Phnom Penh pagodas and palaces

After a day whizzing around Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk it was time for more pagodas, and Phnom Penh has a lot to see with one in almost every neighbourhood. In order to avoid temple overload I stuck to those most prominent. Wat Ounalom on the river front is allegedly the oldest in the city, predating the end of the capital’s site at Angkor in the 15th Century. It is also home to the country’s Buddhist leader. DSCF7760

Wat Phnom is on a small hill and marks the founding of the city of Phnom Penh. The legend that follows the founding of the city is that Lady Penh fished a floating tree out of the river and found four Buddha statues. In order to house them somewhere she built the hill (‘Phnom’ in Khmer) and built a Wat on top; thus giving the temple its name. The city that built up around it took the name of the hill and her name – Phnom Penh. The temple also houses the remains of the King who moved the capital here in the 15th century.

Despite the strong Cambodian history at this pagoda, the current building created in the 1920’s has a lot of Chinese Buddhist imagery; even lady Penh looks more Chinese than Khmer.

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No visit to the city is complete without visiting the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. At its river front site the Royal Palace is a very pristine and manicured building and is still the home of Cambodian royalty. It is a beautiful place although like any other palace it jars against the poverty is surrounds – especially the silver pagoda with its solid silver tiled floor. (Although I have to admit to being a bit disappointed it was covered in rugs and barely visible).

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A weekend in Phnom Penh

After 4 nights in the jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, I’ll be honest I was dying for a shower and clean clothes. I have no problem with roughing it, but there’s nothing like being clean again and not smelling of the jungle covered in a film of red dirt.

Phnom Penh is a busy capital with insane traffic but once I was scrubbed clean I was keen to go and explore. I was staying near the Kandal market, full of vegetables, fish and meat as well as household goods. It did mean though that I was also close to the Tonle Sap river, and where it joins the Mekong – the confluence where in the wet season the water backs up and causes the Tonle Sap river to flow in the other direction, back to the lake.

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Phnom Penh is a large city so at some point you will need to jump on a tuk tuk to get around. That said, some of the best shops and restaurants are around the riverside. There’s also some fantastic social enterprise shops on street 240 at the back of the Royal Palace. If you’re not already weighed down with gifts and treasures, head to the Russian market where you will find opportunities to shop.

Riding around on a tuk tuk you can see the French influence on the city and the crazy electrical wiring which explains the city’s power cuts!

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The National Museum is worth a visit although if you’ve spent time at temples already on your trip you might find this a bit underwhelming as it is only small, and whilst there are a lot of exhibits its almost entirely dedicated to the Angkor era.

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As you whizzing around on a tuk tuk make sure you pass the Independence monument; originally created in the 1960’s to celebrate independent rule, but now a memorial to the war dead.

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Given its size it hard to believe that Phnom Penh has only been the capital of Cambodia since the 19th Century (though it had a brief stint in the 15th Century too); and its hard to believe such a bustling city was once so desolate and abandoned during the 1970’s genocide.

Despite the brutal and horrific story behind it, you should also visit the Toul Sleung Genocide museum, to fully understand the history of the country beyond the temples and pagodas. There is also the Killing Field’s site just outside of the city centre which you can visit, but after seeing the museum it felt a little disrespectful to me to visit the killing fields. I understood the story and didn’t need to see more. There is an intense sadness when you ask Cambodians about this period of their history, and whether out of national shame or its just to painful to remember, few share their memories.

The Toul Sleung Genocide museum had been a school prior to the Khmer Rouge occupation when it became the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. As you wander around the buildings the exhibits are sparse but that only adds to a sense of the brutality that lay inside them, in the tiny brick cubicles. That this was one of 150 such prisons in Cambodia during the regime makes it all the more horrific. That around 1/4 of the Cambodian population were killed in just 4 years is sickening.

The rows of photographs of some of the 17,000 people who died there are hard to look at and not cry. Its hard to not feel completely overwhelmed by the brutality and cruelty that took place not that long ago. This is the history of Cambodia which lies in the eyes of the people you meet on your travels.

A new Genocide Museum is being constructed which will help to memorialise the history of Cambodia during this era, and hopefully to teach people to prevent it ever happening again.

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Trekking in the jungles of Chi phat in the Cardamom Mountains

Breaking free of the busy traffic in Phnom Penh required patience, but we were heading for the Cardamom Mountains for 4 nights staying with the Chi phat community so I was excited, even if the morning would be spent on the road travelling.

After three hours of driving on roads undergoing reconstruction, we reached the turn off – a dirt track which lead 17km deep into the jungle to the Preak Piphot River where we hopped onto the boat to cross to the small village of Chi Phat, on the other side.

