Thursday, February 20, 5:25 p.m., Phnom Penh
It was a bright and early 5:30 a.m. rising today. Shortly after 7:00 we boarded a boat to take us on a short trip along the Mekong River to a floating fish farm, where the splashing of the catfish and tilapia took everyone by surprise with its vigor. At that point we said so long to D, our fine Vietnamese guide, and boarded a motor boat for a five-hour ride further up the Mekong to Phnom Penh, with brief stops for both Vietnamese and Cambodian immigration. For the duration of the trip I was content to sit below, take the occasional photo of fishermen or homes or temples, enjoying the fact that I was once again on the fabled Mekong!
It wasn’t an eventful ride, but definitely a meaningful one. Sadly, because of sitting on the left side of the boat, I got half a sunburn on my left side. But it’s not painful and I’m not stressed.
From the entry at the pier, Phnom Penh certainly looked like a busy modern city, on a much larger scale than Chau Doc. Our new Cambodian guide, T, says that the population of this capital city is about two million, versus the nine million of the entire country.
Lunch was at a local restaurant, proudly announcing on a sign at the front the presence of “Mr. Toilet Public,” sponsored by the World Toilet Association (glad to know there is such a thing!)
After that we went to the Royal Palace, the home of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni. The King was on a trip to China to seek medical care for his ailing mother, so the Cambodian flag was not flying. We got splendid views of the Royal Residence, the Throne Hall, the Moonlight Pavilion, and some smaller palaces. Mostly built in the 1860s and early 1870s, the buildings are elaborate and magnificent.
We couldn’t enter the Throne Hall, but got a glimpse from the outside of the throne itself and the huge paintings within.
Adjacent to the Royal Palace is the Silver Pagoda – Wat Preah Keo Morokat, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Its name comes from the 5,329 individually crafted silver tiles that cover the entire floor. The Emerald Buddha itself may or may not be made of actual emerald; it may be some kind of crystal, but of course that isn’t the point. In front of it is the great solid gold sculpture of the Buddha of the Future Maitreya, adorned by 2,000-plus diamonds, the largest of which, in the front of its crown, is 25 carats. Hundreds of other Buddha figures large and small are on display, a few accessible – and touched gently by people for good health and long life – but most in glass cabinets. It wasn’t appropriate to take photographs within the temple. Back outside, we also got to see the beautiful but, sadly, heavily damaged fresco paintings of scenes from the Ramayana, which are only about 110 years old but are still in very poor shape.
On our exit from the Royal Palace complex, a small Cambodian band was playing, on traditional instruments, what sounded like a Cambodian variation on “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
Back to the hotel for a laundry drop off and these notes, before a remok (Cambodian tuk-tuk) ride and dinner. Yes, I’m in Cambodia!