Kingdom of wonder

The Kingdom of Cambodia is a popular adventure destination, especially for western visitors. Before, the only thing I knew about the old Kampuchea is Pol Pot’s communist guerrilla force and the Khmer Rouge carnage. When I was in high school, the end of conflict in Cambodia drove them slowly out of isolation and into an eventual membership in the ASEAN in 1999. On top of that, who does not remember Angelina Jolie’s (popularizing Lara Croft the Tomb Raider) action sequences in striking locations in the country?

Today, Cambodia advances in its economic development process and encourages tourism in the kingdom of wonder. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanouk are the top cities that showcase a treasure trove of Khmer culture and heritage.

With a limited schedule, my friends and I had time to visit only Phnom Penh. As the country’s capital, Phnom Penh is the economic and cultural center of Cambodia. As visualized by their French colonizers, the city looks like a scene straight from a provincial town in France (interestingly, I’ve read it used to be called the Paris of the East).

The city is very charming in its own way (albeit, dusty, hot and humid) with its old French-style structures and classic colonial village buildings dotting the main thoroughfare, the side streets and the riverfront. The lack of a McDonald’s or a Starbucks bears witness to their status as a fairly new urban center (they do have a KFC and a Gloria Jean’s). And like other third world cities, there are enterprising locals, speeding vehicles, and persistent touts. This rough change from the usual beach and green scenery might well be why western visitors troop to this Indochina destination ala-Lonely Planet style.

We did an overland crossing for this trip. We took the Paramount Angkor Express Bus Co. (US$10) from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh. On the trip back to Vietnam, we took the Mekong Express Bus (US$12). Both bus companies provide a guide onboard and a bottle of water. On top of these, Mekong distributes a snack and a pack of wet towelettes. Mekong was considerably faster than Paramount. Paramount ran at an insane speed of 40 kph (motos overtook us). They covered the 240 km trip in approximately 7.5 hours (with one hour for immigration points and a lunch stopover). Although it took us almost the same time on the way back, Mekong ran at 60 kph (we had a 1+ hour lull time at the Vietnam border). The roads to Cambodia are well-paved. At two hours away from Phnom Penh, all vehicles cross the Mekong River via a 5-minute Neak Loeung ferry ride.

We entered the country through Vietnam’s Moc Bai and Cambodia’s Bavet border crossing. The bus guides provide entry assistance to all passengers. As Filipinos (ASEAN), a visa is not required to enter Cambodia. The passports are collected within an hour of the start of the trip and are handed back after crossing the Cambodian (Vietnamese) border. For non-ASEAN passengers, the guide can facilitate visa processing at a premium.

Our group stayed at the California 2 Guesthouse for US$12.50 a night. It is situated at the northern end of the riverfront. The location is very convenient as it is very near the sightseeing spots in the city. The room has a queen bed, a cable TV, a fridge, and a safe. Wifi signal is available and the rate includes a modest breakfast. The only downside with the standard room is the small bathroom with a very misplaced toilet bowl.

My top must-go places are:

1. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda Complex is the main tourist attraction in the city. The complex of buildings is the royal abode of the Kingdom of Cambodia (entrance fee is US$6.50). The public buildings are classic examples of Khmer architecture. The stupas and intricate roof designs are very interesting and kept me navigating through the three main compounds (the Silver Pagoda, the Khemarin Palace and the Throne Hall) of the complex. Even in the early and mid-morning, walking inside the complex is unforgiving as the city gets too hot for comfort.

2. Sisowath Quay (riverfront area) is basically the Cambodian version of Manila’s Baywalk. It is a 3-km attractive boulevard along the banks of the Mekong River. The entire stretch is dotted with cafés, shops, clubs and bars. I made sure I took a photo of the infamous Happy Herb Pizza. They supposedly top their pizzas with the happy weed. :D

3. The National Museum’s rust-red structure with the signature intricate details piqued my interest more than their extensive Angkorian era collection of artifacts. They also have a serene garden in the middle of a courtyard which features the statue of the Leper King. The museum is right next to the Palace Complex. The entrance ticket is priced at US$3.00.

4. The Phsar Thmei or the Central Market is your regular tiangge housed in an artsy dome-shaped building with a soaring ceiling. The striking yellow landmark is very distinctive amidst the sea of stalls set up outside the structure. Souvenirs are best bought here.

A city tour can be finished in one day. Here is how our walking tour went:

Day 1
07:30 ETD Ho Chi Minh for Phnom Penh
11:30 border crossings
12:10 15-minute lunch stopover
13:00 Mekong River crossing
15:00 ETA Phnom Penh
15:15 check-in at California 2 Guesthouse; wash-up
16:30 Central Market
17:30 Sorya Mall
19:00 dinner at Friends Restaurant
20:30 Sisowath Quay

Day 2
06:30 breakfast
07:30 Post Office, Wat Phnom and Statue of Duan Penh
08:30 Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda Complex
10:30 National Museum
11:30 Independence Monument (Vimean Ekareach)
12:00 wash-up and check-out
13:00 lunch
14:00 ETD Phnom Penh
16:00 Mekong River crossing
18:00 border crossings
21:00 ETA Ho Chi Minh


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