There’s no particular reason to visit Ta Khmao, which is reason enough in my book. In the spirit of George Mallory, I went visiting simply “because it was there”. Only 11 kilometres out of Phnom Penh, Ta Khmao is perfect if you want a glimpse of life outside the big smoke but you don’t have time to travel. Classified as the capital city of Kandal province, and home to the internationally performing dance and musical troupe Khmer Arts Ensemble, the pace of life is, nevertheless, pedestrian.
If you’re comfortable riding a motorbike on Cambodian roads, Ta Khmao makes for an easy spin out of town. Otherwise, negotiate a motodop or tuk tuk for half a day. Either way, head south down Norodom Boulevard, over the flyover and dao trong (go straight) until you reach Ta Khmao city.
While it may be small, Ta Khmao does have some points of interest for the casual visitor. The most bijou Cambodian town can usually boast a roundabout with some statuary. And indeed, across the bridge on a roundabout near the market, you’ll find a sparkly representation of Lok Ta Khmao, the Black Grandfather the town is named for.
Close by, the riverside promenade is a classic of the genre: some untended greenery, locals in a meditative state under the shade of a tree, occasional chickens. The promenade is bookended by a pagoda and a restaurant, both with a Chinese theme. The Shan Tai Zi pagoda is relatively new, built in 2000 with a striking river gate and a collection of artefacts outside. There’s a thoroughly gold coloured plastic-encased fountain and a working sundial. The temple’s rooftops are guarded by intricately detailed deities while the big attraction inside is the young god who provides blessings of health and success in business.
A few hundred metres down the waterfront, the Zhen Bao Palace restaurant is easy to spot — it looks like a ship that just pulled into harbour. Be warned that your budgets will need to be Titanic if you want to dine here. With a menu full of pricy seafood dishes (abalone for $120, anyone?) this place is more for entertaining clients than a quick chow down.
For those of more modest means, Papa’s Restaurant on the opposite corner sells soups and fried things with rice. Don’t be put off by the branded place mats and chopstick covers; this is a budget choice with the trappings of somewhere more expensive. The $3 lunch special includes a dish, a drink and a wet towel, served in the shady courtyard. If you prefer your plastic chair closer to the ground, then around the corner is a row of coffee shops, barbecue restaurants and beer gardens where you can adopt the local pace.
Before heading back, take the time to explore the country lanes outside the town, especially good fun if you’re on two wheels (the pagodas in Kandal particular can be photogenic). There’s no need to worry about getting lost, as anyone can point you in the direction of the city. Red dirt roads, wooden houses and chickens unheeding of the comic cliche will complete this snapshot of life outside Phnom Penh.
Zhen Bao Palace Restaurant
21B Zhen Bao Palace, Ta Khmao City
T: (024) 991 111
9 Street 21, Ta Khmao City
T: (077) 329 988
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 13th August, 2014.