Sunday, 13 April 2014

Phnom Penh, Cambodia's Enticing Capital

  Phnom Penh ©Solange Hando

At the confluence of the Tonle Sap and the mighty Mekong, Phnom Penh is well worth a detour after a visit to Angkor Wat. Chaotic and relaxed all in one, Cambodia's capital has a cool waterfront, colourful lanes and markets full of exotic trades, French-style boulevards fragrant with frangipani, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and tempting open air kitchens.

Most attractions are close to the Tonle Sap and the few visitors who make it to Phnom Penh are soon swept off their feet by the myriad sights and sounds of this little known city, which many come to regard as Asia's most charming capital.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh ©Solange Hando

Set among flowers and lawns, the Royal Palace is a must-see, gleaming all white and gold with colonnades and spires, ornate gates and lofty pagoda roofs. Bougainvillea tumble over the walls, palms scatter a little shade and orange-robed monks wander around shrines and pavilions. In the Silver Pagoda, the floor is covered with 5000 silver tiles, though most are tucked under a carpet for protection.

The nearby National Museum displays the world's finest collection of Khmer sculptures, a lovely place where tourists can browse the galleries and cloisters set around the inner garden.

 Way to Wat Phnom ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile, the locals head for Wat Phnom, the capital's most sacred temple, to pray or make a wish among piles of offerings and volutes of incense. Monkeys scamper on the steps, stalls sell fresh pineapple and lotus seeds and fortune tellers wait for trade.

According to legend, the city owes its name to lady Penh who discovered Buddha images near the hill (Phnom) where this temple was especially built.

Sunset on the Mekong ©Solange Hando

For many visitors however, Phnom Penh's true highlights are the waterways, starting with the Tonle Sap which flows through the town, its breezy promenade lined with palm trees and flags while across the road, on Sisowath Quay, outdoor cafés beckon with plush cushions, rattan chairs and panoramic views. 

But beyond the city's heritage and bustling streets, sailing on the legendary Mekong comes top of anyone's list, chugging down to the confluence then a short distance up river. It's all you imagine it to be, houseboats draped in laundry and flower pots, floating villages with bamboo patios, women cooking dinner on open fires and children diving in murky waters while fishermen drag their nets in the sunset. Across the water, you might just spot the roofs of the Royal Palace, glowing like gold above one of the coolest capitals in Asia.

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