We’re here! Winter break is finally here and we’re celebrating that in Southeast Asia! Our work, CEV, has us on winter break now. We get three weeks(!) to do whatever we please. Jordan and I knew that Cambodia was the top of our “to-go list” before we even got to Korea, so now we’re here and loving the heat. Korea got cold for winter. Where we live it isn’t normally below freezing, but when your ondol floors don’t heat well and you have to wear your coat to work because they don’t heat hallways, it is cold enough. We got off on Friday and immediately headed south to Busan, to get closer to the airport. Saturday morning we flew out of Korea and headed to Cambodia.
As soon as we landed we shed our jackets and scarves (it is hot and humid!) and got in line to buy a visa. After waiting in a disorganized line with equally confused people, we paid our 3o USD per person, got our papers, and left. A tuktuk from our hostel met us and took us to our hostel, where we collapsed in bed. Because we’re only spending two full days in Phnom Penh (three nights, though), we wanted to get up and hit the pavement.
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was founded in 1372. Phnom Penh was the capital for around 70 years after its founding. It only became the capital again, however, in 1865 under the jurisdiction of Siam. When French colonialization began, they made the river village into an urban center with hospitals and schools. The Royal Palace was built there afterward. The city takes it’s name from the oldest temple there, Wat Penh, which is in turn named after the woman who founded the shrine in 1373.
In the morning we dressed (me with a long dress and little jacket for holy places) and ventured out, taking another tuktuk for 3 USD to Wat Phnom. Cambodia is overwhelmingly Buddhist (around 93%) and filled with temples (called wats in Khmer). Wat Phnom is one of the grandest, tallest temples in Phnom Penh, as well as one of the oldest. Founded in 1373, the legend goes that a grandmother (Lady Penh) found four statues of Buddha in a tree by the river. She built a shrine on a small hill nearby, and people flocked to pray and worship there. Later, in 1437 King Ponhea Yat raised the hill and the shrine, making it more prominent. His and his family’s ashes are in a stupa on Wat Phnom, nearby the sanctuary. Tourists must pay a dollar to enter. When we were there, a ceremony was taking place at a pagoda near the sanctuary. People were burning incense, preparing a meal of vegetables and pork, and children were playing. Around the wat are people selling birds to release or incense sticks to burn.
When we finished (we spent about 20 minutes there), our tuktuk driver waited on us and took us to the national museum. This cost 5 USD apiece to enter, which I thought was kind of pricey considering what we got. The building itself is lovely, though a little worn down, and the courtyard is worth sitting and resting in (provided you can sit in the shade). There are few signs, however, and most of the artifacts are stone or bronze sculptures of the Angkor period. We went through the museum in about 30 or 40 minutes, though if we had bought an audio guide, it would’ve been longer.
The Royal Palace was next on our list, but it’s closed from 11 am to 2 pm every day. So instead we tracked down lunch. A coworker of ours went to Cambodia a year ago, and she recommended a restaurant called Friends. It has a blend of Khmer and western dishes, all delicious (though a little pricier than regular Khmer fare). However, we happily handed over our money because it is a branch of a nonprofit, Friends International, that offers former street children a chance at gainful employment as servers, hosts, and cooks. Through the restaurant are posters strongly discouraging tourist visits to orphanages (I didn’t even know that was a thing, but I guess it is in Cambodia) and sometimes even donations to orphanages. The nonprofit states that 80% of children in these orphanages aren’t actually orphans, and the money donated to orphanages would be better spent raising the child’s family out of poverty so the families can remain intact. It is a very convincing argument, and they also urge people to reconsider short-term trips (even mission trips) to orphanages, because it can unfortunately foster attachment disorders in the children (even though everyone knows that these short-term trips are made out of kindness, not willful ignorance or intentional harm). They also have a souvenir shop next door (that gives 30 minute foot massages for 5 USD!!) which we visited.
Kravan House, our next stop, is a silk handicraft store specifically designed to market the handiwork of disabled women (usually from polio or landmine accidents) as well as weavers and sewers from the most rural parts of Cambodia. It is part of a larger organization, KhmerCreations, and while the cost of items is higher than what you’d find at one of the markets, it goes to support women that would otherwise probably be destitute. Jordan and I hemmed and hawed a little, thinking of our budgt, but went ahead and purchased a silk wallet for 7 USD. It’s still ridiculously cheap compared to US standards.
Finally, the royal palace was open. We stood in line and filtered through the corridors with the other tourists (foreign and Khmer) until we bought our tickets for 6 USD apiece. Because the Silver Pagoda is here, people are required to dress modestly. This basically means shoulders and knees covered. I slipped on my shrug (it was ridiculously hot though), and we didn’t have to pay to rent any tshirts or sarongs to cover ourselves.
Men and women in red shirts offered themselves as guides, and we politely declined. Unfortunately, there are very little signs or other forms of information throughout the royal compound, so perhaps it was a mistake. However, I’ve heard some of the guides aren’t exactly knowledgeable (“that is Italian marble. It comes from Italy”), so perhaps we didn’t miss out on much anyway.
Built in 1873 (mostly, at least–renovations and additions came later) during the French protectorate/colonization phase, it is ornate and beautiful. The king and his family still lives in part of the compound (nothing that we saw, though), and the palace has been used by the royal family since construction. During the time Cambodia was a republic 1970-1975 the palace was closed or used as a museum, and during the Khmer Rouge regime the former king and his family was imprisoned there. In 1993 the monarchy of Cambodia was reestablished and the palace was renovated to make a fitting place for the king.
We wandered from building to building, not always sure what we were looking at, but I’ve since found more information online. It would be a little redundant to rewrite all the information about the buildings when you can look up much of the construction, function, and style here.
The Silver Pagoda complex is connected to the Royal Palace, and is made up of an Angkor Wat model, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is commonly known as the Silver Pagoda), statues, small buildings for Buddhist monks to sing and pray, stupas, and Phnom Mondop. This is a manmade hill meant to represent Mount Kailassa, a sacred place in Cambodia. Throughout all of this are Khmer worshippers and Buddhist monks clothed in orange and maroon. These aren’t just tourist attractions, but religious sites in use. The smell of incense followed us almost everywhere we went, adding to the environment.
When we finished with the palace we were tired. We found a tuktuk driver who knew where our hostel was and paid him 4 USD to return. We were out for only about six hours, but we walked for miles in the heat and needed a break. I’m enchanted with Khmer culture (of which I previously knew nothing about) and I think we’re both ready for a good night’s sleep and then another day searching out the beautiful sights of Phnom Penh.