Quintessential Phnom Penh
Yes, Mr. tuk-tuk driver, moto rider, bike cycler and Lexus driver. We are those silly Westerners you keep seeing walking up and down Russian Boulevard.
We know it is hot and humid. We absolutely realize how crazy the traffic is and how difficult it can be to cross even the most innocently seeming street.
We just like to walk. A day of walking earns us a more delicious lunch or an extra glass of wine. A day of walking allows us to see things we miss when being whisked across the city on four wheels.
Truth be told, we have not seen much walking in Phnom Penh outside of our own four feet. Sidewalks in a traditional sense don’t exist and people use their space more fluidly then we do in the States – using what could be sidewalks as parking spaces, extra lanes of traffic, food stalls or extra retail space.
Enter Russian Boulevard. Three blocks from our apartment lies one of the most walkable streets in Phnom Penh. Wide lanes surround a huge sidewalk that passes by the Ministry of Defense and other government buildings. Beautifully landscaped and tree-lined medians divide the roadway and provide even more walking space. It has become our new artery to other parts of the city when we feel like we have the stamina to walk on our own.
This past weekend we enjoyed the 25-minute walk up and down Russian Boulevard multiple times as we played tourist in our new town, hitting some of the Phnom Penh highlights you’ll read about in most guidebooks.
Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace Grounds
I was a little leery about visiting Wat Phnom. The guidebooks and web sites painted a picture of an overrun Wat full of vendors and distractions (there used to be an elephant on site that you could ride for $15). It had me picturing the activity at the Temple on Doi Suthep in Thailand and I was already turned off. Luckily, none of it came to fruition and we were only approached by two people trying to “sell” us a chance to set a bird free from a cage for $2.
Wat Phnom sits on the only hill in the city and the site originally housed a shrine built in 1373. It sits in the center of a round-about on the north end of town and doesn’t require much time to see. For $1, tourists can walk around the upper parts of the hill and visit the inside of the temple. I found the whole area rather peaceful, especially the park below.
Heading down the riverfront from Wat Phnom, you can reach most of the other main sites in Phnom Penh. We strolled along a mostly empty riverwalk on our way down to the Royal Palace.
The city will soon be demolishing the elaborate structure it built for the funeral and cremation of the late King, which sits next to the Royal Palace along the Riverfront. On the Saturday following the ceremonies, we wandered into an open gate and found ourselves up close and personal with the crematorium and the surrounding structures. We were joined by only a few other tourists and guards. Certainly, a surreal experience to be only one of 10 people on the site when just a week before, thousands of people were lining the gates just trying to get a peek inside.
Our goal was to also visit the Royal Palace grounds on the same day, but after lots of walking and the sun hitting peak heat, we settled for touring the outside of its gates in the shade and saving our $6 for another day.
Meeting New Friends
A few minutes on the Riverfront had us ready to find a different location for lunch (while not terrible, it’s prime real estate for tourist bars and restaurants and everything else that comes along with areas like this). Being part of the NGO community here, we were in search of Friends restaurant, one of the social business enterprises run by the Mith Samlanh organization. The organization trains former street youth as restaurant staff to provide them skill building opportunities so they can then work in other restaurants throughout the city.
The food and smoothies at Friends were some of the best we’ve had so far in Cambodia and the young people serving us were really delightful. Next door, the organization also runs a store called Friends ‘n’ Stuff where they sell products made by youth in some of their other projects.
There are numerous social businesses being operated by NGOs in Phnom Penh. In a country where there are nearly 3,000 NGOs, it’s likely you could find a social business for most anything. Our hope is to support as many as we can while we are here.
On this one Saturday, we covered at least 6 miles in a city that is not all that pedestrian friendly. I guess you could say we’re missing our weekend hikes…
Our feet ached and had to be immediately washed when we got home, but the beer we opened and the $6 massage we had later that night was well worth it!