Lindblad Expeditions - From the Jahan in Southeast Asia - Jen Martin, naturalist

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From the Jahan in Southeast Asia

Jan 15, 2013 - Jahan

Buddhist monks in front of the Royal Palace and portrait of the late King Sihanouk
Water lily in the gardens of the Silver Pagoda, with stupa in the background

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We arrived to the capital city late last night, anchoring just off the quayside for a quiet evening. Phnom Penh is always a pleasant surprise to travelers, who find a modern, cosmopolitan city with beautiful French colonial architecture. The streets are clean, the people are friendly, and the sights are varied. From bustling markets to colorful temples and stupas, to the monkey-laded Wat Phnom, (the founding location of the city), this is a very diverse and lively place.

We began our explorations the local way, pedaled around in bicycle cyclos. For many of us, being in the front of an open vehicle, heading into Cambodian traffic, is a life experience. Strangely enough, it takes little time to relax into the ride, as cars, bicycles, motos, and carts dance around one another with no contact, whatsoever. Our experienced cyclo drivers dropped us off just across the square from the Royal Palace. The view from this spot is unparalleled and gives a great introduction to the complex. At present, the main gate is decorated with the portrait of recently deceased King Sihanouk, a beloved figure that defined much of Cambodia’s culture and world presence in the 20th century.

Due to the King’s death and the fact that his body is laying in state in the Royal Palace, things in Phnom Penh are bustling more than normal. The Royal Palace is closed to visitors and many of the citizens are involved in the construction of a memorial stupa, which will eventually hold the king’s ashes. This project, massive in scale, will soon become a defining feature of the city. We visited a portion of the Royal Palace still open to the public, the beautiful Silver Pagoda (with its silver-tiled floor and jade Buddha) and the gardens surrounding it. Our next stop was at the colorful National Museum, which hosts many artifacts recovered from the ruins of some of the Angkor temples and is located across from the construction site of the new stupa.

Lunch was a welcome treat after our morning explorations and we dined at a local restaurant called Malis. Sampling beautifully presented Khmer cuisine, we enjoyed a break from our adventures. After lunch, everyone convened at the museum to the Cambodian genocide, Tuol Sleng or S-21. Once a local high school in the city, this benign complex became the site of extermination for more than 17,000 Cambodian citizens. A difficult but important stop, the mood of our group was quite subdued after our visit.

Our buses set off in different directions after Tuol Sleng. One bus drove to the outskirts of the city to Choeng Ek, one of the hundreds of “Killing Fields” that defined the horrors of this country just 30-some years ago. Set in a pastoral landscape, this monument to the loss of tens of thousands of lives is now a place for quiet reflection and remembrance.

Our other bus visited Tabitha, an organization devoted to the advancement of women in Cambodia. Taught to produce beautiful silk goods and assisted in managing the money they receive from this production, the women are given support in improving their own lives. Our shoppers enjoyed perusing the colorful shelves and multitudes of products for purchase, with the knowledge that our dollars were well spent.

Lastly, we returned to our floating home to find a spectacular Deck Buffet Dinner, with an Indian theme and tremendous amounts of food. A local dance and music troupe performed the traditional Apsara dance on a platform atop what is usually our ship’s pool. It was a beautiful and festive evening, complete with a sliver of moon in the sky.

We rested quietly at the dock overnight, enjoying time to ponder the difficult and beautiful sights and experiences of Phnom Penh.