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Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Cambodia’s capital city is loud, dirty and rather violent on first glance, earning it the reputation as a ‘rough city’. However, scratch the surface and you will find plenty of pretty places to walk, good restaurants and interesting buildings. Although the residents are not as warm and welcoming as in the countryside, many people are willing to provide much needed advice and a friendly face.

Phnom Penh was largely destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge and is slowly being restored to its former glory. Also known as Riverside, Sisowath Quay is a pretty avenue running along the banks of the Mekong River and is an interesting place to walk in the evening when dozens of stalls set up selling everything from good meals to cheap souvenirs.

According to popular legend, the city was founded in the 14th century by an old woman named Penh who discovered a tree with a handful of Buddha images wedged in a niche. She recovered the images and had a hill – phnom in the Khmer language – built to contain them. The city grew from there into the sprawling metropolis it is today.  

A tour of Phnom Penh should lead you straight to the Royal palace with its Silver Pagoda and temple of the Emerald Buddha. Also known as Wat Preah Keo Morokat, the entire floor of the Silver pagoda is covered with over 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing 1 kilo. Inside is the Emerald Buddha, which was crafted from baccorant crystal and is one of Cambodia’s most famous images.

Opposite, the National Museum is home to some impressive Khmer sculptures, including many pieces previously at Angkor. This is a good place to get a feel for the ancient art work and various styles. Climb a hill at the centre of a small park near Sisowath Quay for spectacular views and to visit Wat Phnom with its resident monkeys.

To get an idea for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, many people take a day trip to the Killing Fields, which are located at Cheoung Ek, about 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. Now peaceful, this is the place where the Khmer Rouge killed several thousands of their victims and visitors can explore the Buddhist stupa which is filled with human skulls.  

Another gruesome reminder is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is the actual school building that the Khmer Rouge leaders converted to a prison. The museum contains a number of graphic photographs detailing the brutality and handwritten accounts by a few of the survivors.

On a lighter note, taking a cruise on the Mekong River is a great way to see the area, and many tour companies offer sunset dinner cruises. Before you leave Phnom Pehn visit Mekong Island and watch the traditional weaving.

In additional to the city’s many bars and nightclubs, evening entertainment is provided by the French Cultural Centre, who show regular movies.

A Bridge Not So Far

kanchanaburi_1
Kanchanaburi
Kanchanaburi

Sometimes, it’s a nice to get away from the pace of it all. And as far as Bangkok is concerned, an early morning start and 3.5 hrs to spare will get you away to one of my favourite chill out provinces, Kanchanaburi. If the name rings a bell, then yes you’re right, it is the place where that “old bridge” was built over the River Kwai, but that’s another story.

There are many sides to Kanchanaburi, whether it is from the 24 hr techno raves on the infinite number of party river barges (locally known as “Bpear Tech” if you’re up for hitching a ride), to swimming beneath beautiful waterfalls, white water rafting, nature treks, cave exploring, slow river cruises and even a treasure hunt! Yes, that’s right, a hunt for the legendry missing Thai gold that was, as the local tale goes, stolen by the fleeing Japanese army and hidden somewhere deep among the many caverns of Kanchanaburi. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out! 

But I’ve banged my head too many times on low caves (alcohol not required) and been kamikazed enough by spaced out radar deficient bats (yes be, warned) that this time I headed directly for some much needed R&R at Kasem Island Resort upon a small island in the centre of the River Kwai.

Kanchanaburi is 130 Km west of Bangkok and is very easy to get to. You’ll find mini buses leaving from KSR daily (3.5 hrs journey-rates vary), there’s a regular a/c bus service from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal (3.5 hrs journey-approx 65 baht one way) located not far from KSR just over the Pinklao Bridge or like me, you can catch the 7:30 am train from Bangkok Noi Station, Thonburi (4 hrs journey). I prefer any one of the 3 morning trains as there’s plenty of room to chill, better scenery and the real reason… a regular supply of fresh Thai food sold by the train hopping vendors!

After a relaxed 4 hr journey of food, smiles and laughter (ice cold beer for sale makes a regular appearance between stations) I arrived in Kanchanaburi Town. Once you’re outside the train station (and nearby bus station) if you haven’t yet booked a place to stay, its ok, as there are plenty of small trucks and minivans that will take you directly to a number of small hotels/guest houses and resorts around town. I got me a local pick-up taxi down to the Chukadon Pier by the river with just one quick pit-stop along the way to stock up with supplies (laughing liquid and the usual munchies) as the resort has no worries about bringing your own! (Nice one).

 Between the mainland and the island Kasem Resort runs its own ferry barge service every half hour back and forth for free, so don’t worry you’re never stranded. Accommodation ranges from cool twin fan huts with bathroom up to a/c suites. My hut, actually afloat, was 800 Baht per night including a great Thai/Western buffet dinner and breakfast. There are only about 25 rooms/suites or so in total, so there’s no hustle or bustle day or night. The small pool’s there for a quick dip (no gold medals to be won) and numerous tree shaded chill out areas in which to crack open a few as the sun sets with new friends (buckets of ice upon request) or simply to finally finish off that novel you’ve had since the airport!

For the adventurous among you, the resort can organize you a long tail speed boat (approx 600 baht-well worth it!) for you to zip up and down the River Kwai for hours avoiding or joining the party mad barge ravers, visiting the Buddhist caves, (hard work, trust me), the War Cemetery (somber), Bridge Over The River Kwai (always busy, but watch out for the Eastern Orient Express as the railway line is still active), War Museum, and back to the island. But, give the riverside restaurant by Chukadon Pier a go for lunch as the menu is excellent, the food is great and the price is spot on!

As for the waterfalls, kayaking, river rafting and walkabout with elephants, well as I said, I just came for one day of R&R, but if you’ve got time, then give yourself and Kanchanaburi a few well deserved days to either recharge your batteries like me or just party on down the river! Enjoy.

And remember…

 Keepitreal