One of the best ways to see the fast-changing Phnom Penh skyline is from the water as the sun sets. Watch the neon lights of the capital flicker on rather dramatically as the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac rivers darken from milk chocolate to black ink from one of the array of boats offering sunset cruises.
Loads of operators offer various versions of the sunset cruise, some inclusive of drinks and food, others charging separately. We went on a trip in September 2015 with long-running Tara Boats, booked in advance for $26.
The price included all-you-can-drink alcoholic beverages such as wine, whiskey and beer (or soft drinks), plus chicken vegetable skewers and fried chicken, and a smooth, on-time hotel pick-up and drop-off by tuk tuk. (There was supposed to be champagne, but they were out of stock. There went that fantasy.)
According to their website, The Tara Prince was once owned by Cambodian Prince Norodom Sirivudh (snapped up for around $20,000, we were told), but we’re not sure the guide was sure which prince — we didn’t recognise the name when he thought long and hard and told us. Whoever once owned it, the leisure cruiser has comfortable seating for 30, though we were the only person to show up — we kept being surprised when yet another staff member emerged from the cabin below to enjoy the breeze (well, there were around five staff, which seemed excessive for one passenger).
As we motored down the river, city fishermen sat patiently with lines, and the hustle of the riverfront faded, though we could still see the facades of the familiar buildings looking rather interesting from this different angle.
Looking north, we could see the traffic zipping across the Japanese Friendship Bridge in the distance. The palace spires did the whole looking gorgeously majestic thing, while on the opposite bank, the enormous, monolithic Sokha hotel hulked tastelessly.
A little further along, the Nagaworld casino and its massive outdoor screen dwarfed the rather humble Buddhist Institute right next door.
Heading further south, the number of cranes multiplied dramatically, with a massive Japanese hotel project going ahead, our guide told us. At one point we counted at least 14 cranes swinging across what we could see of the city skyline — Phnom Penh is truly in the midst of a massive transformation.
As we sipped a second glass of white wine — our guide was heroic in his efforts to offer us another glass, or perhaps a whiskey, or more food — we headed further east to the far bank of the Mekong — passing the single Mekong Floating Bungalow and attached restaurant, which looked rather serene and enticing — as traditional fishermen tossed and hauled in nets against a rural rather than city backdrop. The juxtaposition from just a kilometre or two away was dramatic.
The sky darkened and the lights of the city gradually turned on in the distance. We spied only around a half-dozen other boats out on the water, with most plying the same approximate route but giving each other plenty of space — you won’t feel crowded in low season, that’s for sure, though in the November-December high tourist season, we can imagine that at least embarking and disembarking at the pier might get a bit crazy.
Lightened crackled in the distance over the Mekong as we turned back to the city, the pink, green and blue disco lights of the Sokha flashing as a front of dark clouds rolled down the horizon. Vattanac Capital, Cambodia’s tallest building, and the Canadia Tower dwarfed the rest of town and we slowly motored back to where we started.
This is a very chilled out way to see Phnom Penh from an unusual angle. You’ll get a real sense of the overall size of the city — and the vast expanse of the countryside surrounding it.
You can find a boatman to negotiate directly with if you've got a few people for a better rate, but if you’re alone, a tour can work out well — you can’t get much more exclusive than a boat meant for 30 all to yourself.
Tara Riverboat: (012) 921 830; taraboat.com