Photos from Phnom Penh

I seem to be very camera happy these days! Here are some more visual impressions from our time in Phnom Penh…

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City impression

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At the Royal Palace

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At the small museum at the Royal Palace

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Monks heading to the Silver Pagoda

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A fading mural depicting scenes from the Ramayana

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Incense offering

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Buddha’s foot at Wat Ounalom

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At Wat Ounalom

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Jewelry vendors at Central Market

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Nap time at the market

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At the national museum

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Street-side clothes stand

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One of the city’s many garbage collectors pulls her cart and child. The collectors pick up trash from house to house. They use a horn that sounds like a squeeze toy to let people know they are in the neighborhood. Part of Phnom Penh’s soundtrack is the constant squeak like one rubber duck after another was moving down the street.

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A driver naps under the shade in his cyclo

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Coconut and soft drink transport

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My kind of offering! (The coffee I mean, not the donut…) At a shrine in a cafe.

Phnom Penh: Accommodation, food and yoga notes

For better or for worse, Phnom Penh does a lot to accommodate Western tourists. While this left us with lots of food for thought, we also totally indulged in (way too much!) high quality international food, which I tried to balance out with regular visits to the two yoga studios I found (hurrah!). Here’s my notes for anyone who might be visiting Cambodia’s capital.

Accommodation

We stayed at Golden Gate Hotel, one of the many “Golden” accommodations on this particular tourist strip. The neighborhood was definitely for western visitors – tons of tuk tuk drivers ready and eager for your business and plenty of upscale options for food and shopping right outside the hotel’s doors.

Our room was a lot more expensive than what we’ve been paying for lately and probably a bit overpriced but still really nice. They had cheaper, smaller, less nice rooms but they’d been painted recently and the overwhelming chemical smell made us spring for a deluxe room. Perfectly clean, with tons of space, a good bathroom and a nice balcony, relatively fast and stable WiFi, and a decent, generous breakfast included in the price of USD 35 per night. The staff was also super friendly and helpful.

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Good eats

Anise
Anise Hotel was just down the street from us and wonderful place to grab a snack and a drink. The decor is elegant but comfortable and the outdoor seating is surrounded by gorgeous, luscious plants that offer shade and tropical ambience. Their super delicious brownie was my downfall.

Part of their profits go to an organization that helps street children.

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Lovely floating flowers at Anise

Saffron
High end, totally delicious Middle Eastern cuisine. Atypical but awesome hummus.

Soleil
Roman’s pick for espresso (and you know he has a discerning palate when it comes to coffee!), they also had lovely hummus and their chai frappe was my favorite way to cool off!

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Indian food – the real deal!!! Will probably blog more about this later. They’ve moved locations – LP and Trip Advisor are out of date at the moment so call them for directions. The food is worth it!

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Cute (Roman would say girly) cafe with good food, helping sex workers learn new skills and transition into a new life. Also includes a shop for home-made clothes, accessories, home goods and a simple mani/pedi business.

Yoga!

Oh, how good it felt to have a regular yoga practice again for a week! I am so grateful for all the yoga communities out there, and that I can slip in and be a part of them so easily when I find them, even if it’s just for a few days.

Both these studios were good, both also do a lot to give back to Cambodia and Cambodians.

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Western teachers, classes offered include Ashtanga and Vinyassa. It can be a bit hard to find if the sign isn’t put outside. Here’s a view from the street:

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Kundalini Yoga House
Western and Cambodian teachers in the 3HOKundalini tradition.

Perplexed in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is kind of a funny place. Roman and I spent over a week there, and the whole time we were trying to get our heads around what made it feel so different from other capital cities we have visited on our trip so far. Of course a week isn’t long enough to figure things out. I want to strongly caveat this post – I know there is so much more to this city that we can’t possibly know; but I can only write from my own experiences (and if you have a different impression of the city, I’d love to hear about it!).

We were struck by the proliferation of Western influence – the large number of high quality international restaurants, the cute and trendy cafes and bars, the feel-good NGO-run boutiques that seemed to be on every block selling purses and hair clips made from recycled material by disadvantaged women…

Of course there is a mixing of Western and local food, businesses, etc. every where we have been; between tourism and general globalization it’s inevetable. But in places like Vientiane or Delhi, it’s felt more organic to us. Bangkok is massively metropolitan and feels like a true international city – one that can encompass residents, visitors and influences from all over the world while still keeping its Thai heart.

