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Phnom Penh

CAMBODIA | Sunday, 23 November 2008 | Views [895]

The roof lines are spectacular, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The roof lines are spectacular, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

This was a day of revelation, tour group style.  We got up early and were soon reunited with the group that spent the night on land.  Even Paula and Michael came to the floating hotel to change boats.  Initially we were upset that we didn’t get to spend a night on the boat – but not now.  Paula said it was a floating hostel with 24 people sleeping dormitory style.  And Bill said their hotel was noisy so I guess we lucked out.

We took a quick trip to a floating fish farm and a Muslim Cham village before catching our boat upstream to Phnom Penh.  Everyone else who had booked on the “slow boat” upgraded to the fast boat leaving the guide little choice what to do with us.  He waived the $10 fee and put us on the fast boat too.  As a result we arrived in Phnom Penh around 3pm instead of nine.  The border crossing was a snap since we already had visas for Cambodia and the guide took our passports through the Vietnamese exit process.

Cambodia is one of those places that exist just on the edge of our radar.  We are vaguely aware of the splendor of Angkor Wat but don’t know what it is.  Wasn’t there something about a US incursion into Cambodia in ’70?  And we were shocked to learn of Pol Pot’s “Killing Fields.” 

Cambodia today is a recent incarnation of an ancient civilization.  The people are mostly Khmer with a culture dating back 2000 years with major Indian influences. It was once known as Kambuja and included Siam (Thailand) and northern and central Vietnam.  The rulers were god-kings.  French colonialism wasn’t limited to Vietnam and by the end of the 19th Century Cambodia had become a French colony.  Independence didn’t solve all the problems and soon the Khmer Rouge was running the country – into the ground!  During the Pol Pot years nearly 1.7 million people died.  Modern Cambodia came about after the United Nations intervened in 1992 but there have been coups since then.  Although it is officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia it is a thinly disguised dictatorship with former Khmer Rouge members in power.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is a city of 1.5 million people.  We are staying in the mainly tourist area along the river and near the best sites.  There are Buddhist monks, beggars, tuk-tuk drivers, book sellers and a zillion restaurants and hotels along the Tonle Sap River.  The official currency is the riel but most prices are in American dollars.  After changing hotels and Vietnamese dong, we spent the morning at the Royal Palace.  It is impossible to follow the succession of Cambodian kings but the palace architecture is striking with roof tiles sparkling in the morning sun.  One section is surrounded by a wall about a kilometer long, every inch covered by a mural depicting daily life in different parts of Cambodia.  The Silver Pagoda (aka Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha) is extraordinary and the royal Throne Room reminds you that “it’s good to be the king.”  (Mel Brooks, “History of the World, Pt. I.”)

We stumbled upon Edelweiss, a German owned restaurant with home-made brats and great kartafelsalat.  Connie finds it ironic that the best cordon bleu she ever ate was at a German restaurant in Cambodia.  Talk about globalization!    

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