Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cambodia: Phnom Penh - the former jewel in Asia's crown - Part I

Everyone always talks about Siem Reap and Angkor Wat when they talk about Cambodia - and seldom Phnom Penh, the country's capital. As I haven't yet visited Siem Reap, I can't comment but what I can say is that you are planning a trip to Cambodia, do NOT overlook the city's capital.

In three days during our visit to Phnom Penh we embarked on a journey of beautiful moments, heart-wrenching sadness, mouth watering food and many questions and reflection.

Those fearing the mean streets of years gone by in Cambodia can put those fear asides. So long as you are sensible, you will have a great time. The people are kind but carry the burden of the tragedies of the past in their eyes whilst looking firmly to the future.

The best way to get around is by jumping on a tuk tuk and scooting around the city, people watching along the way. Highlights not to be missed are:

The opulent and gleaming gold Royal Palace in its beautiful and serene landscaped gardens...

A spot of mooching and shopping at the Central market where you can pick up everything from replica designer items to a snack of crispy fried spiders of larvae..

or visit the Russian Market which is stuffed to the seams with paintings, silk and home ware...

After zipping around, a good place to avoid the mid day sun is the National Museum of Cambodia which besides being housed in beautiful building is a place where you can take in Khmer art, sculptures and ceramics in a quick turn of the building.

If you feel the need to escape the city, you can charter The Butterfly for around $20 US dollars an hour. In a couple of hours you can head up the Mekong and see river villagers go about their daily life while sitting on something that pretty much feels like a floating garden patio!

And of course then there's the delicious Khmer food.  I was amazed at how good Cambodian food can be, given that eating has been for a long while a matter of survival rather than a pleasurable past time for Cambodians. Their cuisine is similar in style to Thai but lighter. If you only eat in two places in Phnom Penh, make it these:

1. Bopha Phnom Penh - Titanic Restaurant. Usually I would be dubious about going to any restaurant with the word Titanic in it but not in this case. This place is pretty breathtaking when you walk in - it's a vast, elegant and breezy space overlooking the river with fairy lights twinkling throughout.  The food here is hands down delicious Khmer cuisine. A must try is their Fish Amok - a curry local to Cambodia and their Water Buffalo with aubergine.

It's also a great place to catch some traditional Khmer dance which is at times pretty mesmerizing as you wonder how on earth they manage to get their hands at some pretty obscure angles- incredible!

2. Romdeng Restaurant. Not only does this place serve totally scrummy food in a lovely atmosphere  but it is also a training restaurant for former street children with the emphasis on building self-esteem and self-respect to youth - a cause close to my heart. In fact we loved both the food and the cause so much we went back 3 times in 3 days! Literally everything on the menu is so tasty and fresh it's hard to pick out a favourite, but the Khmer beef curry is a good place to start.

And when you're not eating there's plenty of bars to chill out or party in and who knows you might even be lucky enough to see an elephant saunter by as you relax with an Angkor beer!

One thing I didn't take photos of was the poverty that is evident at every corner you turn. Cambodia is a country struggling to move on from a past of seemingly never ending atrocities.

Corruption is still rife and poverty all around. The homeless women cradling their babies, the naked children running in the streets, the old ladies who can barely walk and the limbless - you will meet them all frequently. It's hard to deal with but I firmly believe that handouts are not the way forward.

If you are travelling to Cambodia, try to battle the guilt and instead give towards one of the many NGOs or micro finance organisations who are already doing good work to provide a hand up not a hand out to these people. A good place to start is to support one of the organisations funded by Friends International as listed here or to provide a micro finance loan however small or large through Kiva here.

We stayed in the Blue Tongue Hotel which was very clean and convenient with nice rooms, AC and a fantastic shower at exceptional rates and flew with Jetstar.  Don't forget to sort out your visa beforehand and change up some cash into US Dollar - it's the currency of choice.

Part 2 coming soon. :)


Kuen said...

How many countries left in SE Asia left to conquer?

Ms Demeanour said...

Hmmm yes I sometimes wonder - but let's hope there isn't a hitlist! All I know that the common theme is trade trade, oil and trade. ;)