The last stop on our way too short, Southeast Asian extravaganza was Phnom Penh. But before enjoying the city, first we had to get there.
It’s about 300 km from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and so many people take the short, 30-minute flight. But since we hadn’t seen anything of the countryside, and I didn’t want to deal with another airport (and I was being cheap), we decided to hire a car and driver to take us south along Highway 6, a road that has only been open for 5 or so years. This was not a decision lightly taken. We read a lot about the car and driver system in a few guidebooks and on TripAdvisor. The hotel in Siem Reap wouldn’t allow us to hire a small car, preferring that we rent a very large van at a very large expense, and recommended that we go into town to a travel agency and arrange the rental ourselves. We were a little nervous, but the agency was right on a main market street in downtown Siem Reap, and they were enthralled with our white faces. They were so eager to please! Within ten minutes they had arranged for the car to pick us up at our hotel at 8:30 in the morning and drive the 5 or so hours to Phnom Penh. They kept assuring us it would be fine, and the driver spoke English, so no worries.
As promised the driver was right on time, but he spoke not a lick of English. That didn’t bother us really, and we managed to get all of our stuff in the small trunk. The kids and I squeezed into the back seat, and Marc sat next to the driver and we were off.
Within ten minutes we had to stop on the side of the road. The driver stuttered “wait a minute,” jumped out of the car, and gave some money to a guy standing by. We have no idea what transpired between them, but we do know that we were traveling at high speeds for the next 4 hours and passing car after car, with zero police consequence. You do the math.
It should have taken 5 or more hours to make that trip and we did it in four and a half including a stop for gasoline. It’s a small road – one lane each direction. But lanes are just suggestions in most of Southeast Asia, and we passed many buses and trucks – and cars. Not a single vehicle passed us. This guy aimed for speed, and speedy he was. I didn’t look, and Marc, from the front seat, said it was impressive.
I did look out the side window, however, and saw shack after shack, followed by a market, followed by huge tracts of empty land. Since it is dry season in Cambodia, everything had a thin layer of fine dirt over it. I’m not sure how to express the enormity of the poverty.
Phnom Penh is a city of over two million people, and has had huge growth in the past two years with population increasing more than 25%. It is fast becoming an international city after the big set-backs of the 70’s and 80’s.
In Phnom Penh, we stayed at the amazingly fabulous La Maison D’Ambre, a small, boutique hotel near Wat Phnom, not far from the center of the city. Instead of room numbers, each suite has a name and it beautifully designed and appointed.
We only had a day and a half in the city, the capital of Cambodia. We went to the Palace, which also houses the exquisite silver pagoda. We were allowed to take photos only on the outside. We saw the National Museum and all of its Khmer treasures.
We had to stop and shop at the Russian market, where we drove hard bargains, but had to walk away from a few things when vendors wouldn’t meet our price. We also had to walk away from the food section of the market – we just couldn’t stomach the smell. Cambodian food has some pretty strong smells that overwhelm all of the senses. I’m loathe to qualify them as good or bad – just strong, overpowering the entire area.
We also shopped in a more couture manner at Ambre, home of the best dress designer in the world, Romyda Keth. I have several of her dresses, and it was an honor to meet her in person. She even made the dress I wore for my son’s bar mitzvah.
Of course we ate more Khmer food – Luk Lok, A Mok, and other enchanting tastes for lunch and dinner both days we were there. We couldn’t get enough of it. We even ate a little bit in the airport!
Leaving from the airport in Phnom Phen on late Wednesday afternoon was quite sad. We had a wonderful few days of vacation.