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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 


Visit to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep Temple in Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is the most famous temple in Chiang Mai and we visited it one morning in late December.  This site is always busy with lots of tourists visiting and since it was high season and close to the Christmas Holidays we encountered even bigger crowds. 

The road and parking lots were congested with tour minibuses, red buses (songthaews) brown buses, delivery trucks, scooters and bicycles (yes, people do ride bikes up there from Chiang Mai!)  And there are the inevitable hawkers, some quite aggressive, pushing bells and other trinkets into your face as you attempt to get into the temple!

We bought our tour tickets (Baht 600 or $16.60 each) through a local travel agency in our area.  The price was less than several other companies we checked on so we were expecting a “standard” tour which, in fact, was what we received!

We arranged to be picked up outside our apartment building at 8:45am and received a call just after 9am telling us the minibus was just a short distance away.  With the traffic in Chiang Mai, it’s not easy to estimate arrival times, so no problem!  It was a beautiful, sunny, cool morning – perfect for a trip out of town.

The minibus was almost full of passengers who had been picked up earlier so we had the seat in the back to ourselves.  Normally four people would be seated here so it was nice to have a little more room. Remember, tour buses in Southeast Asia are built for small Asian people, not big Westerners!

Royal Palace Gardens

The tour included a stop at a Hill Tribe Village but some of the passengers were visiting the Royal Palace and we opted to do that instead of the village.  Having seen two working villages on our Northern Thailand Tour, we didn’t want to do a repeat, particularly since we felt it would be more geared to tourism i.e. selling souvenirs (which we found out later was the case!)  The admission to the Royal Palace was Baht 50 each and we enjoyed an hour walking around the beautiful grounds before being picked up for the short drive to the Temple.

Temple Complex

It’s a 15 kilometer drive from Chiang Mai to the temple on a very windy road that reminded us of our drive to Pai and Mae Hong Son.  The temple was built in 1386 and expanded over the centuries.  Construction of the temple would have been extremely difficult because the current road was not completed until 1935 and the only way to reach the site was through the jungle.

Once we reached the temple complex, which sits at 3,542ft (1000m) above sea level, we had a choice of walking up 300 stairs, guarded by Naga (snake) figures from the 16th century or taking the cable car.  For us it was a no-brainer! 

Our entry ticket explained the “Do and Don’t in the temple”:

  • Dress politely, do not wear shorts
  • Show respect in the temple and shrine
  • Take off your shoes before entering the platform around the Golden Chedi
  • Keep your head lower than Buddha images and monks
  • Don’t touch the Buddha images
  • Don’t display affection for another person in public
  • Always keep clean

After a short briefing by our guide we went to the lower terrace for a panoramic view of Chiang Mai which, unfortunately, was very hazy.  After taking our shoes off, we moved on to the upper terrace and walked around the dazzling gold-plated chedi, among the many small shrines, Buddha statues and beautiful golden umbrellas.  

All the colors were enhanced by the brilliant sunshine.  People were praying, chanting, lighting candles, ringing bells and the smell of incense wafted through the air.  Although there was a lot of activity, there was also a sense of peace and calm.

The Legend

Sacred Destinations recounts a myth related to the location of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep like this:

“According to legend, a magical relic multiplied itself just before it was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai. A suitable place therefore had to be found to shelter the new relic.

Unable to decide on the site, the king placed the relic in a portal shrine on the back of a white elephant and waited to see where the animal would take it. Eventually, the elephant walked up to the top of Doi Suthep mountain, trumpeted three times, turned around three times, knelt down, and died. The temple was immediately built on the miraculously-chosen site.”

 What better way to end our article with that wonderful story!  We’ll be back with more about Chiang Mai later.