Friday, March 18, 2011

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (2008)

I'm starting up again with the transcription of my old travel journals, with our trip to Cambodia and Vietnam in spring 2008.

We flew to Phnom Penh through Taipei so we had time for some Taiwanese snacks during our three-hour layover. We arrived shortly after noon and took a $9 taxi to the Pavilion Hotel. We tried to get some local money from the ATM but it dispensed US dollars! We were a little annoyed that we'd just paid extra fees to get the same money we could have brought from home, but laughed it off. We soon discovered that everyone did in fact accept USD and in fact gave change in USD, except for very small amounts, which were returned not in US coins but in paper "riel". The accepted conversion rate was 4000:1.

The hotel was quite nice, with decent air conditioning and solar panel heated water. The bathroom was new and clean. There were also prominent signs stating that sex tourists were not welcome. I guess it must be a pretty bad problem in Cambodia. There was a funny incident where D tipped the bellboy $1 for carrying our four bags; he was worried that it was too little, but realized it must have been too much as the boy was profusely grateful and was super eager to help us during the rest of our stay.

We left the hotel at 2pm to do some sightseeing...big mistake. It was very hot (probably mid-90s) and very humid. We went to the National Museum and Royal Palace, hoping for some time indoors, but were more impressed with the gardens than the (non air-conditioned) exhibits. We had some trouble finding the "silver pagoda" which turned out not to be silver.

National Museum:

Royal Palace:

For dinner we went to a restaurant called Khmer Borune. We ordered three dishes:
- lakh lakh beef: cubed chunks of beef with onions and tomatoes, served with vinegar-y sour pepper sauce, very good
- nataing pork: my favorite, cooked with coconut curry and served over crispy rice cakes
- palm sugar fish: served with a caramelized sauce (I didn't try it)

For dessert we were given free mangos, plus we ordered Khmer cake, which was also yummy; it seemed to have been made with coconut and maybe mung bean. Overall we were quite happy with our meal, and had a fun time chatting with a neighboring couple from New Mexico who had just returned from Siem Reap and gave us some useful tips, such as the going rate for tuk-tuks ($2).

After eating, we walked to the supermarket to get water, since we were still dehydrated despite drinking tons of water at dinner. Everyone seemed to cross the street completely haphazardly, so navigating the street after dark was a bit of an adventure. The streets were also a little sketchy looking, but luckily we didn't have far to walk to get back to our hotel.

The next day we were slightly jetlagged so we were up by 6am. We got ready in time to have an excellent free continental breakfast. My favorite item was the delicious fresh passionfruit juice with lots of crunchy seeds; it was a little bit like drinking pearl milk tea. The coffee was also very good, and there were baguettes and a nutty bread, served with fresh fruit, jams and good butter. Around 8am we started walking towards Wat Phnom.

It was about a 25-minute walk, but the weather was much nicer in the morning so we didn't mind. The wat itself was not spectacular but rather charming. The caretakers were very friendly and smiled at us a lot.

Afterwards we grabbed a tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which chronicles a lot of the atrocities that occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime.

It was sad and depressing but educational and I guess worth seeing.

We decided against going to the Killing Fields though; we'd had enough history by then and the tuk-tuk drivers were a little too eager to take us there. We got lunch at the adjacent Boddhi Tree Umma where the service was excellent and the (Western-style) food was fairly tasty. We had a nice conversation with an older American couple there who were living in Cairo. After eating we grabbed another tuk-tuk back to the hotel to hide out during the hottest hours of the day.

For dinner, we ate at a restaurant called "Friends" which is also a training program for street children. The food was good and we were hungry so we had a lot of it: sweet potato fries with chili mango sauce, pork and beef meatballs with rice, mango salad with sesame and peppers, "fish" cakes with rice noodles (refreshing!), and Cambodian chicken curry (good but generic). The portion sizes were large for tapas and we couldn't finish, but it was reasonably priced at $18.50 total, especially given that part of the proceeds were going to the training program.

We finally made it to the Russian Market after dinner, but we were less than impressed; the silk goods weren't of very high quality, and the sculptures and trinkets struck me as cheesy. There was an open air food court of sorts behind the market, where lots of locals were snacking, but there were tons of flies, so despite our usual affinity for street food, we passed.

On the way home we were stopped a block away by a police barricade. We couldn't figure out why until we saw a huge wedding next door to our hotel. They were playing surprisingly modern music (lots of guitar), and there were hundreds of guests, dozens of police cars, and everything was decorated elaborately with lots of flowers.

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