On our first full day in Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh, we visited the Independence Monument, Wat Phnom, the National Museum and saw a traditional Khmer dance show. We also stuffed our faces in three different restaurants in this cosmopolitan foodie city.
This day did not, I repeat, did NOT start with breakfast. We left 252 Hotel early in the morning to start our do-it-yourself walking tour of Phnom Penh. The hotel is a veritable oasis tucked just behind a gate on a city block.
We first walked to the Independence Monument which, similar to Vientiane’s Victory Monument, stands tall over a roundabout. They both may have been influenced by the French colonists. This monument was built in the Angkor Wat style.
Next we walked to the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, which was built after the Cambodian-Vietnamese War in the late 1970s. It was made in a Communist style celebrating soldiers from both nations and there’s a peasant woman and her child sprinkled in there as well. We learned more about the significance of this statue after the next day’s visits to two Cambodian genocide museums.
Next it was time for breakfast! We walked into a small alleyway to ARTillery, a vegetarian / organic café that would not be out of place in New York City. We had fresh juices and healthy vegetarian sandwiches on baguettes.
We had fresh juices and healthy vegetarian sandwiches on baguettes.
We then walked to the Royal Palace, just across the street from the café. However, the guards told us it was closed this morning for some important event and would be reopened at 2pm, which meant we had about three hours to kill. An enterprising tuk tuk driver took advantage of this fact and asked us if we wanted a one hour tour of Phnom Penh. He showed us a laminated sheet with a map of the city and photos of its highlights. We were wary of scams so we said “No thank you” and walked on. He insisted. The tuk tuk driver emphasized to us that we had a few hours to kill before the Royal Palace opened again. He offered $10 for a one hour tour through the riverside, Wat Phnom and the island northeast of the city. We agreed thinking the itinerary sounded good, we wanted to visit Wat Phnom, and it’s only $10.
We hopped onto the tuk tuk and rode up the Mekong riverfront for about 5 minutes, the driver pointed out some landmarks on our way up. He asked if we wanted to stop by Wat Ounalom to explore and take pictures. We jumped off. Maurice asked him how long should we take in the temple. He responded as long as you want, it’s up to you. That sounded very fishy.
We took a few photos of the wat.
At the entrance is a stupa modeled in the Angkor Wat style. The Cambodians sure are proud of their ancient civilization, the nods to Angkorian architecture are seen everywhere.
When returning to our waiting tuk tuk, we asked the driver to clarify. Are we paying $10 for his suggested tour or $10 per hour for what could potentially be a 3-4 hour tour. After some back and forth he explained it’s per hour. At our hotel, a taxi price list estimated that a half day city tour by tuk tuk costs around $12, $10 for one hour only is a total ripoff, we were being taken for a ride (pun intended). Shocked that we had been scammed we told him in clear terms that we would not be paying for more than one hour. Take us to Wat Phnom and then drop us back to the Royal Palace area and that’s it.
We drove north to Wat Phnom up on the city’s only hill. We kept a close watch on the time and set out to walk in and around the central temple.
The inside of the temple was ornate with a golden Khmer-style Buddha. Vividly colored murals depicting the Reamker (the Khmer version of the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana) surrounded the Buddha from floor to ceiling.
The most interesting part of the temple grounds was the giant working clock built into the lawn at the base of the hill.
We rushed back to the waiting tuk tuk within our self-imposed 50 minute time limit and told the driver to take us to the National Museum (just north of the Royal Palace where we started our ride). We paid him just the $10 and he was satisfied. We were frustrated that we were naïve enough to get scammed. We put our guards up and vowed to be more cynical to any offers, especially those that are unsolicited.
We visited the National Museum which is housed in a beautiful red building with an inviting interior courtyard.
The museum itself is focused on Angkorian artifacts. It has a massive collection of stone statues depicting religious icons, the royalty i.e. the great kings of Angkor and mythical creatures.
In the courtyard, Maurice messes with the koi swimming in the pond by pretending to throw food at them.
Leaving the museum, we stopped by a booth selling tickets to tonight’s 8pm performance of Cambodian Living Arts organization’s Khmer classical / folk dance show. We bought the general admission tickets ($15 per person).
Then we headed to Friends Restaurant for a late lunch. Friends is a training restaurant run by the same nonprofit that runs Makphet, the restaurant we went to while in Vientiane. Still full from our late breakfast at ARTillery, we settled on three of their tapas style dishes.
We hailed a tuk tuk to take us back to the hotel. It was almost 5pm so we wouldn’t have time to visit the Royal Palace today. We did had time to relax in our hotel room before going back to the National Museum to watch the culture show. The tuk tuk driver navigated the busy city streets and even rode the wrong way on a one way street. He wasn’t sure where our hotel was so he asked other tuk tuk drivers along the way.
By 7pm, we left the hotel. We hailed a tuk tuk waiting right outside the gates. He offered to take us to the National Museum, wait 1.5 hours for us and then take us back to the hotel for $4. He was very friendly and quickly became our favorite tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh.
The walk to the tented performance stage was lit by candles. We arrived early enough to sit in the second row center section, right behind the VIP seats.
The show started with a short documentary highlighting the mission of Cambodian Living Arts. Sadly, after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime took over between 1975-1979, 90% of Cambodia’s artists were killed. The organization was founded to pass on the Khmer arts heritage and train a new generation of performance artists.
The performance was Phnom Penh phenomenal! The costumes were gorgeous, the dancers talented and beautiful (both women and men!) and the music was raucous and fun. Here are some of the highlights from the performance.
The Apsara dance, inspired by images of the female deities sculpted onto Angkor’s temples.
The buffalo sacrificing ceremony from the Phnorng ethnic minority in Ratanakiri province.
The fishing dance, another folk dance, representing a cute love story within a village of happy fishermen.
The golden mermaid dance tells a story from the Reamker of the monkey Hanuman falling in love with a mermaid while on a rescue mission.
The Pailin peacock dance originating from the Kola ethnic group from the Pailin region in western Cambodia.
Tep Monorom is a dance of heavenly gods and goddesses, showing off their courting rituals.
The Phloy Suoy dance is performed by the Suoy ethnic group as a dedication to their Cave Spirit.
Then the show ended to heavy applause from the packed audience. Here all of the dancers stood in their beautiful costumes.
A few members of the dedicated band posed for us after the show.
Our tuk tuk returned us to our hotel, swinging by the lit up Independence Monument on the way back.
We had dinner at La Table Khmere, the restaurant recommended by the hotel receptionist yesterday. The cocktails were good, however the service was slow and the food was bad to decent. We are pretty easygoing, so it’s unusual for us to actually say the food was bad. The spring rolls were the worst we’ve ever had on this Southeast Asia trip. As for the service, the waiter did warn us that since there was a huge group seated (15+ loud Australians celebrating a birthday), our food would take a while to come. This was acceptable by us, the food however was not.
We walked back to our hotel, tomorrow is another full day in Phnom Penh.