I guess entering any capital by bus on an afternoon is a disaster. Once again we suffered from Phnom Penh’s traffic. Arriving in the bus station 2 hours later than expected. We wanted to explore the capital of Cambodia before going to Vietnam.
It had been a while since we shared our sleeping space with some one else. Maybe we were ready to stay in a hostel again. We had booked a double bed in a two double bed hostel room, but Stijn had somehow missed the fact that there would be us sleeping in one double bed and some one (or two) else in the other double bed. Our arrival in the hostel was a big surprise for him. It took a while to cope with it.
We stayed in Aura thematic Hostel that is located just at the back wall of the Phnom Penh palace. Clean, well equipped and relatively calm place with a basic breakfast includes. The two double bed room turned out pretty ok, just a little bit small for 4 people. And we were the only ones staying there for 4 nights. All the rest were in transit, staying in the capital only for a night. Once we even had the room only for us, so we can not complain too much.
On the first evening we found the Artillery cafe – a veggie, vegan, gluten free cafe, if you wish, but one can find few dishes with meat too. Good, fresh food with a bit of twist. We tried salads, ice cream, hummus, fresh juices, herbal teas and few raw desserts. Artillery is hidden from the noise of the streets. It was the perfect location for working with a good wi-fi. That is exactly what we did. One of the days we settled there after our hostel breakfast and were almost the last ones to leave just before the closing at 9 pm.
Paranoid Phnom Penh
The beginning was not that easy though. Phnom Penh made me paranoid. Even India did not scare me so much. But the first days I was afraid to go out. It were the printed warnings in the hostel we were staying, the announcements on Trip Advisor and the victim of an attack met on the first night in Phnom Penh. The tourist areas are full with snitchers, cutting the bags of tourists. They are mostly on motorbikes or on foot, mastered their technique to liberate you from your belongings in seconds. The tough stories of India did not scare me, but suddenly I was paralysed. Knowing that someone had been attacked just 50 m from the hostel made me very worried.
I was absolutely used of my backpack, carrying all the necessary and less necessary things with me. Usually Stijn is carrying his gear, but I have sun block, cookies, water, napkins, medicine etc, etc in my bag. But now it was safer to leave everything at the hostel. Taking only cash and phone with me. Stijn still had his backpack, but I kept on insisting that he buckles all the possible straps. After a while he gave in, as he knew, that it would make me a bit less stressed. It took time to get used to not having my bag, but in the end it was even liberating.
One the third day we we ready to explore a little bit more of the city. I was still constantly looking back and suspiciously to every motorbike driver. The palace was closed (we were not very sure, if we wanted to visit it anyway) and the day was incredibly hot. Without too much of direction we wee wondering around the streets, seeing tourists sweating through their routes and locals mainly taking naps on which ever surface they could find.
Ok, I had a place in mind to visit. It must have been in Battambang where I came a cross a local magazine promoting the new places in Phnom Penh. One that I had noted down was the atelier and shop of DO I DO. I have a little passion for leather bags. I had to take a look at their leather shop. And once I did, do you think I could leave it as it is? Of course not! We ended up getting a small wallet for Stijn and a little purse for me (guilty..). But I believe that is nicer to bring back home a long lasting, practical souvenir or something tasty. It is very unlikely that we would buy a key ring with a city panorama, a “traditional” hat (unless it is one of those pretty and good quality ones the locals wear in Myanmar), little statues and other things you can easily get from any souvenir seller.
Grasshopper Bicycle Tour in Phnom Penh
Written by Stijn:
Last year I did do a bicycle tour in Bangkok with the company Grasshopper Adventures. Grasshopper is a company organising bicycle tours in 15 countries in Asia. That was such a nice experience to discover another part of Bangkok with very decent bicycles and a nice guide. Since the beginning of our trip I did repeat a few time to Elize that I absolutely wanted to at least one bicycle tour, preferably with Grasshopper.
