Phnom Penh, the main and the largest city of Cambodia, home to almost one million inhabitants, is an attractive tourist destination thanks to the infusion of traditional Khmer and French architecture, the Royal Palace, the Riverside nightlife and the beautiful countryside around, including the centrally located Silk Island, which is like a rural oasis of tranquillity the jungle of the big city.
In order to get to the Silk Island, you pay 500 riel for a ferry (one way) and in a few minutes you arrive to Koch Dach. You can bring your bike along as Koch Dach as well as the smaller Koh Oknha Tei island, where there is a silk museum, are perfect for cycling, but going through the city first you need to ride on the busy roads where cars, tractors, motorbikes, tuk tuks and rickshaws mingle… it might thus be easier just to rent a bike once you get to the island (2 dollars per day and a bike rental is right by the ferry) where you will discover beautiful scenery with streams, ponds, lotus and rice fields and flower beds with morning glory (water spinach). Local children run and cycle around, there are cows and chickens everywhere and ducks drifting along the dusty and muddy roads.
Silk Island is a wonderful oasis of peace and tranquillity in the middle of the urban jungle. You can see skyscrapers of the city from the island, but there are just little houses on the island, mostly typical Khmer houses. When the locals do not work in the fields (or as tuk tuk drivers or as guides in the silk museum), they swing in hammocks talking to one another. When exploring the island will find a temple and a small school in front of which the children have parked their bicycles. We decided to walk into the school, asking the teacher if we could stay shortly to observe the class. It was quite an experience. Amazing to see how disciplined kids are here, how unconditionally they respect authorities and how they value the knowledge they get.
Within five hours you can cycle around the island and explore its beauty. You will probably need about one hour for the museum, where you can see the local weavers – I got to try out weaving myself, no easy work, requires a lot of patience and repetitiveness – mostly women, especially widows who have the opportunity to earn a couple of cents here, and buy beautiful silk scarves – which may not be exported and are thus unique as they can only be bought in the village and its surroundings; the price differs according to the pattern and the amount of cotton added to the silk. Young local men will be happy to explain to you everything about the preparation and processing of silk for a voluntary contribution. For those vegans who wear silk: to keep the butterfly from chopping off the silk threads when it flies out of the cocoon, the worm inside needs to be killed; since the locals are Buddhists and therefore cannot kill, they leave the cocoons with the worm inside exposed to direct sun for one day – that is enough to kill them. The cocoons are then thrown into hot water and processed further; the worms are eventually fried and eaten.
Several local people will gladly invite you to their house. For a small contribution, you can see how the people live and have some tea with them. There are two larger tourist restaurants on the island (one in the museum, the other one further down the main road), but it is better to give a try to the local canteens with their open outside kitchens. Don’t worry about dirt, Western hygienic standards are often overrated, you will be just fine. Be prepared that these people speak no word of English, so get a Cambodian sim card with some data on it, for like 4 USAD, and use your online dictionary to help you out. Anyway, the owner of the canteen will probably eventually just grab your hand and take you to the kitchen to lift up the lids from the three or four pots so you can see what they have, and then they bring a bit of everything to your table: two soups, rice and some meat, all in big bowls from which you and your friends take portions into your own little bowl. For this feast, including the drinks for four people, you pay about 9 USD.
I spent the day of my birthday on this wonderful island with my spiritual brother Oscar, another yoga teacher at Bohemiaz, where we all volunteer, Cat, and a Russian woman who came over for a retreat. It was a beautiful day which was concluded in a bar and restaurant with live music at the Riverside where my brother danced with me when they started playing Father and Son by Cat Stevens. Being the youngest of three sisters, I always wanted a younger brother. Maybe it is the caring feminine side in me. During my travels, I was lucky enough to meet a few brothers, like Marco in Happy Buddha in the Blue Mountains. It was a blessing to find Oscar at Bohemiaz. Dancing with him on my birthday certainly felt special, like a dream coming true, feeling as if my younger brother took me out dancing, to the great thrill of several Chinese gents sitting at the table next to us, who started taking videos of us as soon as we started dancing.
Also, I got the best ever b-day cake! A chocolate-chip cake with vanilla ice cream hand-made by the 12-year-old French-born Cambodian daughter of the owner of Bohemiaz. Her name is Lina and she is strikingly smart, speaks three languages fluently (French, Khmer and English) and is amazing around horses (she owns three herself). She loves to play with long hair, creating various hair-styles in a few minutes. I shared the cake with my fellow teachers (Oscar, Kelsey and Cat) and some of the guests who were around.
Now, people warned me against Phnom Penh when I was coming here and kept saying on the other hand how awesome Siem Reap is. True, Siem Reap is nice, but very westernized and noticeably more expensive than Phnom Penh.
The countryside around Siem Reap is beautiful, but so is the countryside around Phnom Penh. And even as a solo-travelling blonde I feel safe here. I would often get on the bike and ride into the countryside, mingling with the locals and the kids who catch snakes in rice fields for fun. I am not afraid of stray dogs, and like the ducks and chickens and water buffalos running around gaily, freely. Perhaps it is good to learn to put aside prejudice and “what somebody else said” and give places a chance to win your heart over…