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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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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Social enterprises in Cambodia

Its hard to travel in a country like Cambodia and not be affected by the poverty that exists. A relic from the conflicts and genocide under the Khmer Rouge that has left a country, with a powerful and glorious history, struggling to rebuild itself.

For the traveller, this provides an opportunity to see a country untouched by too much commercialisation (except perhaps in Phnom Penh where development is quickly racing along), and a place were the people are open to the opportunities tourism can bring, without being ruined by it.

The Khmer Rouge robbed the country of a generation, especially those best able to transform its future economy and infrastructure. Its hard not to notice that loss as you walk around the cities and towns – there’s few people over 50.

And its not hard to notice the impact of overseas aid, which has sought to assist Cambodia since the late 1980’s and led to noticeable economic development projects; everything from Chinese road building projects to Japanese and Korean supported schools.

There are also a significant number of overseas non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) operating in the country – supporting orphanages, schools and local community projects.

As I work for an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the UK, I am however surprised by the number of social enterprises, set up and run by the Cambodians which are making a greater sustainable impact on the local people than overseas support provided by some NGO’s.

Smaller in scale, social enterprises ultimately have lower overheads and retain all income generated in Cambodia and operate for the benefit of the people working for them. The majority of income is made through business, enabling them to create business models that can train local people to create their own income and making the most of offering services to the growing number of tourists.

Take care to learn about the projects and organisations you visit – for example there are lots of ‘orphanages’ set up to entice tourists but do not operate specifically for orphans but provide education to all young people on a couple of days a week. I’m not suggesting they’re not valuable but I personally do question the way they perpetuate the image of children awaiting salvation by Western donors and don’t seem to provide a means to access future employment opportunities for the children. Check out this website supported by UNICEF – Thinkchildsafe.

Hence the organisations I came across which I recommend you take time to find, are all locally set up and managed, and provide positive images of the future of Cambodia and opportunities for training and employment for different sections of the community. There is a wealth of other organisations I didn’t have time to find which are equally worth seeking out, and feel free to share them here.

– Phare Cambodian Youth Circus

The Circus provides a nightly show in Siem Reap performed by young people and it is a fantastic night out and alternative to wandering the bars in Pub Street. The circus was set up in 2013 by Phare Ponleu Selpak a youth development organisation providing vulnerable children and young people with a creative environment where they can access training, education and wider social support. The school provides free tuition to over 1,200 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with many of them developing skills in arts and creative activities. The school itself is in Battambang but having the Circus in Siem Reap enables them to access the growing number of visitors to the city. The circus is one of an number of spin off projects from the school offering young people an opportunity to gain employment and generate revenue for the social enterprise enabling more young people to gain training and skills.

I saw the show ‘Preu / Chills’ which was a fantastic story and I definitely recommend you stop by and see the young people performing amazing acrobatics through storytelling. they also have a shop where you can buy items made by young people at the school learning craft and arts skills.

Mekong Quilts

I found the Mekong Quilts shop in Siem Reap and then later in Phnom Penh. Since I love handmade products and it was coming up to Christmas I had to visit. Mekong Quilts was actually set up in Vietnam but also provides women in Cambodia with the opportunity to learn sewing skills and work as a community to create beautiful quilts to sell for which they receive a good income. Profits from the shops are reinvested in the enterprise and through the main charity Mekong Plus which also provides wider community development projects.

The quilts are a bargain in comparison to the cost of buying a handmade one in the UK and are beautiful, but if like me you are backpacking then there is plenty of smaller gift items you can buy.

– Daughters of Cambodia

Another craft based organisation, Daughters of Cambodia provides women with training, education and employment, as well as wider social support such as counselling, medical care and life skills. It works to help women escaping from the sex industry, many of them having been forced into it through poverty.

The saddest thing about the history of the Cambodia is that a generation of people have been robbed of the chance to have a good education and secure and good employment, meaning that the combination of poverty, low skills and a growth in tourism has lead to people being exploited by tourists, particularly for sex. Its not hard to find yourself in the ‘red light’ districts of both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and wishing better for the girls (and guys) being used by western and other Asian tourists.

The Daughters shop in Phnom Penh provides a great way to find out about the organisation and buy some fantastic gifts, everything from bags and t-shirts to jewellery and toys. They also sell products made by the ‘sister’ company Sons of Cambodia which through a similar model seeks to provide transexual males with a means to leave the sex industry too.

Having checked out their website since coming home I’ve found they also run a small hotel in Phnom Penh, wish I’d known about that!

Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre

I’ve mentioned this previously, but this butterfly conservation centre is definitely worth seeing when you are temple-d out. Close to the Angkor site they farm butterflies to sell to zoos and live exhibitions abroad. This income helps to sustain the centre, which in turn provides education to local farmers to prevent deforestation which is reducing many butterfly and moth species habitats.

Local farmers are also paid to collect eggs and caterpillars which the centre breeds, helping to prevent species extinction. At $4 to visit its worth an hours visit.

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Friends Restaurant

I love food. A lot. So there is nothing more exciting than discovering a restaurant which is offering young people an opportunity to gain skills in the restaurant industry as chefs or front of house staff. I visited the restaurant near the Royal Palace which serves a mix of Asian and western tapas and there is fantastic selection of vegetarian food. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that as this is a training restaurant that the food will be basic; I ate some of the best quality food at Friends that I had during my time in Phnom Penh. During the day they also have a shop next door selling items made by young people and you can also buy items from their stall in the Russian Market in the city.

Friends International also provides street children with support in other ways through ensuring they are able to go to school and avoid exploitation. They also have restaurants and shops in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, as well as Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos.

Artisan Angkor

One of the first organisations I visited while in Siem Reap for a week and certainly the largest, Artisan Angkor is a bit different. It was originally set up by the Cambodian government in the early 1990’s in order to encourage the revitalisation of the traditional crafts and culture. If you’re in Siem Reap check out their demonstration site which shows visitors the range of crafts and skills being maintained  – from wood and stone carving (which is also helping the regeneration of the Angkor temple site) to silk painting, lacquering and silk weaving.

Training new apprentices annually the organisation now provides work to over 1000 people at different workshops around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Now run as a social enterprise, reinvesting income back into training more people, the crafts made are aimed at the high end luxury market, which also raises the profile of Cambodian cultural crafts. Frankly I couldn’t afford anything in their boutique shops (of which there is even one in the airport in Phnom Penh which is a fantastic showcase of Cambodian crafts), but the work is of an amazing quality.

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If you visit the site in Siem Reap, get there early to get chance to catch a free lift to their silk workshop which is a 20 minute drive out of town. The silk workshops provided a fascinating insight into the time and skill needed to create silk scarves and clothing, which made it clear why they cost so much. 1 metre of silk fabric generally takes 4 months from extracting the silk from the cocoons to weaving the end product.

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Chi-Phat Community Eco tourism

I visited Chi-phat for 3 days on the way to Phnom Penh. It provided both a unique opportunity to see the Cambodian countryside and stay in a small village at the same time as seeing a positive change in the economy in rural communities.

Formerly a hotspot for poaching and illegal logging, the small Chi-phat community now earns income from approximately 2000 tourists a year visiting and staying with families. Originally set up with assistance of the Wildlife Alliance the community now have a social enterprise through which they provide opportunities to trek in the jungle, mountain bike and learn about the local environment and reforestation projects aimed at regenerating the natural environment.

I’ll write about my 4 days in Chi-phat later, but its great to find an eco-tourism project where all the income stays in the local community and benefits local people, and isn’t a commercial business or providing a façade of ecological and community development.