People walking by wide river lined with palm trees
Cambodia,  Just One Person,  Street photography

A Sunday evening by the Tonle Sap, Phnom Penh

On a Sunday evening the promenades along Phnom Penh’s two rivers, the Tonle Sap and the Mekong, are thronged with people. Families come out to enjoy the cooling air. Monks in traditional robes sit talking quietly in small groups. Boats ply the waters, ferrying their passengers to the opposite bank or on pleasure cruises.

Boats on a wide river, evening light
Where the Tonle Sap meets the Mekong
Small boat on a river
Fisherman on the Mekong
Three Buddhist monks in bright orange by a river
Monks by the Tonle Sap

And where there are people, others will be there to sell to them: flower sellers, fortune tellers, food hawkers, balloon sellers and more.

Freedom for sparrows

Near a temple we came across a woman selling live sparrows. Our guide Van explained that worshippers heading for the shrine would pay to have two or more released (never only one, because it would be lonely) and would make a prayer or wish as they flew off. She decided to buy the entire contents of one particularly small cage and did so, watched wistfully by a tiny kitten who had obviously been hoping one of the sparrows would somehow fall into his clutches. There were six birds in total, two each. So in turn we took our pair, held them gently (I had never held such a small bird before, never mind two!) and sent them on their way to freedom.

We were pleased to have released the birds from their imprisonment; although I later read that these so-called Merit Releases are not necessarily the act of kindness that they may seem. Many of the birds that are released are re-captured, only to be released, re-captured and released, ad infinitum. A cycle that can bring no good to the bird, whatever it does for the person releasing it.


With most people occupied with socialising, eating or both, it was easy to take the candid street photos I love. But there were other photo ops too, including a beautiful sunset over the Royal Palace.

Palm trees and birds at sunset
By the Royal Palace at sunset

When we saw this cute toddler riding in a basket at the front of his mother’s bike, Van offered to buy some of the prawn crackers the woman was selling in return for photos. The toddler seemed to think that the crackers were all his; he looked quite mournful when his mother handed us the bag. But after we had each had a couple of crackers Van passed the rest back to him, making him much more cheerful!

Little boy staring at camera
Hey, those are my prawn crackers!
Little boy staring at camera, holding cracker
A prawn cracker almost as large as his face!

A very young Person from around the world! So we left him to enjoy the crackers and headed off to sample some rather more challenging street foods.


  • Oh, the Places We See

    What a beautiful place for strolling and people watching. You’ve made me kind of sad with the story of the little bird, but I’ll bet it’s quite true. Still, I’m happy to have been treated to an evening in Phnom Penh.

  • SandyL

    Lovely collection of photos Sarah. Reminds me of the brief time we spent there. I remember the Tonle but mostly in the context of crossing it by ferry and almost dying of heat exhaustion 😉

  • maristravels

    Great post and lovely pix as usual. I did the bird releasing in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia amd each time felt it was a mistake. I think if we stopped doing this the sellers of these birds would have to give up their trade, but it’s hard to tell new travellers the things we’ve learned over the years without seeming too dictatorial.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m becoming more and more conscious about the impact tourism can have on animal welfare or the lack of it (I would never ride an elephant these days, for instance, although I did so many years ago). But I have a feeling we have relatively little impact on this particular activity as it seemed to me it was the local worshippers buying the bulk of the birds. In fact I don’t think I saw any tourists do so, apart from our guide Van buying them for us to release. So I suspect the practice would continue even without travellers participating.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Ahh, I just love the little one’s face … so sweet! Your sunset photo’s are also beautiful – you must have wonderful memories of your visit to Cambodia 📸.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, great memories of that trip 🙂 We started here in Phnom Penh, went up to Siem Reap, then flew to Luang Prabang. Various places in Laos over the next 10 days or so, then squeezed in about a week in Vietnam before flying home. The coronavirus was becoming an issue at that point but we never dreamed it would ground us for so long nor cause the devastation that it has 🙁


    What fantastic photographs- love the one that captures the bird in flight against the setting sun. We saw the “live bird” sellers in Luang Prabang, birds crammed in to a tiny cage. We so understand why you would have bought the whole lot and set them free, seeing them crammed in that cage is horrible. You did the caring thing regardless of what happens next…

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you very much for these nice comments 🙂 Yes, I believe it was good to release the birds – maybe one at least made it to permanent freedom!


            Ah, found it, read it – and I was pretty close with the Geordie guess. You can tell Chris that I’m also a big fan from a one-club city. Born and bred in Derby and a lifelong fan – was still a season ticket holder until just a few years ago, despite living in Herne Bay. And feeling just a little smug that I got the “toon” connection right!!

          • Sarah Wilkie

            Yes, there aren’t many that get the ‘toon’ connection 🙂 We were both season ticket holders for many years but since Chris’s parents died we don’t go up often enough to make it worthwhile and the switch from paper to plastic tickets made it much harder to pass them on to friends or relatives when we weren’t using them. Besides, these days (in normal times that is) it isn’t so difficult to buy tickets on a match by match basis so we usually do that when we go up.

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