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Andy’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 23 Jan 2007

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Sightseeing with a group of people can be stressful. Thankfully we were all in agreement - we would take it easy, give the national museum a miss and concentrate our day on the Cambodian Grand Palace and Silver Pagoda; the spiritual heart of the city.

Cambodia's Grand Palace, built in the mid-nineteenth century indirectly harked back to past 'golden ages' for its architectural influences. The design was supposedly inspired by Bangkok's counterpart, however, ironically the Thai Grand Palace was partially influenced by the ornamentation of ancient Cambodian temples.

Enclosed within mustard-coloured walls we strolled past reliquary stupas, well tended gardens and tall buildings with sweeping varnished roofs of yellow, green and red tiles. Sat amongst the typically south east asian architecture is an incongruous small French mansion - the pavillion of Napoleon III; a gift from France and a reminder of the (formal) imperial links that once existed between the two countries.

I found it a tranquil space, only yards away from busy roads and squares, but miles away from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh.

The largest and most impressive building of the palace is the Throne Hall, the only part of the interior we were allowed to view. This suitably plush room has been used for the coronation of Cambodian Kings, most recently the ballet dancing King Norodom Sihamoni - I half expected to see him pirouette out the door as i ascended the steps and entered the long, pillared, symmetrical room. The room was light, with auspicious chandeliers hanging from a muralled ceiling. But my eye was instantly drawn to the far end of the room and the ornate throne. The whole space around it radiates gold, even the air is tinged with the colour.

In the same compound as the palace is the Silver Pagoda; an extravagant temple which derives its name from the thousands of solid silver tiles that cover the floor of its interior. What's wrong with Top's Tiles? Though why bother with ceramics when you have five tons of precious metal spare?!

On display inside the main sanctuary are treasures of the Cambodian monarchy such as the tansluscent baccarat crystal buddha, the colour of jade, which topped a multi-tiered gilded pedestal in the middle of the room.

But for real bling, for the Puff Daddy's out there, look no further than the 90kg solid gold buddha adorned with 2086-10,000 diamonds (sources do not agree), some a purse-busting 25 carat.

What would the historical Buddha have made of all this exceptionally wealthy and lavish earthly treasure in his name? I think he would have a similar reaction to Jesus vis-a-vis many Catholic church interiors.

As soon as we placed one foot outside the palace grounds we became magnets for beggars, amputees and small girls selling water. From the moment we walked out of out hotel to the time when we returned we were constantly appoached by Cambodians with an arm outstretched. We were never alone in the city. But none of us were bothered by it, we all knew the history (and indeed present) of this country.

Many wealthy Cambodians are much less forgiving, as we found out at lunch. Ruth and I ate at a small plastic-chaired food stall on the pavement; a classy joint where, just a few feet from our table, a young girl thought it would be suitable to urinate. Next to us was a family that looked every bit middle class. A small, scruffy boy came up to our table to beg and the father angrily reprimanded him, raising a fist which scared the boy off. He was trying to be helpful, but this was not the way we wanted to deal with those much less fortunate than ourselves. Afterwards they asked us the usual questions, (Do you like our country? Where are you from? How long are you staying for?) and told us of a festival taking place in the capital in the next few days. We decided to postpone our next destination a few extra days so we could see the event.

To finish off an educational and cultural day, we sat on top of the boat permantently moored at the back of our hotel and enjoyed the afternoon heat, glittering lake and surrounding townscape of smoke columned rooftops and gold-domed mosque. Less enjoyable was the british guy who insisted on telling everyone his "I got arrested smoking weed in vang vieng" story to everyone at least three times.

In the evening we took a trip, with one of the waitresses at the hotel and our taxi driver, to 'Heart of Darkness'. The Lonely Planet calls this club one of the best nightspots in Southeast Asia, a description which says more about the quality of the region's nightlife than it does the club itself. I'm not saying it was bad per se, just that it was a small, busy, uninspiringly decorated joint with an inconsistent music policy. We had a great time though, dancing and drinking the night away. Raymond even managed to hook up with a girl called Gummy-Goo - not her real name i should add. We christened her this after we learnt she had no teeth...or just one, situated in the centre of her top gums according to one source (who then began to wonder how she ate toffees). Sorry Raymondo, the story had to be told.