Down The Mekong in Cambodia – Phnom Penh

The road south to our final destination two hours away beckoned, but it meant another hellish minivan journey. I would have much rather taken a slow boat, but there were none running this time of year. This van driver headed out of Kampong Cham on time and then stopped on a corner somewhere on the outskirts as he spent the next hour trying to solicit passengers to fill his van up while we slowly roasted inside it.

More than three and a half hours later, after a lot of faffing about and a feral stop for a deep-fried spider lunch, we rolled into the capital of Cambodia and made straight for the Silver Mounts Hotel in the center of the tourist street.

Phnom Penh was very different from the last time I visited in 2014. They have been busy building shiny new skyscrapers everywhere whereas there was only one or two a decade ago. A new upmarket business district has evolved and the place has lost its old edgy charm. The 172 tourist street was still the same as I remember though with its cheap restaurants and happy hour bars.

When the heat of the afternoon had dissipated I took a stroll down to the riverfront which was also still the same aside from the pigeon plague. However, the traffic in the city had increased to horrendous levels, and the tuk-tuk bandits were out in force.

One thing I enjoyed about Phnom Penh was the Smile shops, the Cambodian version of 7-Eleven. Not only was everything a fraction of the price of Thailand, but they had tables and chairs outside where you could rest to enjoy a cold tinny to break up the walk.

The old nightlife area that was the Sorya Mall had gone – bought up, leveled, and walled off by a Chinese real estate company building another skyscraper no doubt. As such, the boisterous bar area was no more having been relocated and spread to other areas of the city. These areas attracted more feral farangs, probably the types that got kicked out of Pattaya, and most of them appeared to be strung out on something. You had to have your guard up out in PP after dark.

Having spent most of the trip travelling down the Mekong, I really wanted to get onto it so we booked a sunset cruise for the evening. Two hours on the boat with free-flow beer cost just $16 – this would definitely not be available across the border in abstemious Thailand. The views over the new skyline were spectacular as the sun cast its final orange glow of the day over the Tonle Sap River as it converged with the Mekong. The staff were very attentive with top-ups and the cruise worked out to be one of the best trips we took on the journey and one of the cheapest.

The final day was spent shopping at the very touristy central market. Here we loaded up on Kampot pepper, chili paste, tea, coffee, textiles, sunnies, gifts, and anything else we’d get stung for across the border which included liquor.

Cambodia map

Our loop through northern Cambodia and down the Mekong

There were highs and lows during the two-week trip which is what travelling is all about. We had a good mix of comfortable and ‘rough and ready’ accommodation, transport, and food to get the full experience since the three of us were on different budgets. However, I would like to spend a bit longer there (preferably in a cooler month when the river has more water in it), rent a motorcycle, learn some lingo, and really get to know the place and its people.