Christmas Eve Indulgences in Phnom Penh

It’s Christmas Eve today, so I figured it was legitimate to indulge a bit.  Non teaching day, and I was feeling rough yesterday, so wasn’t sure if I’d be bouncing about today, but in fact although I woke early and I definitely have a sore throat I was basically OK.  It being Saturday, it being a Day Off, it being Christmas Even and all, an outing was in order.

One of the other volunteers had suggested an excursion to The Royal Palace, this is a ‘must-see’ attraction in Phnom Penh. She has a tuk tuk driver she knows, so I met with them outside a local cafe bar in between both our apartments at 8.30 a.m. and off to the Royal Palace we went. It was basically $10 between us for the tuk tuk driver to take us to the Royal Palace, then hang around while we romped round, and then take us to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club at Riverside which I also really wanted to go to, and would be a good place for an indulgent dinner, which, dear reader, I can report is exactly what we did.

It was nice in the breezy back of a tuk tuk and good to be heading out with a known driver, it saves all the angst of navigation and negotiation on the way. We got to the Royal Palace speedily, and it is only open 8.00 a.m. to 11.00 a.m. in the morning so our timing was good.  On the way we passed a convoy of black and white bedecked vehicles for some enormous funeral or other.

What to say about the Royal Palace. Well, it is undoubtedly spectacular, there are places of beauty and places of calm within. The Silver (or emerald) Pagoda is indeed a bejewelled marvel. A solid gold buddha with diamond inlay stands within what was to be a gold and glass coffin but rather than be buried with a king (I think) was taken to house this statue to the glory of Buddha.  Though actually, it probably isn’t very buddhist to glorify Buddha, so that linguistic description is all wrong I fear!

On arrival at the palace (which is $6.50 entry) we were greeted by an array of English-speaking guides offering their services for $10.  We hadn’t discussed in advance whether we wanted this or no.  My travel companion had been before so didn’t want I guide, I probably would have, but didn’t feel strongly enough to force the issue, and also part of us going out together for the morning was to have a chat and a catch up – our  teaching schedules don’t coincide so I’ve hardly seen her since term started.  On balance, wandering around the palace on our own was beautiful and calming, but spectacularly unenlightening. I have literally no idea what I was looking at, having failed even to bring along my Lonely Planet Guide with me.  Big mistake. Occasionally I tail-gated other tour guides which was mixed. I didn’t benefit much (at all) from the German or French-speaking guides, there was one who had impeccable English, and I parachuted in on the back of him within the Silver Pagoda, but felt it would be a bit much for me to actually infiltrate his tour group, tempting as that was.  Note for next time, just get a guide, they speak great English, can tell you loads, and make sense of what is otherwise just a mysterious wonderland stripped of history. The extent of gold and ornate decorations desensitizes you to what you are looking at, I hadn’t realised the statues were solid gold and silver, and the floor itself plated silver tiles until I heard the guide point it out.  It is such an embarrassment of riches you can’t quite comprehend it. Similarly, the amazing painted murals – nope, no idea what they show – but I did over-hear they are from around 1903, as opposed to the black and white carvings on the walls round Angkor Wat which are about 1000 years old.

It was very lovely though, and within the extensive grounds are little areas of tranquility and calm. It wasn’t too busy either to be honest.  I think I would go again, and maybe get a guide.  $10 seems a lot, but to make sense of such a spectacle would be a good investment.

So we saw amazing buildings:

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and some amazing plant life:

and a hidden building/shrine within the cool shade of its own garden:

You are not allowed to take photos inside the Silver Pagoda, and various other buildings, but then again, pictures probably wouldn’t do the spectacle justice. Incidentally, I gather that usually a pagoda denotes somewhere that monks live, however, because this is the Royal Palace no monks are usually resident, but they are invited in on particular holy days to carry out particular rituals at the site.

The contents of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are extraordinary, though the presentation is, well, let’s say light on curation and presentation. Display cabinets with smeared glass and mice droppings inside, and silver tiles apparently repaired with sellotape.  There are no labels as such, but even so it is an extraordinary assortment of treasures given by the devout to the King, who received some special award on behalf of Buddhists for his services to peace. This is where my history gets really confused. The Cambodian people love their King, they really do – his unmarried and childless status causes them real concern.  But I look at the history and see his lineage surely links him to the Khmer regime.  It is most puzzling.  I suppose there are some things I just wont ever understand and it would take many years of study to unravel the complex and troubled history of this place.

