We are cruising through the middle of Phnom Penh, a teeming city of 2.2 million people, along its main waterway and yet there are few other boats keeping us company. Eventually we pass a hulking commercial vessel carrying sand – dredging is one of the fastest growing industries in the Cambodian capital.
More commonly our neighbours on the river are part of a much older trade – one or two-men operations, hauling fish out of the water into their small wooden boats.
The peace and solitude on the stretch of the Mekong which pierces the city belies Phnom Penh’s status as one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. The reason dredging has become so lucrative is that the sand is used in construction which is booming in Phnom Penh as evidenced by the countless apartment blocks being erected across the city.
These condominiums are targeted mostly towards the city’s burgeoning ex-patriate community, with a recent report suggesting foreigners account for up to 70 per cent of condo sales in Phnom Penh. For better or worse, it’s swiftly becoming a more multicultural, cosmopolitan and Westernised city yet it remains a frontier land full of commercial opportunities just like the Burmese capital Yangon.
More and more multinational companies have recognised this and opened up operations there in recent years, driving the influx of ex-pats. That’s not to suggest the city has lost his soul though, as it remains distinctly Cambodian in nature, with its gleaming temples, lively street markets and laidback attitudes.
This confluence of modernisation and traditional Khmer culture has attracted more than just big international firms. It also has made it an appealing place for Western entrepreneurs, who see the huge untapped potential in Phnom Penh.
The vast open spaces of the Mekong, and its relative lack of traffic, was identified as one such overlooked opportunity by Belgian Sandra Rousseau.
The ex-pat noted the surprising lack of boat cruises along the Mekong in Phnom Penh, particularly short dinner and pleasure excursions marketed to tourists. While several-days long Mekong cruises offering on-board accommodation are popular all along the river, there are few shorter cruise options in Phnom Penh.
In 2011, as Phnom Penh began to take off, Ms Rousseau took her first steps into the tourism industry by starting Phocea Cruises. She concedes that it has not been easy building a business in Cambodia but says it has been a wonderful experience. She was intimately acquainted with the country and its culture by the time Phocea Cruises was launched, having moved to Cambodia in 1991.
A biologist, she worked for French medical humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres, arriving in Cambodia at a time of massive change. At that time, in 1991, a United Nations-brokered peace agreement had just been signed after years of bloody civil conflict in the wake of the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party whose followers had wreaked deadly havoc throughout Cambodia.
It wasn’t until 1993 that the nation began to move into a brighter era, with greater civil freedoms. Ms Rousseau watched these years of monumental change up close and is confident Cambodia is now steadily moving in a positive direction.
“The conditions are still difficult to do business in Cambodia, because of very moving and cumbersome administrative rules,” she said. “Similarly, the domestic market is still very tight. But it evolves extremely quickly, and especially keep in mind that Cambodia is part of ASEAN, the largest common market in the world.”
With the high supply of big cruise boats which offer multiple-day trips, Phocea Cruises is aiming to offer more intimate experiences.
“Our boats can accommodate up to 25 passengers for Phocea,” she said. “Thus, we stand out among the few other boats that offer mass cruises hosting more than 75 or 90 passengers.”
I appreciated this smaller scale on my two-and- a-half hour sunset dinner cruise of the Mekong. I was joined by a friend from Victoria who is one of the many Westerners who have been lured by Phnom Penh, relocating there four years ago and marrying a local woman.
The cruise departed from the city centre, at Sisowath Quay, at 5:30pm just as the intense Cambodian sun was nearing the completion of its daily arc.
At this time of day, the temperature drops to a comfortable level and the sky above Phnom Penh often is embellished by a wonderful array of colours. From on board a boat on the calm waters of the Mekong, Phnom Penh looks beautiful as it fades gracefully into the evening darkness.
The dinner cruise, which costs about $40 per person, comes with free flow soft drinks and a complementary Angkor beer, or a glass of wine or spirits. Additional beers are $3 each, with spirits or cocktails $4 and bottles of red or white French wine $40.
The dinner buffet offered entrees like freshly-made spring rolls, shrimp and Fish brochettes which laid the foundation for the more substantial offerings of chicken wings, pork ribs and fried noodles. - the fish and meat is barbequed on the boat.
We floated beyond the city limits, passing small fishing villages and farmland before turning around and re-entering the sprawl of Phnom Penh.
By the time we reached the city centre and the end of our voyage, the soothing rhythms of the Mekong had lulled us into a state of pure relaxation. I’m sure the beer helped too. In a flourishing city where the pace of life increases by the week, the Mekong remains unhurried.
- Phocea Cruises specialises in short Mekong River cruises, like its sunset dinner cruises which run every day from 5:30pm to 8:00pm.
- Phocea also does a range of day tours, including six hour tours to the Silk-making islands on the Mekong River near Phnom Penh, and eight-hour cruises to the ancient city of Oudong.
- Oudong, an overlooked attraction of Cambodia, is about 45km north of Phnom Penh and can also be reached by bus in about 80 minutes.
Published under license from Well Travelled