Monday, February 27, 2012

Sightseeing in Phnom Penh

Throne Hall and Royal Waiting Room, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Some friends came to visit us not too long ago. We were thrilled to have them here, not only because we wanted to see them, but also because their visit spurred us to do some things we’d been wanting
Banquet Hall, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
to do but just hadn’t done yet. First, they inspired us to finish up the house—get some stuff shuffled away to the attic, hang some pictures on the walls, arrange our collection of international “treasures” where they can be seen and appreciated. Second, they provided the impetus to get out and do some sightseeing here in Phnom Penh. Third, they motivated us to take a trip to Siem Reap—our first trip outside of Phnom Penh since our arrival in October. I’m going to do a short series of blog posts about their visit, starting with the one day we spent here in Phnom Penh.

A royal treasure
Our friends had definite ideas about where they wanted to go during their time here, and we were happy to oblige them. Because they wanted to focus on Siem Reap, they chose to limit the sites we visited here in Phnom Penh to what could be managed easily in one day. After looking through their guidebook, they provided me with a list and asked me to map out an itinerary that would work well in the city. That was easy enough to do, after seeing their list: We’d start at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (the site with the most restrictive hours), go up to Wat Phnom, stop by Central Market, and spend the rest of the day at the Killing Fields, stopping for lunch whenever we got hungry. Accordingly, we ate a breakfast of bagels and fruit, then stepped outside, where our regular tuk tuk driver was waiting for us.

On the Throne Hall
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Royal Palace. I go by it almost every time I travel to the embassy, but the wall around it is too high to see over. Some websites and guidebooks indicated that the only part of the palace that’s open to tourists is the Silver Pagoda compound; others said that parts of the palace grounds are open, too. We just assumed that our driver would know where to drop us off, and we’d see where we were allowed to go once we were inside. It was a good plan. Our driver dropped us at the tourist entrance and showed us where he’d be waiting when we were done (we’d come out a different gate), and we headed in. We entered through a small courtyard that contained a map, a ticket booth, and a pretty bridge. Once we had tickets in hand, we continued down a wide walkway lined with statues. At the end, we rounded a corner and I, at least, stopped in delight.

Chan Chaya Pavilion
The vista that opened up before us included large green areas and several beautiful buildings, all with distinctive, ornate Khmer rooflines. Only a small part was open to the public, with the rest declared off-limits by discreet signs, but that small part was wonderful. The statues and buildings begged to be captured in pictures, and there were clear views even of the off-limits areas for even more photographic opportunities. We saw the Throne Hall, the Royal Offices building, the Royal Waiting Room, and the Banquet Hall. We went inside the Royal Treasury. From the porch around the Throne Hall, I was able to get pictures of Chan Chaya Pavilion—it was in an off-limits area, although I would have loved to go walk around inside that beautiful structure!
The Reamker

After we finished in the Palace, we stepped through a wall into the Silver Pagoda compound. The first thing to catch my eye there was a mural painted on the inside of the wall around the compound. The mural depicts scenes from the Reamker, called Ramayana in India. I’m not familiar with the story, but the vibrant colors were gorgeous.

Shrine inside the Silver Pagoda compound
A few more steps brought us to the courtyard. The compound didn’t have the grassy areas of the Royal Palace compound; instead the whole area was paved, with huge potted plants, statues, spirit houses, and several small buildings dotting the landscape. Our erstwhile tour guide—a friend whose tour book rarely left her hand while we were out and about—took us around the area, saving the Silver Pagoda itself for last. We admired the library, walked by the equestrian statue of King Norodom, entered the pavilion housing a huge “footprint of Buddha,” and climbed the small artificial hill. We admired the scale model of Angkor Wat, anticipating seeing the real thing in just a few days, and finally entered the pagoda itself.
Silver Pagoda, with a scale model of Angkor Wat in front of it

I hate to admit it, but I was a little disappointed. Maybe I’m misremembering how totally awesome this pagoda is, as pictures were not allowed; after all, how could it not be the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen when the staircase is Italian marble, it houses the Emerald Buddha (made of crystal), there’s a lifesize gold Buddha containing no fewer than 9584 diamonds, and it also contains a bronze Buddha, a silver Buddha, and figurines made of solid gold, not to mention the silver floor that gave it its name? But when I was standing inside the pagoda, looking around, my first thought was “This is cool. If I’d seen it before I saw Wat Phnom, I’d’ve been really impressed.” The place just felt cold and lifeless to me, dark in spite of the lamps, when compared with the vibrant colors that characterize Wat Phnom.
Inside Wat Phnom

