governed by a Communist Politburo controlled by Military Generals.  The Hammer and Sickle flag flies alongside the Laos flag.

Laos was a French protectorate from 1893 -1953 and much of the French influence is evident today throughout the country.

Unlike Thailand, they drive on the right hand side of the road so we had to get used to looking the other way before crossing the road!

Kip (LAC) is the Lao currency and 8,200 Kips equal One US Dollar!  Wow … that’s a lot of zeros!

Laos played a role in the Vietnam War and according to Wikipedia “Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population”.  Vast areas of the country are impossible to cultivate due to unexploded bombs which continue to cause death and injury to people.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Luang Prabang is known as one of the best-preserved towns in Southeast Asia and was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995. The architecture is a combination of traditional Lao Teak houses and French colonial mansions, many of which show the effects of time.

The town is situated in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and attracts backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts with its wide variety of activities, as well as those interested in textiles and architecture.  The French influence is obvious and the vast majority of the visitors we came across were from Europe, particularly France.  We also met a lot of Australians, as we did in Thailand.

One of the first things we noticed was that more Lao people speak English than the Thais in Chiang Mai.  Also, many of the restaurants offer delicious French style breads and bakeries and even Lao restaurants serve Western type dishes.

The prices are quite a bit higher than in Chiang Mai where we ate lunch for the two of us for around $3! Here breakfast can cost around $10 for two – that’s with a large, delicious up of cappuccino!  However, the Night Market food prices are on a par with Chiang Mai.

Luang Prabang is, without doubt, the premier tourist destination in Laos and has the reputation of being the heart of Lao culture and religion.  All this adds up to inflated prices apparently unknown in other parts of Laos – we’ll see if this is true as we travel south. The normal stay for tourists is 2.8 nights.

We initially booked a guesthouse online for two nights but were not pleased with it.  So, on our first day we familiarized ourselves with the layout of the town while checking several guest houses, ranging in price from $12 a night (recommended by a young Canadian couple) to $25 per night which had the bed against the wall so one of us would have to climb in!

We soon found a very nice place for $30 per night.  Remember, in Chiang Mai we were paying $14 a night!  The house is an attractive traditional Lao style house made of teak.  Our room was large with a very comfortable King bed and a modern bathroom. We booked for a week.  One problem was that there was no closet to hang our clothes.  We assume backpackers don’t need to hang anything up!  And the other was weak WiFi. However, the staff was friendly and the location was perfect.

We left Chiang Mai in the rain and the cloudy, cool, wet weather followed us to Luang Prabang.  In fact, we only had 1 day of sunshine during our stay which is most unusual for this time of year.  This did not deter us from the sightseeing we had planned to do and we were soon in the laid back mood of the country where PDR is known as Please Don’t Rush!

We’ll catch you up on our sightseeing in our next blog.

Album Link: https://goo.gl/photos/K4qZe1udbUSSRMsZA

 

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