Bon Om Thouk, the water festival. Happening every November, Bon Om Thouk marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River. I know, sounds crazy. A three-day festival that draws millions of people to the city from the countryside. Boat races, costumes, parties.
This year, it didn’t happen. We still got off school for the holiday, but the boat races and the celebrations were cancelled. Why? Some say it was due to political instability. Some say it was due to the extensive flooding.
What to do with a five-day weekend? Sean and I wanted to go to an island, but were scared by impending storms. It was the weekend right after Typhoon Haiyan, and Vietnam was getting hit pretty hard. The island we wanted to visit (Koh Rong) is a two-hour boat ride from the mainland. We thought it best to hold off ’till clearer forecasts.
So, we lived like royalty in Phnom Penh, exploring parts of the city we hadn’t made time to visit before. We left the city the second half of the break, but the first half we had a lot of fun being visitors in our own town.
On the first day, we headed down the riverside and rented two bicycles.
The weather was perfect! Bright blue skies mixed with fluffy clouds.
We rented two bicycles from The Vicious Cycle/Grasshopper Adventure Tours. For $7 each, we got first-class Giant mountain bikes with great suspension and tires. Those things were beastly! We felt like we could take on the world… or Cambodia for a day, at least.
We cruised around the riverfront for a while, enjoying how easy it was to zip up and down the promenade.
A regular street in Cambodia, seen from my bicycle.
We stopped at every ‘photo opportunity’… I was nervous in this picture because you aren’t supposed to stand on the grass in the parks. I know! They have concrete paths and nice benches, with perfectly manicured lawns. In every park, you only ever see people on the concrete; it is illegal to walk on the grass! I don’t think you’d ever get a ticket, but I do think people would give you some sideways glances. Sean really wanted me to pose with the elephant, though, so I sprinted into the frame, the scofflaw that I am…
Our plan all along was to get to one of the islands on the Mekong. We got directions from the bike rental place, and headed to the car ferry. It was a busy day; I didn’t know how they could fit everyone on that tiny boat!
But they managed just fine. A twenty motos squished up against Camry bumping a Lexus next to a Toyota Hilux in front of thirty people. And two foreigners with fancy bikes.
We thought we knew exactly where we were going… to the island… We had grandiose plans to go to Koh Dach, or Silk Island.
We couldn’t have been more wrong:
We biked down the riverside, and hopped on a ferry. We ended up in a remote area, thinking it was a seldom-visited island. Nope. Just normal Cambodia outside of the bustling center that is Phnom Penh. We biked around, waiting to find the ferry to the ‘next island’, where we thought Silk Island would be waiting for us. This all could have obviously been avoided had I checked Google Maps.
Regardless, we had fun bicycling Cambodia’s countryside! This phenomenon is often seen, but I haven’t blogged about it yet. Weddings and birthday parties are thrown on the street, outside of the house. You set up the tent and tables in the middle of the street, and anyone passing just moves around your party. Isn’t it convenient? You want to have a party? Why not just throw it in the street? It’s another example of how laid back everyone is here. I love it!
Bicycling the remote wilds of the Cambodian countryside… (Not an island.)
We stumbled on a cock fight! Sean snuck into the melee to see the dueling roosters. I was the only woman there so I hung back and took photos. How many kids in trees can you spot?
And then we found Smango, the bicycle oasis. It is a resort/restaurant our friend told us to look for. Unfortunately our sweet friend also thought she was on Silk Island. Looks like this blog is going to crush many dreams…
But the food at Smango was amazing! Sean had sweet and sour chicken, and I had Banh Chao. I’ve had it before, and I always enjoy it when I order it. It’s a delicious rice milk/coconut pancake filled with bean sprouts, sauteed veggies, and meat if you want it. You then tear pieces off, dip them in a peanut sauce, and wrap it up with cucumber and lettuce leaves. Yum!
Smango had a pool, too, but we were looking forward to getting back to our apartment and taking a dip in our own pool. We had many kilometers left to pedal!
We found a more major road that went through small villages. Can you spy the woman in the background balancing the basket on her head?
Once we decided to head back, we crossed the Japanese Friendship bridge to get back into the city. This bridge crosses the Tonle Sap, which switches directions in November.
We still had a few hours to spend before we returned the bikes, so we headed to Wat Phnom, the major temple in the city.
Not quite sure what she’s selling. If you know, please post in the comments!
Me in front of Wat Phnom. It has a large clock on the grass in front of the temple. Wat means temple, and Phnom means hill. It is the major temple in Phnom Penh.
I really love Wat Phnom because it has a large shaded park all around it. You can stroll thrpugh the park, look at the temple, have a picnic, or watch the sellers. I find it really peaceful!
As the sun got lower in the sky, we made our way back to the riverside to return the bikes. I spotted this building, which screamed French architecture. Cambodia was actually the “French Protectorate of Cambodia” from 1867 to 1953. You can still see a lot of French architecture, and excellent coffee and baguettes are actually more common than you’d think!
After dropping off the bikes, Sean and I headed to a balcony with a view.
Anyone who’s ever been to Phnom Penh has probably been to the yellow building, having the opposite view of this one. The yellow building is the FCC, or Foreign Correspondents Club. It is the historic bar of the city, check out a great article on its history here. They’ve also got a great, half-price happy hour. We chose the bar across the street though, for a change of pace. Which did we like better? You’ll have to visit yourself to decide…
We were lucky we returned our bikes when we did. It looked like a storm was brewing. We savored a cold drink, an order of french fries, and the view over the Mekong river.
It was a great first day to a vacation. However, now we have to go find the real Silk Island….