There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Phnom Penh (1), Palaces and Museums: Part 4 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

The ‘Victoria Speedboat’ to Phnom Penh left Chau Doc at 7.00. We arrived for breakfast at 6 to find the restaurant packed. I had  seen photos of the boat online and I was doubtful it could take this crowd.

We checked out and placed our bags at the indicated spot. No sooner had we sat down to wait than a man with a luggage trolley was beckoning us to follow as he wheeled our cases down the steep ramp to the crowd milling around on the dock.

There were, we discovered, 11 people going to Cambodia with us, the rest were bound for a large cruise ship moored in deeper water.
Inside the Victoria Speedboat heading north

We sped upstream for an hour or so through much the same scenery we had been watching more slowly for the past two days, although here there were more villages on stilts like the Cham village we had visited yesterday.

Speeding north from Chau Doc

The river was some 50m wide until it merged with a larger stream on the right. We had left the delta and the Mekong was now a single stream the best part of a kilometre wide.

The Vietnamese border post was built on stilts. Handing over our passports to the boat’s conductor, we disembarked and went to the waiting room where I changed my last dong into Cambodian riels.

Our passports duly stamped, we sped upstream for a few minutes before disembarking for the Cambodian formalities.
The Cambodian border post beside the Mekong

The Vietnamese post had been starkly functional; the Cambodians had a semi-circle of folksy wooden offices set round a garden. Photography is not usually permitted in border posts, but then there is little to photograph. Here, though, were trees, flowers, Buddhist shrines and a crowd of people waiting for their visas in the shade of a mango tree.

Waiting for visas, Cambodian border post beside the Mekong
Formalities were reasonably brief and around 9.00 we re-embarked for the final three hours to Phnom Penh.

Cambodian village beside the Mekong

Cambodia seemed less densely populated and the few villages we saw looked basic and scruffy. The banks here were several metres high so villages were not built on stilts. Beyond the shacks, cattle - rarely glimpsed in Vietnam - sat in the shade of the trees. There were fields of crops, mainly maize, but the wide river, high banks and flat land made it difficult to see far, though we did glimpse several temples with high, steeply pitched roofs and gold finials, much more Thai in style than Vietnamese.

Distant view of a temple beside the Mekong
 We were surprised to see container ships so far from the sea and 40 minutes short of Phnom Penh we passed a modern container port.

Container ship on the Mekon south of Phnom Penh
We reached Phnom Penh around 12.30. It was the first major urban centre we had seen from the river, but there were few high rise building and little in the way of soaring temples – hardly an exciting river frontage.

The Tonle Sap joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh. We turned into the tributary and moored at the main dock a hundred metres from the confluence.

We were met by Kim and a driver, stowed our cases in the car and walked into the Bopha Phnom Penh Restaurant which is described by the Rough Guide as ‘a huge, decadent restaurant …with an open front looking over Tonle Sap.’ It is undoubtedly large and stages Apsara performances in the evening - and a taster at lunchtime - but I would hardly call it ‘decadent’. 

Lunchtime 'Apsara' performance Bopha, Phnom Penh
The set meal of fish skewers marinated with lemon grass, Khmer chicken curry, stir fried vegetables with cashew nuts, rice, fruit and Khmer ‘pastries’ – much gelatine but no pastry – was very enjoyable. The chicken curry, not highly spiced, but featuring a rich coconut milk sauce was worth the journey from Chau Doc on its own. Unlike the Vietnamese, Cambodians eat dishes with rice (i.e. everything except noodles) with a spoon and fork thus depriving us of the opportunity to further show off our chopstick skills.

Lunch at the Bopha, Phnom Penh
We checked into our hotel, a rather characterless building in the narrow grid of streets away from the riverside. The hotel’s ban on durians, guns and smoking, in that order, was less than totally reassuring.

The royal palace was nearby, though nothing remains of the original palace built by King Ponhea Yat in 1434. The current Coronation Hall was constructed in 1919 by King Sisowath, the grandfather of the present King, and is a concrete replica of the wooden hall built by Sisowath’s brother and predecessor King Norodom (reigned 1860 to 1904).

The Coronation Hall is hidden until you are well inside the palace compound, and the first view of it is breath-taking – concrete or not.
Coronation Hall, Phnom Penh 

Sometimes the public are allowed in, though not today, but we could look through the windows and open (but barred) door at the high throne – used for the coronations of King Sihanouk in 1941, and of his son, the present monarch King Sihamoni in 2004. A set of normal chairs are arranged in front of the throne for use when the king meets high ranking foreign delegations.

Photography is not permitted, and the rule is strictly enforced.  The man next to me raised a camera and was given a firm slap on the wrist (and not a metaphorical one) by a security guard I had not previously noticed. The message was clear, do not dis the king, and do not dis the security guards, even if they are little old men.

The royal residence – at the back of the hall – is in use so is never opened to visitors.

