Phnom Penh meanderings

The Dara Reang Sey Hotel from the street and inside the restaurant.My Phnom Penh notes cover the start of my three weeks in Cambodia and the very end. Sandwiched in between, I spent 17 days seeing other parts of this beautiful country. My arrival at Phnom Penh's Pochentong airport, on a comfortable 1 hour Silk Air flight from Singapore, was bang on schedule. The tiny airport was undergoing even more reconstruction than on my last visit and is beginning to take shape, a far cry from the corrugated shed that greeted me on my first visit back in 1994. The usual visa formalities went smoothly as my passport and papers were passed quickly along the line of ten officials and I handed over my $20 bill. Amongst the massed The doorway to Prasat Srei Krup Leak on Phnom Basetthrong of locals, who press forward whenever a flight arrives and passengers emerge into the sunlight, I quickly spotted Srun, who waved a sheet of paper in the air with my name on. Srun turned out to be a Doctor, part owner of the Dara Reang Sey Hotel and my taxi-driver into town. His English was very good and we were soon weaving our way through the ever-increasing Phnom Penh traffic to his hotel, located on the corner of streets 118 and 13, a block away from the old market (Psah Chas) and a two-minute walk from the riverside.

The natural cave grotto inside Prasat Srei Krup Leak is a place of worshipSrun's wife, Reangsey and her sister Dara, who alongwith other family members help make the Dara Reang Sey a pleasant place to stay and who also run the excellent restaurant on the ground floor, were on hand to welcome me. I'd been in touch by e-mail to book a room before I left England and the airport pick-up couldn't have been any easier. I collared one of the motodubs, Ly, outside the hotel and fixed a price for him to take me to Phnom Baset at mid-day, leaving me over an hour to unwind and rest. On cue, Ly was waiting at reception and we joined the traffic heading north along Sisowath Quay and under the Japanese Bridge on Route 5. Phnom Baset is located a little over 30 kms north of Phnom Penh and is the site of an eighth century temple and a popular picnic spot for locals. The red sandstone replica of Angkor Wat, a couple of kilometres from Phnom BasetThe traffic thinned out considerably as we passed by a couple of Cham mosques and took a left turn at the village of Prek Phnou, along Route 51. Much of the surrounding countryside was underwater with sand-bags shoring up the badly-rutted road. Two Phnom Baset version of a 'flying palace', as usually seen at Sambor Prei Kukhills, on either side of the track, signalled that we'd reached Phnom Baset, although Ly's lack of English made it difficult to establish the whereabouts of the ancient temple. So we climbed the steep steps of the tallest hill, Phnom Thbong, where a number of shrines and a large seated Buddha had attracted lots of local families and couples. However, there was no sign of any 'same same Angkor Wat' until Ly spied through the trees, a large red sandstone construction a couple of kilometres away. On arrival at the site, I was surprised to say the least, to see that a life-size replica of part of Angkor Wat had been erected next to a smaller pagoda. Both were being used by monks and local families for worship, with the walls of the small pagoda lined with murals and loud 'pin-peat' music booming out from loudspeakers.

An elaborate entranceway to a modern pagoda compound near Phnom BasetLeaving the temple compound, under an arch that resembled the south gate of Angkor Thom, I pointed Ly in the direction of the smaller of the two hills, which was actually Phnom Baset. At the top, we found a modern pagoda and more shrines and met a Cambodian family on a visit to the area from their home in the USA. With their help, a monk directed us to a 'prasat' on a lower part of the hill. Halfway down the steps was a building that housed a giant, brightly-painted reclining Buddha (known as Roob Preah Chol Neapeau) and nearby a large Three of my dinner companions at the Ta Ta restaurant in Prek Leap: Sokrom, Alis & Thida.rectangular brick sanctuary from the 8th century sat in the shade of a giant tree that split the temple in half. With flying palaces on the outside walls and a couple of carved lintels in situ, the temple of Prasat Srei Krup Leak ('temple of the perfect woman') houses a natural grotto and Ly lit some incense sticks as an offering. Our return to Phnom Penh was uneventful save for a noticeable increase in large trucks along Route 5. After a shower and a chat with the hotel's owners, I met up with e-mail pal and fellow adventurer, Peter Leth, who has a teaching job in the capital. We walked to the riverfront and had a shrimp and beef loklak supper at the River 4 open-air restaurant, followed by a refreshing 'tikalok' fruit smoothie at a roadside stall on Sisowath Quay. Back at the hotel by 10pm, Virath on reception handed me a speedboat ticket for Two disabled assistants in the wheelchair workshop of the Veterans International rehab centremy 7am departure to Kratie the next morning. It would be another two weeks before I would return to Phnom Penh.

