The journey into Cambodia was a bit of a weird one. It started with a loud explosion, but no body thought anything of it until the bus ride suddenly became really bumpy. It was a blown tire - that was for sure. Thankfully, it meant that we had to stop for a replacement and we could bath in the beautiful, hot weather. That was my plan anyway. Every other western passenger started to stress about having to arrange a visa upon arrival and didn't want to part with their passport. Maybe they were being smart but, to me, they just seemed paranoid.
After we got back on the road, we didn't have another rest stop until we arrived at the border. At which point, I started to stress a little myself, as I remembered I had a multi-tool in my bag with a small blade on it. We were told that are bags are getting scanned but, when it came to it, it was actually the most laid-back border crossing and immigration I’ve ever experience (as long as you don’t over stay your visa). When we made it through without any trouble, it wasn’t the end of my worrying. We were in a high-risk malaria zone and neither Harmony nor I had taken any pills in preparation for it. Luckily, there weren’t many mosquitos anyway.
On the other side of the border, we had a chance to get food and go to the toilet. My thoughts turned to the people of Cambodia – very friendly, but not nearly as enthusiastic or happy as the Vietnamese. Everything available to buy was now in US Dollars, which was a little strange, and everything was a little bit more expensive. When we got back on the road, I noticed the landscape - flat as can be, with a few patches of woodland, some small houses sitting on the side of the road and a few temples in the more built up areas. Farmers were working in the fields, fisherman stood beside the rivers and children ran around outside their homes.
The sun went down before the journey was over. The interesting cloud formations in the sky made it one of the best sunsets that I’ve ever seen, but it meant that we weren’t going to see much for the rest of the journey.
We eventually arrived in Phnom Penh, stepped off the bus and got talking to a tuk tuk driver. I would've been more apprehensive if the couple behind us on the bus weren’t talking about how tuk tuks are the only option. Our bags were up on the seat in front, so we clutched them tightly, just in case a motorcyclist rode past and grabbed them. I thought that the tuk tuk went surprisingly slow, but he explained that some of the roads were closed because of a very important festival for the Cambodian people. It was really lucky that we arrived on one of the days, especially considering it was cancelled on the previous couple of years due to a horrific human stampede.
The Water Festival (also known as Bon Om Touk) is an otherwise annual celebration. It marks the reversal of the Sap River’s current, which occurs due to the Mekong River’s heavy flow forcing water back to Tonle Sap Lake. The Sap River is most likely the only waterway in the world that experiences this natural phenomenon! Boat races take place throughout all three days of the festival, special food is prepared and the streets turn into a colourful carnival. We sat in our hostel that night and saw a fireworks show in the distance!
Our hostel was called Longlin House. The location was great for sightseeing and all of the festivities and the food was really good! However, the service wasn't the fastest and almost ever other restaurant around it does the same food. So, we ate out most of the time, but we did enjoy our stay. Our private room cost $10 (which was a bit much), but not having air con cut the price right down to $6 a night. At the majority of places in Cambodia, there is no such thing as free air con or a hot shower.
On our first full day in Phnom Penh, we headed straight to the river to see what we could find. It was packed with people, so I immediately started to snap photos. The sun was shining and the atmosphere was great! We followed the river down a little and watched the boats go by. The afternoon was spent sitting in a patch of shade, watching people walk past and pigeons fly over. When we decided to walk back, we found a ginormous gathering of people that took up the whole pavement. As we got closer, we could see armed guards and barriers either side of a road. One man told me that the Cambodian King was going to come out from the palace to watch the festivities. So, people would soon be able to see him. We waited for a while and, in actual fact, we only saw his car and a few of his guards on motorbikes leading the way. Nevertheless, it was an experience.
It seemed like more people came out at night. Either that or they just congregated on the footpaths opposed to the bank of the river now that the boats weren't racing. That said, there were big boats with large, lit up displays slowly making there way up the river for people to look at. When we sat down for dinner, there was another fireworks display. We were hoping to see the fireworks at 11pm like they were the previous night but, for some reason, they were early. At least we got to experience the festival though!
The next morning, we woke up for a busy day of sightseeing. As it turned out, we should've woke up even earlier as the Silver Pagoda had closed for lunch by the time we arrived at it's doors. Of course, we didn't know this and walked the whole perimeter looking for a way in. In the end, the entrance wasn't hard to find (opposite the Ministry of Justice building, south of the Royal Palace).
Little did we know that the Royal Palace’s entrance fee is also included when you go to the Silver Pagoda. This made the $5 admission fee all the more worth it. The grounds of the Royal Palace were pretty impressive, with many different buildings to look at. Some buildings show old outfits and a bit of history, whilst others you simply cannot go in. We then got to the Silver Pagoda and lots of "stupas" and statues.
Its important to remember what an important place this is and that you have to dress respectfully. This means no shoulders and no knees on show. We learnt this when Harmony was told to cover up and had to pay $3 for some trousers at the door. These also came in handy at the next place we visited (Wat Ounalom), where Harmony put them back on just incase she had to. This was a temple after all, with monks walking around and dining at the cafe. It was free to look around, so it was worth a quick visit, but it wasn't exactly exceptional.
The next place we visited was the National Museum and, again, it wasn't anything special, just a bunch of wooden and stone statues. However, there was an interesting exhibit about "underwater heritage" and Cambodia's role in the First World War. It states that they were called upon to fight for the French, as the French were ruling over them at the time. It also explained about the many cultural sites that are currently underwater and how they're at risk of being ruined or forgotten. It was as admirable effort at raising awareness to those that visit. I saw multiple monks walking around, showing a serious interest in all that they saw. The entrance fee was $5 without an audio guide which, in my opinion was a bit much. However, it was still an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours.
That evening, I wanted to see the Independence monument. It’s a 20 meter tall tower located in the heart of Cambodia’s capital, sitting in the center of a roundabout for all to see. It’s shape (designed after a lotus flower) didn’t seem unique or out of the ordinary compared to what I’ve seen in Cambodia, but the size does make it fairly outstanding! The intricate and symmetrical details are so precisely perfect that it blew me away! It’s such a popular tourist attraction that there were multiple military personnel keeping watch over the area. They gave me some weird looks with my tripod being out, but I got the shot and they seemed super friendly when they got talking to Harmony.
We planned to leave the following day, but that plan was ruined when the ATM outside of the hostel reset itself and stole my debit card. We tried tirelessly to get it back and it took us all day! Plus, it cost us four tuk tuk rides to the bank's head office ($17), an extra night in the hostel ($10) and two new bus tickets ($14). Another family at the hostel had the same problem and it took them four days to get their card back, so we actually got off lightly in comparison. We were lucky to be leaving just a day later and, after all that, we were happy to be heading to Sihanoukville and it's beaches!