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And then there was the obligatory sick looking cat with squinting eyes, manic miaowing and deformed tail.  Poor creature, looks like quite a tummy on it though. Worms?  Pregnant?  Fat?  I wonder if that is the process of eliminating causes people run through when they espy my silhouette in profile?

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Also elephant statues, and elephant shrines, and generally elephants. Always a boon.  And a traditional Khmer band, to whom I gave a $1 donation because it seemed the right thing to do.  Who knows.

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It was only about 10.30 when we came out, but hot hot hot.  We met up with our tuk tuk driver and on to the FCC.  We had a detour to an ATM and some expensive but lovely clothes shops nearby. The stuff on sale was gorgeous but not cheap.  However, within the clothes were unlikely bargains.  My companion is going to a Christmas Day wedding and wanted a small black bag. She got a gorgeous fair trade one for around $14 OK not dirt cheap by any means but beautifully made and lovely too.

After our ambling about, to the FCC, for fine airy dining in the gorgeous old french colonial style building. We had a leisurely and indulgent lunch.  I drew the line at the fanta and mango smoothie that was the drink of choice for my friend, in favour of a passion fruit lassie which came in a weird jam-jar esque drinking vessel. Then I had delicous spring rolls and morning glory with not very delicious at all ‘truffle and parmesan french fries’ they just weren’t.  But the overall ambience was well worth it, plus we had latte and a deconstructed lemon meringue pie. Yes, pretentious, yes over-sweet, yes a fitting indulgence.  It was a really good morning out and about.  Way better that the lie-in which was initially my favoured option.  It is always worth stepping out the door. The FCC is not cheap, but our meals – which were huge and very nice came to $35 between us, maybe scandalously expensive by Cambodian standards but not too out there for a Christmas meal. I was happy.

It was also very unhurried and a nice place to hang out.  I’d go back with a book and eek out a coffee all day watching the river views quite happily. As it was, it was a bit too windy riverside, so we sat towards the back where we had a great view of a curiously beautiful dilapidated building that surely had a story to tell, as well as the fine silhouette of the National Museum – maybe my destination for next weekend.

All in all, the style of life to which I’d like to become accustomed.  Thinking profound thoughts under those cool spinning fans, watching life on the streets below.

So, after we had finished our dining, and I had suppressed my disappointment that neither of us could justify splashing out on successories, back in the tuk tuk to Russian Market drop off.

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I decided to duck through the Russian Market.  I bought two cut pineapples to store in my fridge (a dollar for the two) and then went through to find the smoothie stall.  I passed the stalls where we had bought our Secret Santa presents the day before. Both stall holders greeted me like a long-lost friend, it’s very bizarre. It amazes me how tuk tuk drivers, stall holders whoever, seem to have the ability to memorise tourists immediately. I suppose their livelihood depends on this skill at building a rapport. Even so, as I approached the smoothie seller – who I have only visited once before, she smiled and called to me  ‘avocado?’ I smiled back and said yes.  How can she remember that, what I ordered days ago. Amazing.  Even more amazing as I ambled back in a daze of heat and thoughts I overshot my apartment block the tuk tuk driver from outside called me back!  Hilarious.

So now I’m writing this in the heat of my apartment. My air conditioner unit is on the blink. Literally it keeps blinking and beeping, but did not do so when the maintenance guy came to look.  He pronounced (translating through his mobile phone to the property manager) that the problem is with the remote and it is now fixed. But it isn’t. Oh well, I may have to live with it.   I can probably manage without air con now I have fan and resignation to perpetual sweating, what I don’t want is for it to come on at random times and ratchet up a huge bill. Think for now I’ll just ignore it, that way the problem is bound to go away yes?

Happy Christmas.  More frolics later, Corner Bar for New Year’s Eve $12 celebrations.  My expectation level is pretty low, but it’s local and pretty much all the volunteers are going so will be good to meet up.  We shall see.

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