Since the tours are not the cheapest I had to choose wisely where to do such a trip. Our daily budget doesn’t allow it to a tour every week.
So we booked our bicycle trip in Phnom Penh because soon we would be exiting the country and we had the feeling there was still much more to see. To our surprise, no one else did sign up for this tour so we were the only ones on the tour together with our guide.
The first part took us through the city in the direction of the ferry. During our trip, we would mostly be exploring the other side of the Mekong river and the Silk island in the middle. As mentioned before, traffic in Cambodia and especially in Phnom Penh is hectic. The larger the car, the more power you have on the street. Honking, fast driving and only keeping a little space while taking over are common practises for local drivers. Luckily it seemed that car drivers have a little bit more patience with foreigners on bikes. A few times we had to go around a large round-a-bout. Unlike in Belgium where you would stay as a bicyclist on the outside of the circle (normally speaking though, I also don’t), here you try to get as close as possible to the center.
By the time we reached the ferry Elizes white t-shirt was already covered with mud stains. A consequence of riding a mountainbike through the mud.
From where we left at the Grasshopper office, it only takes fifteen minutes to reach the other side of the river. This side is very rural. Almost no concrete roads, few cars and no high buildings. Soon we would be driving through forests, plantations and fields of farmers. We made a little stop where local farmers where preparing the soil to sow corn. All done manually or by the help of long legged cows.
Next stop we receive a little fruit basket full with tasty mangos, fresh pineapple, bananas, lichees and many other exotic fruits. This place was the home and workshop of silk weavers. Our guide gave us a short tour and showed how silkworms make their cocoons, how the silk thread is produced and how they do the actual weaving. It’s very obvious it takes a lot of time go through the whole process from making the thread to the colouring and actual weaving. Elize was very interested in the whole process and asked many questions. Too bad we did already buy so many scarfs in Varanasi, otherwise she would be very keen on buying one of the very special and heavy silk textiles as used in local costumes.
Afterwards we continued through small villages, giving high-fives to children playing on the streets. When we passed a school on the same moment when school was over, they were very keen on driving next to us. At some point we noticed kids playing with the dragon head as used for the coming Chinese New Year celebrations. The boy couldn’t be bothered he was completely naked and proudly did lift the dragon above his head.
The next place we stopped we were explained how “soya skin” was produced. In a large open space under a roof a few dozens of large pans with soya milk were being heated. Because of the heating, a milk skin is formed on top of the milk. Every 12 minutes, the skin is removed and put to dry. This is later used in soup. Taking photos here was very difficult. The outside heat combined with the heat of the burning fire. But the smoke and sun made it an interesting spectacle. Our guide was getting a bit anxious of me taking so much time. We would still have to drive a whole way to get back.
After our tour on the island we were offered to be picked up by a van and get transferred back to the city. Of course we refused, that’s not what we are paying for. The reason of the transfer quickly became clear: the last part is not much interesting. A large road with more heavy traffic would bring us back to the city. And we had to cross a large bridge going over the water. In these temperatures not so obvious. After the long ride we still stopped for lunch in a local restaurant. One of those cheap looking restaurants which we actually mostly avoided. Surprisingly, the food was very tasty.
All in all Cambodia gave me a never ending resort feeling – like the cities, towns and cultural sites would be made only for tourists and every second house would be a hotel, a spa or a restaurant. Could it be the heritage from French colonial period? If we wanted to see the real locals (not the expats), we really had to go searching. Cambodia is an easy place to travel – everything seems to be depending and dedicated to tourists. Don’t worry, you will be taken care of. But I am afraid Cambodia is loosing its uniqueness by giving in too much to global trends. In my opinion Cambodia does not win the award of being the most authentic Asian country. Or maybe those are only my failed expectations of Cambodia as more wild and untouched place. We did follow a certain trail and that might be a cause of my impressions. Maybe the North of Cambodia has more to tell.