This was my first time in a rainforest and I hoped for a great introduction to the Cardamom mountains and also to staying in a jungle community. I wasn’t disappointed.

Chi Phat as a community is an interesting place. Originally wealthy from illegal logging the community was supported by Wildlife Alliance in 2007 to set up community based environmental tourism (CBET) in the Cardamom Mountains, one of Asia’s last untouched rainforests. It is run as a commune in which all the money generated from tourism goes directly to the village and where everyone in the village has a role in the success of the community.

Families deliver a specific set of services running guesthouses, or being guides, cooks, or taxi drivers on their mopeds; while CBET runs the community’s reception area, gear rental for trekkers and coordinates service management. Wildlife Alliance continues to provide international marketing and on-the-job training in the community, based around the forestry project.

It felt great to know I was contributing to the success of the village and the protection of the local environment at the same time as having an adventure.

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Whilst in Chi Phat I stayed with a family in a basic but lovely room and in the afternoon the grandson came to play and ask for the bananas his grandmother had left for us.

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Having found myself in a nice home with a nice room, I thought this jungle malarkey was going to be lovely. Especially when that afternoon we were take to see the community’s forestry project to learn about the reforesting taking place in the area.

The Wildlife Alliance is still working in the area, supporting the community to ensure that the lost woodland is replaced and the workers here earn more money raising saplings than construction workers in Phnom Penh; ensuring people are not lost from the village to the bright lights of the city.

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I had been warned though that it wasn’t entirely going to be tranquil as this little fella and his friends get quite loud at night in the woodland.

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We then went up to see the area of land which is planned to be reforested; it was only then that it became clear the extent of the damage that had been done to the Cardamom Mountain area as logging was underway and how vital communities like Chi Phat would be to the future protection of the landscape.

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My idyllic time quickly ended though. It was a hot night in the house under my mosquito net and even the rain in the night didn’t cool the temperature. I also had a fright when a huge flying beetle swooped into the room like a helicopter and stopped on my net for a while. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.

The following morning we had a tasty Khmer breakfast on the boat as we headed up the Preak Piphot River for over an hour. It was early and the idyllic morning was just a cover what was to come.

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Once we disembarked the jungle consumed us. The humidity was unbearable and in no time at all we were all dripping in sweat. By 11am when we stopped for lunch I was feeling well and truly tortured by the jungle, having spent all morning flicking leeches from my feet. There is only one way to reduce number that climb up your boots (there’s no avoiding them!) and that’s walking quickly – incredibly difficult in high humidity. I understand now the idea of a jungle driving you to madness. I’ve never been so happy to stick my feet in a river while lunch was cooked.

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Leech bites are like being stung by a wasp; only gross. One had managed to latch on for long enough that it had grown from its tiny size to that of a slug. I didn’t get an after picture; I was too busy flicking him off and looking horrified at the blood all over my socks. Yes, boots and socks are no challenge to a leech. The foot photo is from the day after when I’d regained my composure and could consider myself sane.

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After bathing my feet and a lunch cooked by the guys consisting of ample rice and vegetables, washed down with coffee; we trudged on. The path was drier and we kept the pace fast to try to avoid the leeches getting on us.

It was around 4pm when we arrived at our hut for the night at Antong Prang – a small clearing in the jungle where there was a long drop toilet and two huts for hanging hammocks to sleep.

After the terror of the hike we threw off our inhibitions as quick as our clothes to be able to wash in the river, hidden from the guides.

As the rain arrived at 5pm we were having dinner; it didn’t take long for us to end up zipped into our hammocks and attempting to sleep early. As fast as the rain came down, the thunder boomed: it was going to be a long night.

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As it was I slept surprisingly well; though I did slip into the middle of the hammock a few times. As we had breakfast we compare leech bites and continued our quick march to get back to Chi Phat village.

The walk took us past a clearing which might be good for wildlife spotting, but we didn’t see anything.

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Later that day we did find these critters!

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We finally made it to the waterfall near the village where it was a joy to swim with our clothes on and feel refreshed again. Despite the mental torture I loved visiting Chi Phat and would recommend it to anyone – they organise a lot of different activities you don’t have to trek with the leeches!

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The floating village of Phoum Kandal and Wat Oudong

Lying in bed wrapped in a cotton sheet I watch sunrise in Battambang. Through the blind the sky is turning from reds to yellows.

The dull whirr of the air conditioning, the buzz of insects waking, the occasional motorbike whining by and horns beeping; and below it all is the quiet, mourning melody of a Khmer guitar playing a sad stirring tune.

