During out first night in Phnom Penh, two bank guards shared their dinner with us after we showed curiosity in what they were eating. They invited us to take a few bites, told us the name of the dish in Khmer, and indicated how much we should pay for the dish to avoid being ripped off. Not quite what we were expected from a city from which we heard reports of “dark and dangerous.”
Phnom Penh’s streetscape had a different feel from what we had seen in Vietnam and Laos. It exhibited a South Asian feel with street markets, garbage heaps, people and transport all jumbled together in odd spaces. Dirt roads run right into well-paved and polished city streets while spiffy government/NGO SUVs share space adjacent to garbage scavenger cycles burdened with trash. Wealth and poverty stand juxtaposed, in the first act of a multi-act play whose ending has yet to be written.
There is a strong foreign NGO and expatriate presence in Phnom Penh, indicating that large amounts of donor money currently flow into the country. Unlike Vientiane, this cash doesn’t dominate the feel of the city, save a neighborhood or two. Refreshingly, Phnom Penh seems to retain its Cambodian-ness.
Several Cambodian organizations run social enterprises such as restaurants or beauty salons employing street kids who have gone through skills training programs. Patronizing these types of businesses is a good way to learn more about existing social and economic problems, while contributing to the cause.
Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts – we spent our first at the sobering Tuol Sleng museum and the next day at the beautiful and perfectly manicured Royal Palace. Tuol Sleng showed Cambodia at its bleakest, while the Royal Palace showed it at its most opulent.
The grounds of the Royal Palace were some of the most attractive we had seen in Southeast Asia. The bigger temples in the Royal Palace have all the gilt, shine and fame, but we preferred the smaller ones where local people prayed and made offerings for the coming Chinese New Year.
Burning For Luck
As Chinese New Year approached and passed, we spied altars in living rooms and shops decorated with everything from smoked chickens to flowers. In addition to the placement of odd bits on altars and spirit houese, locals get fired up by burning fake $100 bills, paper business suits, paper mobile phones, and paper houses. The idea: if you burn the paper representation, then you have a better chance of getting it in the new year. It got us thinking…what would we burn?
Phnom Penh – Lasting Impressions
We spent our last evening in Phnom Penh at Boeng Kak Lake, enjoying inexpensive gin and tonics and fish curry while watching the sun set over the lake and city. A peaceful and beautiful end to our stay in Phnom Penh. We were pleasantly surprised by Phnom Penh and could have easily stayed longer.
Video: Phnom Penh Street Scenes
Phnom Penh Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation, Food and Activities
- How to get there: By boat from Saigon or by plane from Bangkok (Air Asia), Saigon or other neighboring countries.
- Where to stay: Golden Bridge Hotel – clean, air-conditioned rooms for $13-$15/night in an area near the Independence Monument. The free laundry is a really nice perk, especially after the Mekong Delta tour. Run by a nice family. Address: No 7CD, Road 278, Sangkat Beng Keng Kang 1, firstname.lastname@example.org, +855 023-721396/7
- Where to eat: For a fix of really good huevos rancheros (rare in this part of the world), visit Jungle Bar on the riverfront. Inexpensive and good curries are on offer at guesthouses at Boeng Kak Lake.
- What to do: Spend an afternoon wandering around the temples and grounds of the Royal Palace. For a window on Cambodia’s recent history, visit Tuol Sleng for a sobering, but important afternoon.