Phnom Penh- The Capital City
By: Jon McCoy. Picture by : Bobby Viceral.. ( May, 2002 Volume 2 No.5 )

Arriving in Phnom Penh for the first time, my friends and I were amazed that the city is actually a far cry from what we had imagined it to be. People are cheerful and the roads are not too bad. world, but except for those arriving without a valid visa, which had to tolerate a little longer to get clearance, our passports were rather quickly processed. Soon after immigration, our luggage was already on the belt. The airport is small though, considering this being in the capital of the nation. However, from the many light-boxes on the walls of the arrival terminal, displaying advertisement of various services available, we knew already that we are coming to a Phnom Penh different from the terrorized past that somehow still stay logged in most people's minds. On the way, we passed a buzzing wet-market of sort and saw many enterprises along the road. The place is full of activities--people are going about doing their things and there are shops after shops on both sides selling all sorts of products and services. But where do tourists go? What can we see in this country?
I was anxious to check into the hotel that we booked through a tour agency back home, leave our luggage and hit the town. On arriving the Sharaton Hotel, we had a good laugh at the name. It is indeed the Sharaton Hotel spelled with an 'a' and not that it was a spelling error made by the clerk back home. It is a fine hotel with an excellent staff of very friendly people. The rooms are clean and although the toilet amenities are not exactly those you would want to take home as souvenirs, they do have toothbrushes, shavers, combs and hair dryers. While joking with the receptionist at the counter when we were checking in, I was told that the hotel is soon to adopt a new name. The government is putting things in order--those copyrights and intelligent property issues. The name Sharaton is regarded as an infringement and would have to be changed. The owners are renaming it The Casa Hotel. How about that?

On the recommendation of the hotel bellboy, we left our bags; each grabbed a motodop (motorcycle taxi) and headed for the museum. The motodop is a convenience everyone here has grown accustomed to, since there are no regular taxis plying the streets. For the equivalent of US$0.30, the ten-minute or so ride to the museum was a true bargain. The museum is near the riverfront where rows of restaurants are located along the riverfront street Sisowath Quay. (We planned to have lunch after our visit to the museum). For a small museum entrance fee of US$2 each, we were treated to sights of astonishing artifacts and understood better some events in the history of Cambodia. The visit at the museum took us a little longer than an hour because there was just so much to see and to vet one's curiosity. The riverfront restaurants selection of food was not all that appealing.
Perhaps it was just not the moment because after roaming the museum grounds, our feet needed more consoling than our appetite for food. Most of the eating places are without air-conditioning and we chose the airy balcony of the Bali Café to rest our feet. The balcony overlooks the mighty Mekong River and for a scourging hot day, what little breeze from the river is a welcomed relief. Having rested our feet after devouring a fast platter of Indonesian fried rice each; we took a stroll down the road and headed for the Royal Palace. Unfortunately the royal residence is closed to visitors but from the outside it is indeed a majestic sight well worth seeing. Fortunately for us, there is the Silver Pagoda just next to the Royal Palace. It must have been our lucky day since we met a tour guide busily guiding a group and explaining away as we moved with the group. The Silver Pagoda is also known as the Emerald Pagoda - a former wooden building rebuilt in 1962.
The floor is covered by more than 5,000 pieces of silver tiles each weighing 1 kg in weight. This is home to the highly revered 17th Century Emerald Buddha that is actually made from Baccarat crystal. Behind this, is a 90kg solid gold statue of the Buddha crafted with 9,584 diamonds? Amazing! The Royal Throne Hall in the pagoda was built in 1917 and is used only on special occasions. Colorfully painted murals cover the surrounding walls measuring some 600meters in total. This is truly a must-see when visiting Phnom Penh.

We were told that in Phnom Penh, there is also the Tuol Sleng death museum that is actually only a reminder of the cruelty of the past regime and since our time in Phnom Penh was limited to only two days (effectively only one and a half day), we thought we'll call this a day and reserve our energy to explore the popular market places the following day before we head for the land of the Angkors in Siem Reap the day after. That evening, we ventured across the Japanese Friendship Bridge in search for dinner and discovered the 'City of Food'. There are just so many restaurants congregated on one single stretch of road--its incredible. The following morning after a sumptuous hotel breakfast, we took a leisurely stroll with our off-duty hotel. The temple on this man-made hill was built in 1372 by the same wealthy lady Penh, whose name the capital city has adopted until now. The peaceful surroundings attract many foreign tourists and locals alike. Foreigners are required to pay one dollar each to tour the premises. Our 'guide' then took us on a 'Market Tour' around the city. Our first stop was the very well ventilated Central Market (Psar Thmey).
Built by French architects in 1937, this giant complex is the largest and busiest market place in Phnom Penh. The architecture of the complex is such that even on the hottest days, the interior remains cool and comfortable to be in. At the Central Market, one can find just about anything and everything. Grilled creepy insects, snakes and even giant hairy spiders are up for grabs as snacks. Our next hop on the moto taxi took us to the Toul Tom Pong Market (Russian Market). Here is one I would personally recommend to would-be antique hunters and computer enthusiasts. They have just about every type of computer software on the planet and antiques shops occupy nearly every corner of this market place. We spent almost the whole afternoon at this market. Our guide told us that there are two other popular wholesale markets that cater to locals--the O'Russei Market and the Olympic Market. But we were simply too exhausted to be further tempted and decided to return to our hotel. After a shower, we met at the lobby that evening to decide on dinner. Just when we were undecided as to what we should have, someone came through the main hotel entrance, swinging the glass door open to usher in an aroma we may all not forget for a long time to come. The smell of the Khmer BBQ chicken, the Muan Ang is out of this world! It is perhaps our good fortune that we got to taste this local delicacy before we left Phnom Penh. As one who had never been to Cambodia before because of all the controversies we read, I am glad I did make the trip. This surely will not be my last.