We take the Hang Chau 2 speed boat from Chau Doc on the Mekong River to Phnom
Penn, a five hour trip which includes two border stops along the way. One is to exit
Vietnam and the other is to obtain our tourist visas to enter Cambodia. Both crossings are represented by shades of khaki and green, officers entrusted with the duty of checking passports and visas. I was wary that the stern officials at the Cambodian border would not process my visa since I did not have a separate photo of myself to turn in with my visa application. I stupidly left it in my suitcase stowed on the boat and not in my daypack. I was the last one to get a visa, much to my relief. Another hour by
boat and then, finally, Phnom Penn, capital of Cambodia comes into view with its blend
of old and new: remnants of stately French Colonial buildings in neo-classical style, traditional Khmer palaces and pagodas and added to this are western style skyscrapers competing for space in this growing and bustling city. The afternoon sun castes shadows over this jumble of architecture. As we arrive at the Sisowat pier, most noticeable is the stone-built embankment or esplanade along the waterfront, a city park along the Mekong. It looks inviting and peaceful with its benches, tall trees and landscape of flowers. A perfect spot for a plein air artist to capture the moment on canvas. But it doesn’t take long to discover that with a population of only two million compared to Hanoi’s four million and Saigon’s almost eight million, its traffic and pace is just as frenetic.
Inching our way through the tangle of vans, motorbikes and cyclo drivers, our guide takes us to the Royal Palace built by King Norodom in 1866. We remove our shoes and enter an ornate Khmer style building used to receive the world’s royalty and ambassadors on state business. Today, it is open to the public. Next to the palace is the official residence of King Sihamoni, Sihanouk’s son. Our guide emphasizes that the king is in residence (which means he is in country) because an official flag is raised. We were told that the elder Sihanouk, age 88, who is referred to as the god-king, is living in China and unofficially is in control of Cambodian politics.
Located adjacent to the Palace is the Silver Pagoda. It gets its name from the 5000
silver tiles covering the floor. Again, we remove our shoes and enter. The silver floor is
roped off from foot traffic. Absolutely no photography allowed, so we just file it in our
memory. In the center of the room is a tremendous standing solid gold Buddha draped in
saffron (orange) colored cloth. Other Buddhas in various positions are placed around the
room. The most common is the one sitting in the meditative or lotus position. Another
Buddha is sitting but has one hand pointed to the earth. It refers to the story of Buddha
(Siddharta Gautama) being tempted by the evil one Mara. Siddhartha tells Mara “as earth
is my witness”, I will not succumb to your temptations and he doesn’t.
Our guide does not want us to miss the Wat Phnom Temple located on a hill overlooking the tree-lined avenues. “According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1373 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong River and discovered by Madam Penh. The main entrance to Wat Phnom is by the grand eastern staircase, which is guarded by lions and Naga (mythical serpent) balustrades.” Excerpt from Lonely Planet guide book.
After taking our shoes off and entering the temple we notice many Cambodians lighting incense and praying for their dead ancestors. It is a ritual practiced daily by devout Buddhas.