Touring Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – 13 & 14 November 2018

Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous in Phnom Penh, just like in many other cities in Asia. They are charmingly photogenic and generally inexpensive – but honestly, not the most comfortable way to travel. But oh well – when in Rome and all.

So, off I went in a tuk-tuk for the 15 minute ride (per Google Maps) to meet up with this evening’s food tour of Phnom Penh. Even with the 15 minute buffer I’d added, the trip was frustratingly slow thanks to the usual cuckoo traffic. But I made it just about on time and met my guide for the evening, Vanarith at the appointed location near Olympic Stadium. Happily, I was the first to arrive, so I didn’t feel so bad about being a bit behind schedule.

The two other women joining our tour showed up a few minutes after that and, I’ll confess, I was initially leery. They were Western and I assumed American – so I was prepping myself for some eyeroll-inducing cluelessness. Instead, it turned out they were Canadian and I heaved a big sigh of relief. We had something else very much in common, as I was to find out later…

Anyway, we explored a bit of Olympic Stadium, which is much different in the evening compared to my visit that morning. Not only were there a bunch of food carts and vendors selling their wares, locals turn out for semi-organized dance rehearsals. It’s kind of like a community Zumba? Anyway, it was super fun to watch but I declined the opportunity to participate.

We grabbed a table near the food carts and our guide ordered a bunch of stuff. Now, here’s where I have to confess – I did a terrible job documenting either with notes or photos all of the food we tried over the course of the evening. And further confession – while it was all tasty, none of it bowled me over, though this was pretty much the case with most of the food I ate while in Phnom Penh. Now, don’t get me wrong – nothing was bad. I think it’s just that compared to Vietnam and Thailand, I didn’t eat any Cambodian food that was particularly memorable, even though it was all good and freshly prepared.

Now, this should also not be considered a knock on this particular tour. In some ways, I think it was my favorite of my visit – thanks largely to the good chemistry between our guide and my two new friends from Canada. Vanarith was extraordinarily engaging – he knew plenty about the food we were eating of course, but shared wide-ranging information about local life, Cambodia’s history, the changing face of Phnom Penh. He’s a great guide!

At some point during the evening, I shared email or IG or something with Tania and Arielle and thanks to my highly-Jewish surname, we discovered we are all descendants of Abraham. Yes, yes, I’m still a devout atheist, but am most certainly culturally Jewish. And of course, all three of us swung right into action, teaching Yiddish to Vanarith. “Oy vey,” “fakakta” and “schvitzing” all made the list and he was an impressive student – though “schvitzing” proved particularly challenging to pronounce.

I had so much fun yakking with everyone, that I didn’t take as many photos as I’d’ve liked – but that’s quite indicative of how much I enjoyed this tour.

The next morning I was up early since I had to be back in the center of town for a bike tour that started just before 8:00AM. It sounded like it might be raining a bit, so I opened the draperies to check the weather and it was POURING. Like crazy buckets and cats-and-dogs raining. I was semi-relieved since I kinda wanted to go back to bed – but then remembered I’d already paid for the tour and they expect you to show up rain or shine since weather can change quickly.

And sure enough, by the time I was on my way, the rain had completely cleared up. I got to Grasshopper and we were on our way soon enough – me, a Swedish couple, a young Tunisian man who lives in Qatar and our guide.

First we rode along the river on a nice paved bike and pedestrian path – though constructed of some kind of slippery material, so I managed to halfway wipeout on our way to the ferry to cross the river. Oopsie! I guess I was being punished for the hubris of bringing my own helmet…

Made across the river and started our ride on paved and then gravely roads. All was AOK! Then we got to the unpaved portion of the tour…

Hoo boy! After that mornings torrential downpour, there were mud and puddles everywhere. It was challenging going to say the least. I did OK, particularly once I gave up and accepted the fact that I was going to end the ride covered in mud from head to toe. This realization really sunk in (no pun intended) when I had to put my foot down to keep my balance and I want calf-deep into the mud.

Ultimately, it was really kind of hilarious. I mean, sure, the paths were quite treacherous in a couple of spots but I survived. I think I felt worst for the other solo rider. He didn’t seem an especially experienced cyclist and rather than steering around puddles, he’d attempt to power right through them – and they often turned out to be quite a bit deeper than they appeared. I think he was knee-deep in mud more than once. At one point during the ride, I think he was trying to shake some of the mud out of his gears by braking the bike hard – but he did so using only the front brake and managed to send himself ass-over-handlebars onto the paved road we were on. Happily (and somewhat shockingly) he sustained no injuries.

We stopped at small silk weaving outfit, which was quite fascinating to watch – especially for the very intricately patterned fabric that one weaver was working on for a bride. There was also a super friendly doggo there, so that was an extra bonus!

Once we’d gotten past the worst of the mud, things went more smoothly. The countryside was very pretty and we spent a bit of time exploring a local temple complex while waiting for another boat. We ended with lunch back in the city. Sure, I was filthy and smelly, but it was a pretty great half-day in the saddle.

I’d wisely booked a massage appointment for that afternoon, back at Bodia Spa – and let me just say, they were just as welcoming and gracious as on my previous visit, despite my monstrous and filthy appearance. And I was able to have a nice hot shower before my massage, so by the time I left two hours later, I felt absolutely fantastic!

Headed back to my hotel and had a quiet evening in, while I packed and got ready to leave in the morning. Next stop: Luang Prabang!

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