Rithy Keo, supervisor at the VI rehab centre in Kien KhleangThe flight from Battambang returned me to Pochentong airport by 10am and I grabbed a moto outside the main gate, to take me into the city and back to the Dara Reang Sey Hotel. I wandered around a couple of street markets as well as the refurbished Wat Saravoan before a late lunch on the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club, overlooking the Tonle Sap river. I popped into one of the e-mail outlets that are springing up along Sisowath Quay to update my wife on my travels and returned to the Dara Reang Sey for a rest from the blazing hot sun. At 6pm Phalla, my Khmer companion for much of my time in Siem Reap, turned up at the hotel on his moto and invited me to dinner at the family home of my good friend Sok Thea, who'd passed away a few A linga and yoni on display in the grounds of the National Museum in Phnom Penhweeks before my trip. The house, in the Tuol Kauk district of the city, was overflowing with family, friends and neighbours as I arrived and the evening was a roaring success. Twenty families live in the three-storey house and after the meal I think I met each and every one of them. The sea of faces during a convivial question and answer session and the genuine hospitality I received was quite overwhelming.

Patients at the VI rehab centre get some exercise in the 'bocci ball' area At 8am the next morning, Phalla gave me a lift over the Japanese Bridge and out to the Kien Khleang rehabilitation centre of Veterans International (the centre was set up and sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and USAID). At the reception office, I met supervisor Rithy Keo and for the next hour, he showed me the extensive workshop facilities they have for the production of polypropylene prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs for disabled adults and children. VI and the VVAF have four centres in Cambodia and have helped make life more bearable and productive for more than 10,000 Cambodians. They employ staff with disabilities and I met two assistants who are blind, in the wheelchair workshop, while the children's area, with a full quota of ten children undergoing fitting and rehab, was a poignant experience. The centre has dormitories for 100 people of both sexes and to round off my visit I joined in a game of 'bocci ball' (or boules) with some of the amputees. The work of the centre and other organisations like the Cambodia Trust, is invaluable in a country that has experienced so much heartache and trauma. Let's not forget that those who receive treatment are the lucky ones, many others are not so fortunate, and in my brief look at the work of the centre, I was mightily impressed with the commitment and professionalism shown by Rithy Keo and his colleagues.

A typical street anywhere you care to mention within Phnom Penh's city limits On our return trip, we took a detour off the main road and went for a ride along the east shoreline of the river, north of the bridge. The Vietnamese fishing families along the riverbank waved and shouted as we passed through and we briefly stopped at an orphanage before returning to town, where I headed for the National Museum. I always enjoy paying a visit to the museum, to see the best exhibits of Khmer art on show anywhere in the world and to escape the heat of the day, in its cool and shaded galleries. Since my last visit, more exhibits than ever before were on display and in the courtyard were some of the items, including two large portions of sculpted wall A replica stone carving of Jayavarman VII, on a street alongside the National Museumcarvings, stolen from Banteay Chhmar and returned by the Thai authorities a few months earlier. In a newly-opened wing of the museum, a post-Angkorean exhibition of wooden statues, many from the King's private collection, had recently gone on show and was attracting lots of attention. Just before mid-day, I called in at the FCC for lunch and walked back to my hotel, where by sheer coincidence, I bumped into George Moore for the first time. George was on a visit from his home in San Francisco and had hosted my first batch of stories on his website back in 1998 before I'd set up my own 'Cambodia Tales'. It was the first opportunity that I'd had to thank George for his kindness in person. He was on one of his frequent trips to Cambodia and was a regular at the Dara.

