Tuesday, January 5, 2010


A few hours after we arrived Nick was ready to leave, but Cambodia’s capital did eventually grow on us. There is no visual allure, apart from some very gorgeous temples and the royal palace, so the appeal is in trying to figure out what’s going on here. Being aware of the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge creates a soft spot in the heart which encourages curiosity. When the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, the entire population was forced to leave the capital, and there is a sense of recovery from that harrowing time. There are some beggars with a variety of missing limbs, or no limbs at all. The city is low and spread out. The French built wide streets and there are long walls protecting government buildings and foreign embassies, making walking in the heat and humidity no fun. Luckily you can rent a tuk-tuk (like a golf cart) with driver for $15 a day. Unlike Bangkok, where the traffic is so bad that a tuk-tuk ride is a torture, here it is a pleasure, at just the right speed. Traffic, like in Hanoi, is creative. No one (but me) seems to mind a direct turn into the oncoming lane.
We stayed at the Casa Hotel (www.casahotel.net or look on www.asiarooms.com which will probably have a better rate) which was clean, comfortable and quiet ($40). Ask for a room facing the river. There is a pool on the 4th floor and some sort of weird casino/club/bordello (we never really figured it out) on the 3rd floor. One day we walked in and saw a man praying at a small Buddhist shrine in the lobby.
The Silver Pagoda is the main tourist sight in Phnom Penh, very beautiful. We didn’t visit the Khmer Rouge reminders of the Killing Fields or the Torture Museum, but bought some books and DVD’s to take home. There are not a whole lot of major attractions here, but we enjoyed riding around the city in the tuk-tuk. The shopping is not bad. The Central Market is a big deco-style dome that looks like something out of a 1930’s sci-fi movie. You can find clothes with DKNY and Calvin Klein labels (they use the cheap Cambodian labor) at very low prices. The so-called Russian Market has the best shopping for tourist goods—silk, lacquer items, Buddha sculptures. (We also ate one of our favorite things at a stall there—an omelet-like thing with bean sprouts and pork) The shopping highlight for me was The Mat Shop (No.5 Street 108, Sanghat Wat Phnom, near the river) which sells beautiful straw mats, used in houses and temples, in lots of colors and designs.
Cambodian food is similar to Thai, but less spicy. We ate twice at the Khmer Kitchen
(no. 41 Rue 310, corner of Rue 57)—be sure to go upstairs in this old wooden house.
We also ate well at Goldfish River Restaurant (on the river opposite Ph 106)--order the fish amok, the national dish served in a coconut shell
We also liked the Bali Café (379 Sisowath Quay) which has good Indonesian food on a balcony overlooking the river.
In general, the riverside scene, which sounds so nice in the guidebook, consists of a lot of foreigners sitting in wicker chairs drinking beer and limbless beggars pleading for a little piece of bounty. Rarely have I felt so rich and privileged, grateful and uncomprehending, as in Cambodia.
One night along the river we encountered a large crowd paying homage at a small Buddist shrine. Lots of flower and food sellers (including crispy cockroaches and tarantulas),beggars, and bird sellers (you buy one to set it free). Further down the river was an amusement park (near the Hotel Naga) with all kinds of rides and games and dozens of small eateries with only hammocks to sit in.
The other fun thing we did was to go to the movies one hot afternoon. We were attracted by the melodramatic poster outside the theater. This Cambodian-made film seemed to be a fairy tale about a village girl possessed by the spirit of a horse who manages to marry the local prince. It was full of great location scenes in Cambodian peasant villages contrasted with luxurious fake interiors of the royal family, all to a soundtrack of traditional music.
After 3 days in Phnom Penh, we were driven to Siem Reap (almost 5 hrs. away, $45 for car and driver). The ride was fascinating, passing through small villages and seeing only wooden and reed houses along the way. We went there on New Year’s Even to meet our friends Val and John and their 4-year old daughter, Ivy. Ivy was born in Cambodia and they were planning to visit the remote village where she was born.
In Siem Reap (the town nearest Angkor Wat) we stayed at the Bopha Angkor Hotel (book on-line through www.asiarooms.com)--a delightful place with lush gardens, a teakwood restaurant and a crystal clear pool. To visit the ruins, get a car and driver. I also recommend visiting the nearby “floating village”, a riverside community on/in the water—very poor, but fascinating. The ruins of Angkor Wat are amazing, but I felt that I might have been just as happy with a really good episode of the Discovery Channel. I guess I’m just not a big fan of ruins. We had a much more exciting experience last year renting bikes and heading out of town in the opposite direction a few miles, following the river and crossing over a bridge to ride along the dirt road and see the village life of rural Cambodia.
We flew back to Phnom Penh for one night and then back to Bangkok (check www.airasia.com for cheap flights in the region)

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