The sky is blue and the sun is up, the traffic is building as cars beep and drive by the hotel. Voices call and the music disappears into the background, drowned out by the sounds of the day.

We left Battambang early, heading for Phnom Penh. The drive was long and so we stopped en-route at Phoum Kandal, a Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap. We caught a local boat to visit the village. Unlikely Mechrey I’d visited a few days before, this floating village was along the lake edge rather than out in the depths of the lake. It was also clear that there was a divide between the poor and extreme poor even in the floating village.

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From Phoum Kandal we travelled on to Oudong to visit the Wat on the hillside.

The area of Oudong was the old capital of Cambodia, before it moved to Phnom Penh in the 19th Century. The limestone hillside of Phnom Oudong and its Wat is now the official resting place of the Buddha’s bones possessed by Cambodia and the three large stupas house the remains of three Cambodian kings.

Unlike some of the newer temples I’d visited which are becoming in need of a little love; Wat Oudong was being restored with funding from UNESCO when I visited.

Phnom Oudong is worth visiting there are fantastic views from the top across Oudong and out to Phnom Penh.

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Battambang – temples and markets or guns and grenades

Having spent an amazing week in Siem Reap it was sad to leave the friendly buzz of the town behind and head off towards Battambang. The 3 hour drive took us past mile after mile of rice fields, making it clear why this part of Cambodia is the main area for rice production in the country.

It was also clear that local ‘delicacies’ were going to be more common; we stopped by the roadside to buy bamboo-sticky rice and also found these dishes. Being a vegetarian provided a great excuse to avoid trying them!

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Before we arrived in Battambang we visited Wat Banan temple. To reach the temple you have to climb 300 or so steps up the hillside. Arriving at the height of the midday sunshine it was a slow walk.

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Wat Banan is still used as a Buddhist temple but I did feel a bit disappointed as the quiet temple is quite dilapidated.

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We then headed to Wat Sampeau, a beautiful golden modern temple on the top of Phnom Sampeau – a limestone mountain which is considered sacred by Buddhists locally. Being the only high point in the vast plains of rice fields there are fantastic views and really cute Macac monkeys. The beauty of the temple, with its mixed history of Cambodian and Chinese Buddhism, hides the horrific past during the Khmer Rouge where the hillside’s caves were used as ‘killing caves’.

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When we finally arrived in Battambang it seemed less of a cosmopolitan town than Siem Reap, and the Khamara hotel reminded me of Soviet buildings, in its style and imposing size. It didn’t help that it had eight huge, shiny and expensive Range Rovers parked outside, and this sign on the back of my bathroom door only added to the feeling that I was staying in a border town frequented by Thai drug barons.

10676192_10152951478598854_5109201430362321258_n IMG_1933My impression changed the following day, when we cycled through the town centre, along the river with its old French colonial buildings and then on the back roads of town passed small markets and homes. (The oranges – or greens! – were amazingly sweet).

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We arrived at the oldest home in the town to see traditional Khmer architecture. The house we visited was 90 years old and had been owned by the same family since it was built. However, its history was incredibly sad, and I found it hard not to cry as the old lady told us her tale with tears in her eyes and her niece translated.

During the Khmer Rouge  all homes were taken by the regime and this one was used as a communal kitchen. The old lady’s children left for Phnom Penh with her husband and she fled with other family members to the countryside. After the war she was able to get her home back and her husband returned but without the children; she waited for years for them to come home. Eventually her husband left her to start a new family with her friend.

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As I cycled on, thinking about the horrors of the past that people have had to live through, we arrived at the fish market where the overwhelming smell brought me to the present.

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As a vegetarian I was immensely grateful for not having to worry about hygiene in the market. Though I have to concede there is very little waste in the process; the leftovers are left to ferment in large barrels to make the famous Khmer fish paste that is added to curries. I can’t describe the smell, only to say that even now just thinking about it I can smell the overwhelming stench. A word of caution that despite it being easy to eat in Cambodia as a vegetarian, you need to check curries don’t have the fish paste still added to them.

Thankfully, the final stop on the bicycles was a small home where we saw a lady making rice paper.

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Phnom Kulem National Park

Heading nearly 50km outside of Siem Reap into the Phnom Kulem National Park we had a more relaxing day of visiting temples and waterfalls planned.

Phnom Kulem is considered the birthplace of the Khmer Empire and the temple of Phreah Ang Thom is the most sacred place in Cambodia for Hindus and Buddhist, as well as the site of the largest reclining Buddha in the country. The National Park was created in 1993 and listed in 2012 by UNESCO to protect the area from the farming practices causing deforestation in the region.

