Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cambodia April 2012 - The Pavilion Hotel And Exploring Phnom Penh

***This post is part 7 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I located the line for the official airport taxi and decided it was worth a few extra dollars for the peace of mind that comes with legitimate cabs. I've heard way too many horror stories of taxi scams, rigged meters, abductions, etc. And the set price of $9 USD for the one-way trip into town wasn't terrible either.

Once inside the taxi, the driver asked if I needed a cab over the next few days to see the sights around Phnom Penh. I had already anticipated having to find a taxi to take me to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, and Russian Market, so I negotiated a price of $25 for a half day with him to see all three sites. While that might not have been the lowest price I could have gotten if I shopped around and really bargained hard, I felt it was reasonable enough, and the driver seemed like a friendly guy. We set the pick-up time for 10:00 am the next day.

By the time I arrived at the hotel, it was already dark and I was getting hungry. The entrance to The Pavilion Hotel was very nondescript - just a wooden door set in a high wall along a quiet street. Once inside, I noticed how lush the landscaping was, with so many plants it felt a bit like you were in a jungle. The lobby was nicely decorated, and I was greeted with a refreshing passion fruit drink. After checking in, I was led to my room in the back of the hotel - which I liked because it was a bit more private and away from the other guest rooms.

Entrance to The Pavilion Hotel

Lobby area

I had read many great reviews on TripAdvisor prior to booking, so I knew exactly what I was getting. While the facilities were probably not up to the standards of luxury Western chains, everything in the room was fine, from the comfortable bed to the spacious bathroom to the efficient air conditioning (definitely a must). It also had plenty of extras, like the in-room computer for guest use, complimentary breakfast, large fruit platter and bottled water that were replenished every day, and more. To me, this is where the local hotels in Southeast Asia really shine... you end up getting much more bang for the buck than booking with a Western chain, where they love to nickel and dime you to death.

Complimentary in-room computer and fruit platter

I finished settling in and then returned to the lobby to inquire about restaurant recommendations in the area. It was already quite late, however, and I soon realized after walking a couple of blocks that many of them had already closed. Getting a little nervous with the dark streets and lack of people around, I decided to just head back to the hotel and dine at the restaurant there. Unfortunately, the food was just alright, and slightly overpriced in my opinion. I had a much better experience at the hotel restaurant two days later prior to leaving for the airport, probably because I ordered Cambodian dishes that time!

The next day, I was awoken around 6:00 am by loud construction in the hotel. While annoying, I decided it would be a good opportunity to start early and see some sights in the city before leaving for Choeung Ek later in the morning. Breakfast was held in the same outdoor restaurant, and it was delicious. While no protein was included, there were plenty of fresh fruit and breads, along with a passion fruit drink.

Outdoor restaurant by the pool

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda were only a few blocks away from the hotel. Unfortunately, upon arrival, I was greeted with military police blockades and hundreds of Cambodians lined up along the main route. I was informed that the Royal Palace would be closed all morning because the President of China, Hu Jintao, was arriving for his official visit. So not only did Hu Jintao delay my flight into Phnom Penh, he was now disrupting my tour itinerary as well! Despite the hassle, it was still pretty cool to hang around and eventually see the President's convoy pull into the palace while the citizens were instructed to cheer loudly and wave their China and Cambodian flags. Definitely one of the more interesting events of my trip, I must say.

Welcome for Hu Jintao at the Royal Palace

Afterward, I took a stroll along the beautiful Riverside district, and then walked further inland until I ended up at a random market. One of my favorite pastimes while traveling is to visit the local markets, since it's a great way to people watch and observe them in their daily routine. Finally, I returned to the hotel to meet up with my taxi driver, who would take me to Choeung Ek.

Riverside district

The drive took about 40 minutes, and it's quite fascinating to see the outskirts of Phnom Penh rushing by. After paying a $5 USD entrance fee that included an audio tour, I walked around the memorial, following the designated path laid out by the audio track. This was definitely a somber place, and one that required a bit of courage to fully digest. There were mass graves of women and children, a "killing tree", against which infants were beaten to death, and more skulls and human bones than one can ever imagine stacked inside the Buddhist stupa at the center of the memorial. But there was also a calm serenity surrounding Choeung Ek, and I found it to be a good place for some quiet reflection.

Choeung Ek (Killing Fields)

Mass graves

More mass graves

Bracelets left at a mass grave of women and children

Perhaps I reflected a little too long, because when I got back to the taxi, the driver looked a bit impatient! We got on our way quickly and stopped at the Russian Market about halfway back to Phnom Penh. Luckily, I hate shopping, so I took a quick circle around the stalls and headed back to the car. However, anyone who enjoys knickknacks and souvenirs would probably love this place. Next up, he dropped me off at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was a school converted into a prison during Pol Pot's reign of terror. Thousands were confined here before being executed at Choeung Ek, and the tiny cells and torture devices were still intact and on display. Again, this was not a place for the squeamish.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)

After a long day and no lunch, I asked the driver to drop me off by the Riverside district, where I found a small restaurant for an early dinner. The food was delicious and very affordable as well! By then, it was already early evening, and I decided to retire early and head back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest.

Unfortunately, I only had a half day left, as my flight to Siem Reap was departing at 4:00 pm the next day. I decided to get up early the next morning and visit the Royal Palace, National Museum, and Central Market in one swoop. It ended up being plenty of time, and I really didn't have to rush at all. The Royal Palace reminded me of a smaller version of Thailand's Grand Palace. There were plenty of beautiful architecture on display and historical reminders that Cambodia is so much more than just the Khmer Rouge. The National Museum was a good precursor to visiting Angkor Wat, as it contained an excellent collection of artifacts from Cambodia's golden age. The central courtyard was also quite beautiful. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside. Finally, a visit to Phnom Penh's largest market, aptly named the Central Market, capped off a quick half day to the major sights around town.

Royal Palace

Silver Pagoda and a scale model of Angkor Wat

National Museum

Central Market

After returning to the hotel, I took a quick shower, grabbed a late lunch at the restaurant, and relaxed by the pool outside until my taxi arrived to take me to the airport. I used the same driver again as we had negotiated a reasonable rate the day before.

Lunch at the hotel restaurant

This was a whirlwind trip through Phnom Penh, with only a day and a half to see as much as possible, but I felt like I was able to make the most of it. More than anything, Phnom Penh is a city in transition, as evidenced by the construction boom on just about every block. I have a feeling when I return in a few years, it will look quite different from what I had remembered.

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