Phnom Penh, a surprisingly awesome city
March 23, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
We were decidedly not looking forward to experiencing our first real Asian city, but Phnom Penh far exceeded our expectations. The weather and pedestrian non-friendliness notwithstanding, there were so many gems hidden around the city that we left feeling like there was still plenty more we would like to explore.
Phnom Penh Hotels
We ended up staying two nights at each of two hotels. The first two nights, we stayed at the Safari Hotel a few blocks away from the Central Market. The location was fine, although we needed to walk a few blocks toward the river to find good food and activities. The Safari was a fine place to sleep, but for the expensive pricetag ($24/night, including the fee for pre-booking on Agoda), it wasn’t luxurious or a great place to chill. The second two nights, we stayed at the Golden Sun Guesthouse, one of the hundred places on 278 Street. For $17/night, we had a mini kitchen (though totally unusable), plenty of windows, a desk in the room, and an awesome private balcony with plants and a table and chairs.
During our few days here, Phnom Penh has been a sweltering mess of a city. The technical term is “balls hot,” otherwise known as the type of heat where you dab a tissue on your face and neck to wipe away the dripping sweat and end up with a soggy tissue in 3 seconds. Considering this, it was almost comical that we decided to spend so much time attempting to walk around and get a pedestrian-paced view of the city. But, our walks and wild goose chases showed us some interesting things, and we got fairly shocking glimpses of the poorer neighborhoods and housing buildings that make NYC’s projects look like luxury condos.
Seeing these snapshots of poverty as well as the more modern and fancy buildings put an interesting perspective on the last several decades of Cambodian history. Especially here in Phnom Penh, the influence of the Khmer Rouge seems pervasive and visceral. Apart from just seeing the museums and memorials, there is the knowledge that Phnom Penh was effectively evacuated: within about 3 days of Khmer Rouge coming to power, Phnom Penh became a ghost town. On a purely physical level, buildings associated with education, history, culture, and religion were often destroyed. And with a quarter of the total Cambodian population dying during the 4 years that the Khmer Rouge was in power and the urban population being specifically targeted, there is no way to experience this city and this country without also understanding the impact of the late 1970s.
With all of those things said, our Phnom Penh slogan is “surprisingly awesome.” We had very low expectations for this city, and yet it is chock full of hidden gems – enough to make us interested in a trip back. There is a large expat community and an astonishing number of businesses geared to our sort of lifestyle – tons of great restaurants, yoga studios, arts centers, community spaces, etc. We came in with a list of places that people had recommended we check out and we hit many of them, but at the same time we realized how many others we wanted to see. If it weren’t for the piles of trash everywhere, the balls-hot heat, and the totally chaotic traffic, Phnom Penh would be incredible.
In and Around Phnom Penh
Transitioning from Laotian to Cambodian Culture
We arrived in Phnom Penh straight from the Laotian border (plus one very unpleasant bus ride), so it has been our welcome to Cambodian culture. It’s interesting to see some cultural differences right from the get-go. For example, here, people just say “hello” and look somewhat surprised if you attempt to say hello in Khmer (“soo sday!”), whereas in Laos EVERYONE would smile, wave, and call “sabaidee!” to you. On that note, we have been learning 3 or 4 key phrases in Khmer, and apparently intonation and vowel intricacies are key, and far beyond the ability of our western ears to distinguish. We also had amok (a food dish) a couple of times – it’s a local specialty and kind of like a thick coconut curry cooked in a banana leaf. On Don Khon (4,000 Islands in Laos), a dish cooked in banana leaves meant that the cook’s son dragged a giant banana leaf through the restaurant to the kitchen where it was cut as needed for your dish. Here, it means aluminum foil.
S-21 / Tuol Sleng Museum
S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Museum, was a high school that was coopted as a prison / torture center / interrogation center / concentration camp during the Khmer Rouge years from 1975 – 1979. Some 20,000 people passed through and died there or at the Killing Fields, and the museum is an incredibly powerful and poignant remembrance. The incredible documentation from the Khmer Rouge verges on sociopathic (not unlike that of the Nazis), and there are displays of thousands of “mugshots” taken when people were brought in, photos and paintings of torture, quotes and statements from the few survivors and workers, with opportunities to see the cells and jail conditions, the torture devices, and a small sampling of the bones and skulls there. Deep breaths…
Killing Fields / Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
One day, we got a tuk tuk for $12 (negotiated down from $20) to take us round trip to the Killing Fields, which was exactly that. Not a concentration camp, prison, etc. – but the place where prisoners were brought to be killed after there were no stories to extract, no tortures left to be delivered. And because bullets were expensive and they had killed off anyone educated enough to consider efficiency, killings were typically done with brutal bludgeoning, often with agricultural tools, so corpses or mostly-dead people fell into mass graves 5 meters deep with literally hundreds of bodies. Some 20,000 people were killed here over 3 years.The grounds are eerily beautiful – green, peaceful, serene. There are birds chirping, woodpeckers going by, trees flowering: all of this still happens… even here.
Visiting the memorial, like S-21, was a sobering moment, and the stupa that housed many of the skulls and bones was just bizarre to behold – each of these thousands of skulls was a father, mother, son, brother, child – now stacked in what looks like a multi-story fish tank of skulls inside of a religious monument. It is shocking to consider how similar this is to Museo de la Memoria in Chile, the Holocaust Museums in D.C. and Israel, etc. How do we, as humans, do this? How do we repeatedly, across countries and cultures, violate the very essence of our humanity?
