If you want to escape Phnom Penh, there are quite a few day trips to be made from the capital. You can go on a boat trip to Mekong Island, discover the ancient capital of Oudong, or visit Tonle Bati and the zoo at Phnom Tamau.
Yes, Phnom Penh and its surroundings are worth more than just a day visiting!
Silk Weavers on Mekong Island
Mekong Island, or Koh Dach, is an island in the middle of the Mekong about 10 kilometers from the center of Phnom Penh. It is well-known for its silk-weaving villages and is an oasis of tranquility. Here you get to see real rural life at just a stone’s drop from the bustling capital: wooden houses on stilts, lush green rice paddies, fruit orchards, vegetable farms and even the odd ox and cart meandering along the road.
While wandering around you’ll hear the looms clack away in the shaded space under the stilted houses. It is possible to buy silk fabric here, but not in great quantities as all weavers are working to fullfil orders from businessmen in Phnom Penh. A few words of Khmer come in handy, as you’ll find not many islanders able to speak English.
In the dry season there’s a sandy beach at the northern tip of Mekong Island. Dubbed by some expats as ‘Phnom Penh’s Club Med’, food stalls cater for the hungry. You can have your lunch in one of the picnic huts. Very popular with locals.
Mekong Island can be easily reached by boats departing from Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh. Sailing to the island, wandering around and coming back to Phnom Penh will take about half a day. You can also drive over the Japanese Bridge onto National Road Number 2. After about 10 kilometers you’ll see small signs pointing to the ferry jetties.
Oudong, the old capital
About 40 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh along National Route 5, a mountain topped with the spires of stupas rears from the plain like a fairytale castle. This is Phnom Oudong, the old capital of Cambodia (from 1618 to 1866).
In the year 1866, it was abandoned by King Norodom, taking his royal court along with him to the current capital, Phnom Penh. As the capital, it was called Oudong Meanchey, meaning ‘noble victory’.
At the base of the mountain near the path, a memorial containing bones of some of the hundreds of bodies exhumed from a large Khmer Rouge killing field here has been built testament to the area’s bloody past.
After a 10 to 20 minute climb from the base of the mountain you will be able to witness a wonderful view down to the surrounding Wats, rice fields and floodplains. The music from the Wats often drift upwards from below to add some magic to this place.
You can then stroll between the peaks of the mountain to behold the majestic temples and stupas present there and that are steeped in Cambodian history.
Along Route 5, signs point the way to silversmithing villages, a legacy of the past when kings and nobility used to come to the Tonle Sap to bathe and the people would offer them delicate gifts fashioned from the precious metal.
Phnom Tamau Zoo
This zoo and wildlife rescue centre is 39 km southeast of Phnom Penh, along Road Number 2.
It was set up to preserve and rescue rare and endangered local wildlife including tiger, lion, deer, bear, peacock, heron, crocodile and turtle.
In recent years, it has been upgraded, and the sun bear enclosure is now one of the best of its type in Asia. There are also other rare species housed here, including several species of exotic birds. The geography of the sanctuary is quite interesting in itself.
At the start of each day the elephants are taken off their night chains and given their breakfast. After this they are given a wash and scrub. The keepers have been given instructions to clean well the insides of both rear legs, this is to prevent any build up of urine which in these climate conditions could lead to sores and rawness of the skin in that area from the elephants legs rubbing together as they walk.
Open: 8am to 4pm. Entrance fee is US$5 for adults and US$2 for children (2,000 and 1,000 riel for Khmer adults and children respectively).
Just before the turnoff to Tamau Zoo is Tonle Bati (turnoff at 33 km on Road Number 2), a lake and popular weekend destination and fishing spot. Close to this lake is the interesting temple site of Tonle Bati, which hosts two noteworthy 12th-century temples: Ta Prohm (don’t confuse this with a temple of the same name at Angkor) and Yeay Peau.