Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cambodia Trip '08 – Day 03: River Cruise on the Tonle Sap River, Phnom Penh

From the Silver Pagoda, we drove around the corner from Street 240 to head up towards the Sisowath Quay which run along the Tonle Sap river bank. It was clear that this area was were all the tourist would go to when they visited Phnom Penh as it was lined with pubs, cafés, cheap hotels and touristy places from one end to the other. As we passed these establishments, I made a mental note of things to do there for the next time I breeze through the city. I would have loved to spend an evening walking down the riverside but considering it was our last night in town, I didn’t think that I would have a chance to.

(Buildings at Sisowath Quay)

(Boats for charter at the Tonle Sap riverside)

Across the street from the shops, the whole area of the riverbank looked fairly torn up. We were told that the whole area was currently under construction as part of a beautification project of the riverbank. It was expected to be completed in a few months time and it would end up being a nice esplanade to hang out at during the evenings. The current ongoing construction didn’t stop the crowd that was steadily building in the area in anticipation of the Water Festival that was scheduled in Phnom Penh in the next few following days. We were told that droves of people from the other districts would descend down to Phnom Penh to support their hometown longboat team who would participate in the races that was held during the Water Festival.

After the short drive, we finally arrived at the boat pier where our Cambodian hosts had arranged for a river cruise down the Tonle Sap River. Since there was a number of us, we got a boat all to ourselves but individuals could still arrange these boat cruises through their hotel or one of the many travel agencies that dotted the Sisowath Quay area. We were told by our hosts that boats were available for charter from as low as USD25 for a 1½ hours cruise down the river. Some boat operators even organized hi-tea or a bar in their boats for those who want more to their experience than just sitting up deck to watch the world go by. We were happy with our no frills package as we already had dinner arranged later in the evening.

(View of the riverside from our boat going down the Tonle Sap River)

(Looking down from the top deck down to the river)

The boat took us down the Tonle Sap River which connects to the Tonle Sap Lake further inland near Siam Reap. All along the river bank, flags and decorations were already put up for the Water Festival. Some were already there from the Independence Day celebration earlier in the day. We were able to see the Royal Podium where the King of Cambodia and his entourage would be watching the Water Festival proceedings being decorated with lights that I assume would be lighted up at the end of the following day. Our boat proceeded slowly down the river to where the Tonle Sap River meets the mighty Mekong River before turning back to the pier. On the journey back, we were able to see the activity on the other side of the river bank where most of the people had been gathering at.

(The riverside all decorated for both the Independence Day & Water Festival celebrations)

(L: 4 star Hotel Cambodiana at the riverside, R: Charter boat on Tonle Sap River)

(Watched the sun going down on the river point where Tonle Sap meets Mekong rivers)

As we floated down the river, a longboat race team came along side our boat. Having a bunch of tourist like us cheering them on and taking their pictures, the boatmen went and started a practice run as we watch them speed off. I must say that I was quite surprised to see how fast those race boats could go given the right combination of rowers. After the impromptu preview of how the races would be like the following day, we slowly made our way past the many boats that was sending people across the river to were the race boats were docked. The grounds around it seemed to be transformed into a fairground with rides and stages all set up for the crowds that came to watch the races. I had a feeling that they also slept in makeshift sleeping tents in the area as I could see some of them already set up for the night.

(L: The longboat team that came alongside our boat, R: Longboat practise run)

(End of the practise run)

(Charter boats passing this close to each other gave an opportunity for tourist to snap photos of each other)

(The other bank of the river was abuzz of activity with people coming in to watch the races)

(Modes of water transport people took to get to the other bank where the fairground was set up)

We finally docked back at our starting point and proceeded to a nearby restaurant that was owned a fellow Malaysian. The food was pretty much the same as what we have been having for the past few days. Interesting enough, the Muslim community in Cambodia seem to eat a lot of chicken as it was on the menu in every meal we had up to that point. One highlight of the dinner was that we finally got to try the Cambodian baguette for ourselves after seeing them all being sold all over the city. Slightly skinnier that the usual baguettes that I’m used to seeing, it was cut lengthwise and filled with a local version of beef satay and julienned white carrots. It was quite nice and we ended buying a few more of them to bring back to the hotel where we had to repack our bag to check out very early in the next morning.

Phnom Penh was a pleasant surprise for me. It was not as modern looking as KL, Singapore or even Manila but it definitely had a distinct character of its own. The people there were friendly despite the language barriers but with a little patience, getting around in Phnom Penh was not that difficult. Halal food was not that difficult to find thanks to the numbers of Malaysians who have made Phnom Penh their second home and brought their businesses there as well. There were so much that I didn’t get to do in Phnom Penh since I was travelling in a group that I would definitely consider a return visit once I’ve completed my travel circuit of all ASEAN countries.

(Good bye Phnom Penh! I will definitely come again)

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