Luckily, that’s where we headed next. We didn’t spend much time there, only an hour or so. Like the last time I was at Wat Phnom, I saw no monkeys and no elephants. Unlike the last time, however, a group of musicians were playing traditional music inside the wat. Although I appreciated the music—and I’ve read on blogs that for a small tip, the musicians even will give your child an impromptu music lesson—it caused me not to stay inside for very long. Alexa, who was getting sleepy, seemed to be bothered by it, as it was very loud. We spent a few minutes inside the wat and a few more roaming the grounds, and then we were ready to move on.

Our next stop was Central Market. I had been under the impression that our friends weren't interested in shopping, but that impression turned out to be wrong. We quickly found
Central Market
ourselves in front of the same booth where Jeff and I had purchased silk wall hangings, listening in as our friend haggled over some scarves. After several minutes and a couple of times when I thought it was a lost cause, we left the booth, scarves nestled in a bag carried by our friends. Shortly after that, we bought a couple of coconuts. As we watched, the vendor—wearing what looked like a police uniform—hacked off an end and stuck a straw down into the fruit before handing it over. After seeing some of the juice squirt violently out of the straw, I appreciated his care in pointing it away from us during this process! We all had sips from the coconut, but Alexa drank most of one all by herself. She’d been resisting our efforts to hydrate her all day, and apparently this, unlike water, hit the spot. A little more time found us in front of a vendor selling wood carvings, listening as our friend haggled over a carved mask. Her price seemed unreasonably low to me, but I knew she had it when she walked away and the vendor looked desperately at my friend’s husband, who just shrugged, and then grabbed the mask and headed into the warren of stalls after my friend. As I watched the haggling at Central Market and then later in Siem Reap, I realized that I could learn a lot about this art form from my friend!

Our purchases from Tabitha
Purchases completed (for now), we headed back to the tuk tuk and decided it was time for lunch. We visited Mama’s, a Thai place in Boeung Keng Kong, where we enjoyed a tasty and filling lunch. Afterward, we visited the Tabitha store, a non-government organization (NGO; otherwise known as a charity) that helps break the cycle of poverty by developing cottage industries in which women can earn money for their families. I’d never visited their store before, although it’s been on my list for a while, and I was amazed to see the variety of things that were available. We bought two adorable dresses for Alexa, two colorful balls made from cotton, and a stuffed gecko (maybe made from raw silk) that we’re going to experiment with to see if it, and more like it, can be used to decorate the walls in the playroom. Our friends also made some purchases, including an ingenious handbag made from recycled metal. I was highly impressed with everything that Tabitha had to offer, and we’ll definitely be making more purchases and more visits with any other friends who come to see us here.

After that, we stopped by our house to drop off all our purchases before heading back out to the Killing Fields. I will write about that visit, but I think it deserves a post of its own, especially as this post is getting long, so I’ll end this one here and save that one for another time.


  1. Thanks for the details of your first half day of sight-seeing. Looking forward to the rest of the stories and pictures.

  2. My girls love coconut water! Too bad, I have to buy in juice boxes here.

    Haggling in the market is such fun! I could have gone to the Russian market every day. Plus, the younger girls selling clothes give the most outrageous compliments and are so sweet, before I know it, I am inside a stall surrounded by a pile of clothing. They played on my Cinderella fantasies, I suppose!

  3. Can you believe I haven't been to the Russian Market yet? I want to go. A friend here is probably going to go there a good bit over the next few weeks, as she's getting ready to move back home, and I'm hoping to go with her sometime. I still don't know reasonable prices, so I prefer to go with someone who's more knowledgeable at least once.

    1. I usually haggled down at least 2 dollars. And the comfort is knowing that if you walk away, you'll probably find the exact same item two stalls down.

      I bought bunches of breezy cotton capri pants ($3-4/each, dresses ($4-6), wide stretchy headbands ($1), men's khymer pants ($3--Scott loves to lounge in these!), scarves ($1.50). There are a couple of NGO stalls that are pricier but their products seemed better quality. Other than basic greetings, I felt completely comfortable using hand signals for numbers.

      I only got in trouble when I fell in love with the sweet girl selling me stuff! Compliments go a long way with me.

      While you're over there, Cafe Yejj and Jars of Clay are both delicious places to eat!


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