In Phnom Penh, however, it felt to me like the pockets of Western-style business and values were somehow superimposed on the city. Although you see Westerners all over the place and most of the staff we encountered was Cambodian, whether at restaurants, monuments or shops, there was little feeling of integration in the neighbor hoods and businesses we saw. We did the city on foot and rarely encountered non-Cambodians on the street – inevitably the Westerners we saw were either at tourist spots or being shuttled somewhere in a tuk tuk.

The massive number of NGOs that are everywhere in the city are no doubt doing a lot of good for the people they are involved with, but their overwhelming presence, too, feels a bit weird. We’ve seen NGOs everywhere we’ve been, but never to this extreme extent. Roman helped to encapsulate why it felt somehow weird to us when he talked about how the West seems to be imposing its values here, and how different it might be if it was Cambodians who were choosing and directing their own protection, values, change and growth.

We wondered too, what it might be like if there was a larger middle class in Cambodia. As it is now, the divide between western-standard, westerner-friendly Phnom Penh and the city that is accessible to the most of its residents seems unnaturally large, even by South-East Asian standards.

Over all, we got a lot out of our time in Phnom Pehn and enjoyed many of the comforts the city offers to people like us who can afford it, but our visit left us with lots of questions we are still trying to find the answers to.

Photographs from Tuol Sleng

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My camera helped me deal with the visit to Tuol Sleng. Here are some of the photographs I took.


The prison used to be a school. Class rooms were converted into prison cells and torture chambers.

The photo on the wall is of the body they found in this room when the city was liberated.

The museum displays mug shots of hundreds of the victims. Of the thousands upon thousands of people who were held here, there were only seven survivors. Looking at the faces of the people photographed, it is difficult to wrap your mind or heart around what happened here.

Barbed wire everywhere

A sparrow perched on the barbed wire. Nature’s complete disregard for mankind’s whims was heartening.

Narrow cells built into the former class rooms

The only survivors of the prison

It was weird to be there with other western tourists. The contrast between the suffering and depravity that happened here versus our comfortable, safe lifestyles feels so surreal.

A photo in the museum of Duch, one of the higher ranking officials of the Khmer Rouge, has been defaced. I wonder what the writing says.

Tuol Sleng

I can’t sleep. Today we visited Tuol Sleng, the infamous high school turned prison turned genocide museum in Phnom Penh, and now I can’t sleep.

I’d been putting off going there, nervous that it would be too much for me, yet knowing that it was an essential part of our visit to this country and to understanding Cambodia. For this reason, I wanted to go. And for the desire to simply bear witness and through that to honor the suffering and loss of the people affected by everything that occurred during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Some advice from a fellow traveller (thank you!) helped me steady my nerves. Her suggestions helped – because of her tips I caught myself when I was holding my breath (which was often), took breaks in the open courtyard when I started to feel overwhelmed, and tried to take it easy on myself.

I took a lot of photos – the camera lens helped to create some necessary distance while the images I tried to capture helped me start to take in and process all that I was seeing.

Still, after over two hours there, my head hurt and my legs felt like they were filled with helium.

After we left, I distracted myself with food, shopping, music, internet. Now, lying in bed in the quiet and dark, my brain keeps turning over the things we saw and learned, trying to digest and discover some understanding. I keep coming back to the same simple questions: why and how?

There is plenty I still don’t know about Cambodian history, politics and culture. I am aware that the factors leading up to the reign of the Khmer Rouge are complex. I wouldn’t begin to lay blame on the people involved at the time who were forced to choose between participating in the murders, torture and other atrocities or themselves becoming victims of the same horrific fates. Who knows what any of us would do to survive?

But what I can’t comprehend is how circumstances, personalities and points of view could ever coincide in such a way that something like this could ever happen. How? How is senseless violence on such a scale possible? How does someone get to a point where they are in power and think taking actions and giving orders that result in the decimation of over 20% of their country’s population could ever be justifiable? The questions feel futile, but in my restless brain this word keeps echoing while sleep evades: why?