My hosts at their home in Tuol Kauk, Sarein and Vourch: their hospitality was overwhelmingAt 2pm, Phalla appeared as arranged and we headed for Wat Ounalom, on the riverfront. I wanted to pay my respects to my deceased friend, Sok Thea, whose ashes were housed in the temple grounds following his cremation. Waiting for us at the gate was his aunt (Vourch) and uncle (Sarein) and they led me into a side building where two orange-robed monks invited us into a tiny room. For the next fifteen minutes, as we knelt before them, they repeatedly chanted a sacred Buddhist mantra and then led us to an altar room where a casket containing Thea's ashes was located. Lighting incense sticks and making offerings of fruit, we each said private prayers for Thea before thanking the monks and taking our leave of the temple compound. Thea's aunt and uncle returned to their stall at a local market, although I would see them later that evening, while Phalla and I headed for the Russian market to browse amongst its numerous stalls. On the way back, we called in at the Walkabout Hotel for a drink Despite not smiling for the camera, everyone had a great time at Ta Ta's including Kalyan, Rina, Vicaka and Vourchat their newly-extended bar and to renew acquaintances with Glenn, the owner, Sambo and Kunthea (who has the widest smile in Phnom Penh) before returning to the Dara.

For the evening's entertainment, my friends from Tuol Kauk arranged for us all to visit the eating places over the Japanese Bridge at Prek Leap. On cue, at 5.30pm, a convoy of motos arrived with no less than eleven people on board. Alongwith Phalla, Vourch, Sarein and their three young daughters, Kalyan, Rina and Vicaka, five girls who also live in the same house came along too, namely Ara, Alis, Lina, Sokrom and Thida. I climbed onto Ara's moto, who was sensibly wearing a crash-helmet and we merged into the traffic going over the bridge. After a few kilometres, we stopped at a wooden shack with hammocks hanging from the ceiling for a session of hammock-resting and corn cob-eating before retracing our steps back to a more upmarket class of restaurant. At the Ta Ta ('Grandfather') restaurant, our group took over a large table in the centre of the open-air building, close to the stage where a band and a group of ten female and three male singers were performing. Over the next couple of hours, we polished off a selection of local dishes and One of my favourite photo subjects, the Chan Chaya Pavilion at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penhsoft drinks whilst watching the performers. We were joined by one of the young women singers, who is apparently very famous in her country and I was invited on stage to present her with a garland of fresh flowers, which received a standing ovation. I was glad the lights were dim, so no-one could see my flush of embarrassment. Another wonderful evening came to a close and we rode back to the Dara as lightning flashed behind the dark rain clouds above and I said my goodbyes to my friends, as I was leaving for Kampot early the next day.

After a couple of days in Kampot, our taxi-driver returned to Phnom Penh via Route 3. My farewell party at the airport from some of the wonderful friends I made on this visit: Phalla, Ara, Sokrom and AlisRecent rains had left large craters of slippery mud in the main streets of a few towns along the highway and it gave the journey an added attraction as the traffic struggled to negotiate the hazards. 2 hours after leaving Kampot market, Phalla and I were dropped off outside his Tuol Kauk home before I returned to the Dara Reang Sey to book a room for my last night in Cambodia. The next day, Singapore would be a brief stop-over on my way back to England. I ate lunch in the hotel's excellent restaurant, which was full of local diners, a sure sign that the food is good, and took a stroll to the riverfront to use the e-mail facilities at the FCC. I rounded off the afternoon with a massage at the Seeing Hands Centre from a blind male masseur and rested in my room until Phalla arrived at 6pm. We drove through the bustling streets and out along the airport road towards his Tuol Kauk abode for a final meal to remember with my friends and an exchange of gifts and promises to return. My 10.30am flight the next day prompted an early night, so Phalla returned me to the Dara through the now-empty boulevards at 10pm. Early the next morning, Phalla, Ara, Alis and Sokrom appeared at the hotel to escort me to the airport in Srun's car and to wave me off with hugs and handshakes at the end of my sixth visit to Cambodia. Great memories and wonderful friends - it was a trip to savour.

A dramatic reconstruction of the South Gate of Angkor Thom at a temple near Phnom BasetThe giant reclining Buddha at close quarters, on Phnom Baset

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