The Royal Residence, Phnom Penh

The Royal Waiting Room is beside the Coronation Hall while at the edge of the compound is the Dancing Pavilion – a hall without walls were dance performances could be watched by moonlight.
The Dancing Pavilion, Phnom Penh

A strange wrought iron pavilion covered in scaffolding to the left of the Coronation Hall is, bizarrely, the pavilion from which Empress Eugenie watched the opening of the Suez Canal. When it was dismantled, her husband, Napoleon III, gave it to King Norodom and it was re-erected here. It is in a poor state of repair and the current restoration is overdue. The scaffolding was home to a group of monkeys who came to stare at the tourists. The tourists stared back. Inevitably somebody approached too close and a monkey leapt at his leg and climbed to his waist. There was a certain amount of panic, but the monkey was soon brushed off with no harm done.

Wat Preah Keo, the Silver Pagoda, is next door, the site interconnected with the Royal Palace. Built in 1962, its name comes from the 5329 silver tiles that cover the floor. Now there is a polishing job!

Again photography was not allowed so I have stolen Wikipedia’s picture of the (not quite) life sized golden Buddha. Its 90Kg of gold are encrusted with a lot of diamonds (9584 according to Wikipedia, 2086 according to the Rough Guide). It was made in the Royal workshops in 1906/7 on the orders of King Sisowath.
The golden Buddha, Silver Pavilion, Phnom Penh
(picture from Wikipedia - looks like the security guards missed this one)

It rather overshadows the Emerald Buddha, which is only 50cm tall and carved from jade. It is very like the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, on which the Silver Pagoda looks to have been modelled. It is claimed to be 17th century, but it may be a more recent copy.

On the outside wall the long mural of the Ramayana, much praised by the Rough Guide, is in poor condition and needs serious work before it will be worth looking at.
Topiary teapot, outside the Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh

The Pagoda’s garden is a delight with abundant brightly coloured flowers in pots, and some topiary, including this rather pleasing teapot.

Flowers and chedi outside the Silver Pagoda

There are two chedi, one containing the ashes of King Norodom, the other those of his queen. There is also an equestrian statue of King Norodom. Like the wrought iron pavilion it was a gift from Napoleon III and was originally a statue of him. The head has been changed.
Equestrian statue of King Norodom/Napoleon III

Behind the pagoda is a model of Angkor Wat. Large and detailed it would have saved us the bother of going there, if the trip had not been already booked. It is precisely to scale, except for the fish in the moat, which is a relief. 100m long carp would be scary.
Model of Angkor Wat, Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh

There are various side rooms and halls on  way the out with collections of photographs, palanquins and silver elephants among other things. They are all worth a brief visit.
Elephant room, Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh

We returned to the car and drove to the National Museum, though a look at the map later suggested it would have been quicker to walk.

A large, single storey building it is, as national museums go, relatively compact.

The country’s history is neatly divided into 3: pre-Angkorian (before the 9th century), Angkorian (9-13th century) and post-Angkorian.

The first two are largely represented by stone statues, Hindu until the 11th century and Buddhist afterwards. Some are huge, some are fragmentary and one or two are huge and fragmentary like a reclining Vishnu who lacks several arms and most of his body yet still dominates the end of the first gallery. Some of the later statues are impressive, the faces emerging from the stone are clearly real people. The best known, though not, I thought, the best statue, is that of the Leper King, Jayavarman VII (1181-1218). Photography in the museum is not permitted, so this is a photograph of the replica which now sits in Angkor Thom where the original used to sit.

Replica of the statue of the Leper King on its original site, Angkor Thom
Post-Angkor is more of a mixed bag including funerary urns, wall panels and other objets d’art.

It is not the biggest or most varied collection, but it is well labelled in English and is worth an hour of anybody’s time.

In the evening we followed Kim’s advice and ate at Romdeng – it involved little more than crossing the road from our hotel. The restaurant is a non-profit making school for former street children, the waiting staff wearing identical tee shirts labelled ‘student’ or ‘teacher’ as appropriate.

Through the arch from the road is a relatively quiet garden, but there was no room for us there. The restaurant is popular and without a booking we were lucky to be found a single spare table on the balcony. The service was excellent, the students a real credit to their teachers, and the food was good, too. We had rice pancakes stuffed with yam, beans and beansprouts, and stir fried chicken with courgettes and red chillies.

Having tested out ‘Cambodia Beer’ at lunchtime, we now tried ‘Angkor Beer’ so we had sampled both the country’s main brews. There was little, possibly nothing, to choose between them. Both, made with more rice than barley, are lightweight, fizzy and largely flavour free, but they are cold and wet, which is important in the Cambodian climate.

The meal, including coffee (not a patch on Vietnamese coffee) came to a steepish $22, but it was all for a good cause. The Cambodian currency, the riel, is only used for small change. All prices are quoted in US dollars (not just for tourists) but as there are no coins Cambodian banknotes are used instead of cents. Pegged at 4000 riels to the dollar, the 1000 riel note is used as a ‘quarter’, the 100 riel note as 2½ cents (they are  easy to collect and hard to spend) while the 500 riel note must actually be the ‘bit’ American’s refer to when they call a quarter ‘two bits’.

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