Great Food and Cocktails (Necessary after the above)
Phnom Penh seems to be a mecca of fancy cocktails (especially after our travels the past few months). The Foreign Correspondent’s Club (the FCC) is the most known home of fancy cocktails, which are 2 for 1 during cocktail hour from 5 – 7pm and super tasty (oh how I miss a fresh gin cocktail). $12 for 4 cocktails, including tax and tip, seemed like a worthy splurge. The place across the street from the FCC is quite excellent as well, with the added perk of a 3-hour happy hour. The views from the terrace bars are lovely – people watching to street level and river views beyond that, although contrary to online reviews about sunsets, it seems to face east.
We also decided to embrace the good eats and expat/traveler culture and eat like kings for a few days. The two main areas that we explored were around Street 278, and the Riverside. Street 278 (where we stayed the last two nights) has a ton of cute westerner-oriented guesthouses and eateries. We had some totally decent Indian food, ridiculous green mango salad at a vegetarian place called Café Soleil, and ice cream (a few times) at the Blue Pumpkin – where the ice cream is fantastic but the cones are really worth writing home about.
At the end of Street 278 is the Wat Lanka. From the street, you can see an entryway of beautiful stonework framed by tangled phone wires and a messy array of street vendors that have a layer of perma-grime on their umbrellas. It is constantly shocking how beautiful the temples are, regardless of where they are or what their surroundings may be…. And here in Cambodia, whether they are new or refurbished since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
The other major hub of western/traveler/expat activity (that we saw) was on these couple of blocks by the river, right near the FCC and National Museum and Palace. We enjoyed a splurge meal at Friends Restaurant, where not only is the food terrific, but it’s a NGO that helps street kids learn how to job skills within the hospitality sector. They have a few different restaurants – apparently two in Phnom Penh where it started, as well as ones in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Vientiane (if I remember correctly). A few blocks away from this hub and hidden down a back alleyway, we need to give a special shout out to the Artillery Café, a hippie restaurant with amazing food that tastes like home (really great sandwiches).
The National Museum
Next to the Palace (we didn’t go in, but it’s quite pretty from the outside) and right near the Riverside area above, is the National Museum, which was a beautiful building with a colorful history thanks to the politics of this area. We have been seeing both Hindu and Buddhist things here, which we found confusing since Cambodia is now 90%+ Theraveda Buddhist. If I’m putting together the puzzle pieces correctly, it sounds like Hinduism & Buddhism were predominant in different groups, classes, and times, but often overlapped. So some people mixed them together, for example, following Buddha but then looking at the Hindu avatars as lower deities. Also, among Hindus, there was a division between Vishnu followers and Siva followers, and some people got creative and merged them into a joint Vishnu-Siva entity called Harihara. Fancy stuff.
The Central Market isn’t worth a special trip, but it was interesting to check out. It’s a weird giant art deco building with a preponderance of watches and surrounded by a sea of clothing shops. Apparently, here markets are much more known for cheap clothing than food, even though food markets can be much more fascinating.
Yoga in Phnom Penh
It appears that there are multiple yoga studios in Phnom Penh that gear toward expats and travelers. We chose one based solely on schedule and location and went to a yoga class at Yoga Phnom Penh with one of the owners, Alison. It was amazing. She didn’t hit much on philosophy, pranayama, meditation, etc., but as a physical asana-based vinyasa class, it was great. I don’t say this often, but her sequencing, flow, pacing, alignment, demos, creativity, and clarity were fantastic and we were so grateful for them. We both agreed that, hands-down, it was the best vinyasa class we have taken since we left New York 5 months ago.
The Pedestrian Experience
As Mitch put it, “Never have I seen such total disregard for traffic lights” – though there are few lights to start with, no one actually stops at them. The streets here may have been designed as French-inspired strolling boulevards, but now the sidewalks are just for parking motos or putting piles of stinking trash. The tuk tuk drivers are a bit aggressive (far more so than in Laos). They constantly ask if you need a tuk tuk, pester you if you say no or try to ignore them, and will even follow you slowly down the street as you walk. (To be fair, it was absurdly hot and we can understand their confusion that we wanted to walk.)
That said, the tuk tuks themselves are quite lovely. They have benches and carved wood details so you feel like you’re in an old school carriage, minus the horses. Between the motorbikes, scooters, bikes, cars, tuk tuks, pick-ups, trucks, and buses, to the untrained eye the streets are a veritable moving gridlock (which I am sure we will remember wistfully when we get to India). As a pedestrian, it seems the key is to cross the street at a smooth, steady, unrushed pace. And pray.
There seem to be three movie theaters for expat / traveler crowds here – Flicks 1, Flicks 2, and Empire. We saw a movie (Llewyn Davis, by the Coen brothers, did the opposite of making us homesick for NYC) at one of the Flicks theaters, which was an adorable 20-seat theater with comfy seating and lovely air conditioning.
Aerobic Calisthenics Classes (the Cambodian answer to Zumba)
We had heard that there are aerobic/calisthenics classes that happen at dawn and dusk. We were tempted to seek them out, but felt lucky (twice) to stumble upon this brilliant spectacle of Cambodian culture. It appears to be a low-impact zumba-inspired class led by an unenthusiastic dude with speakers (and generator). There are many such classes around the city (in some areas, they are closely packed and compete with each other), and they have a huge number of dedicated practitioners. I tried jumping in to see how it felt. Meh.
As usual, here’s the full set of photos for your viewing pleasure.