Pol Pot, head of the Khmer Rouge, is long dead at this point and the trials of leaders still living are mired in political complications and scandal; it seems answers and justice for the Cambodians who lived – and died – during the genocide may never arrive.

Food notes from Cambodia

While the beer and coffee I’ve had so far can’t compete with the deliciousness that is Beerlao and Lao coffee, we have had some pretty great food since arriving in Cambodia.

Recently I’ve been really enjoying the international fare that’s available in Phnom Penh, but for this post I want to keep it local. 🙂

Divine dining in Kratie

Halfway through our stay in Kratie, we discovered the restaurant at Balcony Guesthouse. If we’d found it earlier I am pretty sure we would have had every meal there!

They had western and other Asian food on offer, but I only tried their Khmer dishes. I can confidently say that every single thing I ate there was absolutely awesome. Quality ingredients and amazing flavors. I was in heaven!!

The first meal I had there had me in raptures. It was something called chaa kh’nay. With a base of succulent local river fish, the dish involved tons of tender fried ginger plus lots of garlic and spring onions – some of my most favorite flavors.

We had time enough in Kratie that I could try a couple of other dishes there, but the chaa kh’nay was my definite favorite and I was lucky enough that Pheak, one of the really friendly guys working there, invited me into the kitchen and translated for me as his sister, the cook, explained the ingredients and steps. The recipe follows below. I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet but I plan to do so as soon as I can get my hands on a kitchen! 🙂

Pheak mentioned they are planning on offering cooking classes. If you happen to be traveling in Kratie, I would definitely check it out! We ended up at another hotel, but were able to peak into some of the rooms as we went upstairs for dinner/breakfast and it seems like a cute, clean place. The open, 2nd storey restaurant has nice river views and is a lovely place to enjoy a fantastic meal.

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Bor bor, a simple but satisfying rice porridge that is a traditional breakfast in Cambodia (with regional versions to be found across much of Asia)

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Chay Seang Y – Cambodian herbal wine that is allegedly a cure all. Enhances kidneys, increases appetite (like I need that…), good against hyperthermia, urinary tract infections, lumbago and “does not cause any headache after consuming.” Tasted pretty much as healthy as it sounds.

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Chaa g’dao, chicken stir fried with fresh basil, lemon grass and chili. Was just the right amount of heat for me, with lovely, subtle flavors. Really tasty.

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The incredibly delicious Chaa kh’nay. Am drooling just looking at the photo. Seriously.

Chaa kh’nay

Ingredients

Lots of fresh ginger (as young as possible), probably about 5 inches worth, maybe even more.
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
Mild freshwater fish, cubed
Vegetable oil (my guess is 1 or 2 tablespoons?)
Fish sauce and oyster sauce (again a guess, 1 tablespoon each?)
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of salt
One green onion for garnish

Directions

Finely chop fresh ginger into thin strips. Pre-heat a pan on medium heat, then add oil and ginger. Cook until the ginger starts to brown, then remove the ginger from the heat.

In the same pan, add the fish and fry until brown. Then add the chopped garlic and ginger until (in the words of the cook) “It smells good.” The garlic in my dish was also nicely golden, if that’s a helpful indication.

At that point, add the fish and oyster sauce and a bit of sugar and salt to taste.

Remove from heat, garnish with green onion and serve with steamed rice.

Fruit!

There are loads of street vendors in Phnom Penh, selling everything from steamed snails to waffles to freshly fried noodles to massive green coconuts. There’s plenty of seasonal fruit for sale and I love the colorful carts loaded with all sorts of delicious things. Even after 10 months on the road I am still discovering new fruits and vegetables.

Today I picked up a bag full of snacks from a lady with a cart on our street. A kilo of fruit for around one US dollar. I ate a bunch while we were walking around; these were left overs long enough to be photographed. The lighting was no good so it’s not a great picture but there was no way they were going to last until sun up. 😉

From left to right, mangosteen (which just keeps getting even more delicious every time I try it. Must be peak season right now.), custard apple, which I got hooked on at Ritu’s in Delhi but which I haven’t seen for sale until Cambodia and rambuten, kind of like lychee’s punk rock cousin.

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First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

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Rice fields with palms

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Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

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Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

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Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

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Chinese landscape on the yuan

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

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Cambodian school and school children

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Nice bridge; even nicer car!