The landscape was beautiful as we ascended the hill, but it is largely unexplored by tourists due to the area being a Khmer Rouge stronghold during the 1970s and therefore unexploded landmines are still present. I’m glad we didn’t plan on cycling as the private road up to the temple might be relatively new, but it’s steep and made of red sandstone so would have been hard work. It was a bumpy 45 minute drive to the Phreah Ang Thom temple at the top of the hill.

Phreah Ang Thom is still used by Buddhists and when we visited it was the weekend of the full moon and so prayers were taking place and there was a strong smell of incense in the air.

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As the whole area is a temple you need to remove your shoes to walk around; I couldn’t help feeling sad that the lady looking after shoes had been injured in the war.

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As monks prayed under the sacred rock and worshippers chanted, we ascended the concrete steps at the side of the rock to the giant reclining Buddha, carved into the top of the rock.

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From the temple we also visited the nearby waterfalls and played with some of the local children. The waterfalls are beautiful but very busy with tourists. This immediate area does suffer from litter and street hawkers, which is a shame but I guess isn’t uncommon, I can think of similar places in the UK that suffer litter from uneducated visitors.

We’d taken a fantastic packed lunch as we’d been advised that whilst there is a local cafe, the water quality and hygiene wasn’t guaranteed. I have to say our packed lunch was the best I’ve ever had!

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Cycling and Kayaking Tonle Sap

Yet another scorching hot morning to cycle out of Siem Reap and traffic dodge – this time heading 18km away to Tonle Sap Lake for a day of kayaking and seeing the floating villages. If the cycling in the crazy traffic hadn’t been daunting enough my kayaking skills were non-existent so the day was always going to be an interesting one.

Heading south out of Siem Reap we took highway 6. I tried to get a photo as it was actually fun and surreal to be on a mountain bike cycling up a 6 lane highway out of town but I was also trying to concentrate on not hitting anyone – or anything – so its a bit wonky. The traffic system is confusing to say the least; there is a dual carriage way in the centre apparently for faster vehicles, with two lanes either side of it intended for slower vehicles travelling both directions. The rules are quite flexible I discovered when we pulled out on to the centre dual carriageway alongside a wagon.

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Eventually we turned off and headed South taking a more typical red dusty road out of town towards the lake. It soon became apparent why we had mountain bikes as the roads are uneven and stony; this is one of the better ones.

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As we headed down through the rice fields down past farms and homes, the heat and taste of dust became more overwhelming, but at least the smells of car exhaust and waste rotting by the side of the street had been replaced with the aroma of spices and fresh air.

The route to Tonle Sap Lake takes you past mile after mile of rice fields and cattle grazing; past small markets and homes, with children waving and shouting hello as their parent cook and clean, and dogs are sleeping or scratching fleas by the side of the road. Best of all there is little traffic so the cycling is great, allowing us to stop to take photos.

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Arriving at a small village at the edge of Tonle Sap lake we left our bikes and headed out on the lake on a small boat, towards Mechrey, a small floating village, out in the lake. Its much smaller than the popular Chong Khneas, but our guide favoured this village for it not being over developed or commercial and much cleaner.

Tonle Sap Lake is a fascinating place. The lake is unmissable on the map of Cambodia and is the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Our guide explained that it also has a unique phenomenon as during the wet season the heavy monsoon rains flowing down the Mekong River near Phnom Penh forces the flow from the Tonle Sap river to change direction and to flow back into the lake, increasing its size from 2,500km2 to 12,000km2. This creates important habitats for both birds, mammals and fish around the mangrove forests, making it a UNESCO biosphere.

Once we arrived at Mechrey Village we swapped the power boat for kayaks and headed out around the mangroves.

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Paddling around the village felt a bit voyeuristic, watching people go about their daily lives, but it was interesting to see the village and how people live and was certainly an antidote to temples. Children laugh and play in the water and families cook and clean, all waving at us as we passed. I really recommend you get out on to the Lake and visit one of the smaller floating villages to see a different way of life in the Cambodian countryside, not yet spoilt by tourism.

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Once back on dry land we cycled back via the back roads and lanes, to Wat Athvea temple just on the outskirts of town.

The cycling in the afternoon heat was scorching and incredibly dusty. Despite its lack of carvings and half finished apsaras, Wat Athvea temple is still worth seeing due to its distance from the Angkor site it is almost unvisited by tourists. However, this does mean it lacks the maintenance and restoration that Angkor has benefited from.

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