Tag Archives: Backpacking

Captivated by Cambodia: A Travel Guide

Thailand is known for its spicy curries, the Philippines for its white sand beaches, and Vietnam for its lush landscapes, but there is something about Cambodia that draws one in and compels one to stay. What is it about Cambodia that I find so appealing?

1171256_454585478077083_1028972287_n

Cambodia is a country of contrasts: a country of ancient civilization and adolescent citizens, local markets and foreign boutiques, of homegrown circus performers and international film stars, of old line politicians and avant-garde artists. Read on to discover the experiences that await you in Cambodia!

Siem Reap
Siem Reap is the most touristy and my least favorite city in Cambodia, but is worth a visit because it is home to the Angkor ruins, an ancient complex dating back nearly a thousand years. From 900 to 1200 A.D., Khmer kings ordered the construction of thousands of Hindu and Buddhist temples.

IMG_3795.JPG

If you have one day, make sure you see sunrise over Angkor Wat, the smiling faces of Bayon, the sandstone carvings of Preah Khan, and The Tomb Raider tree at Ta Prohm. If you have three or more days, you can admire the intricate carvings at Banteay Srei or reenact scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark at Beng Melea. After a long day at the Angkor temples, unwind at ABBA Café’s rooftop lounge, eat a tasty vegetarian meal at Banllé Vegetarian Restaurant or Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant, or sample the homemade ice cream at The Blue Pumpkin. For more information on the Angkor temples, suggested sightseeing itineraries, and accommodation and restaurant recommendations, read my guide to Siem Reap.

12627962_1522702461364172_1045649232_n

Phnom Penh
Many travelers will tell you to skip Phnom Penh, but I had a lovely time wandering around town, going on self-guided tours of the city, exercising along the riverside, and unwinding at the cinema.

Royal Palace (3)

Travelers interested in Cambodia’s history can browse the ancient Khmer artefacts at the National Museum of Cambodia or listen to guides’ stories about life under the Khmer Rouge at Choueng Ek (the Killing Fields) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly the S-21 Prison). Architecture buffs and the spiritually-minded should check out the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Wat Botum Vatey, and Wat Ounalom. For those interested in people watching, take a stroll down the historic riverside of Sisowath Quay at dusk or participate in a group exercise class in Royal Palace Park or Wat Bottom Park at night. Travelers looking for more relaxing activities can attend a movie marathon at one of The Flicks Community Movie Houses or experience a 4D movie at Aeon Mall. For more details on the sights, entertainment choices, and international dining options Cambodia’s capital city has to offer, read my guide to Phnom Penh.

Battambang
While the bulk of international tourists’ exposure to Cambodia is limited to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the country has much more to offer. In my mind, no visit to Cambodia is complete without a visit to Battambang. Cambodia’s second largest city, it feels much more like a small, sleepy town and, as such, is easy to explore on foot. Due to its burgeoning art scene, Battambang is gaining recognition as the creative capital of Cambodia. Attend a performance of Phare the Cambodian Circus or take a self-guided tour of Battambang’s art galleries.

12751274_957131341069340_969951425_n

The attractions around the city can easily be seen by way of a one-day tuk-tuk tour. Don’t worry about booking transportation in advance, as a horde of tuk-tuk drivers offering tours will mob you the moment you step off the bus from Siem Reap. You will start your tour with a fun ride aboard the Bamboo Train before climbing the 360 stairs to the top of Wat Banan Temple. After lunch, your driver will take you the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, one of the sites of the Khmer Rouge’s mass executions. You will end the day by witnessing the breathtaking phenomenon of thousands of bats flying out of the Bat Cave at sunset. Look at my guide to Battambang to hear about the city’s emerging art scene, read restaurant recommendations, and learn which celebrity was directing a movie during my visit!

Kampot
If you’re looking for rest and relaxation, Kampot is the place for you! Kampot, a charming town famous for its pepper and riverside setting, was my favorite place to visit in Cambodia. My friends and I spent four wonderful days eating terrific food, dining at cute cafés, watching movies at the cinema, chilling by the river, and exploring the 19th century French colonial architecture.

kampot-4

For great views of the river and terrific food, stay at Samon’s Village. Stop by Wonderland for Belgian ice cream and homemade popsicles or spend a lazy afternoon brunching, snacking, and reading at Epic Arts Café. Enjoy Mediterranean tapas with local, nutritious, and vegetarian ingredients at Deva Café or grab bread and croissants on the go at L’Epi D’or Bakery & Café. If you’re missing watching movies at home, you and your friends can rent a private movie room at Ecran Movie House or buy a day pass to watch the three movies it screens daily. Hungry? You can order hand-pulled noodles and homemade vegetable dumplings from Ecran’s restaurant. For more detailed travel recommendations, read my guide to Kampot.

the-river-10

Chi Pat
Travelers looking to experience the “real Cambodia,” should arrange a stay with the Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) project in Chi Pat village, located amidst the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong Provice. CBET aims to protect the Cardamom rainforest and provide inhabitants income-generating opportunities by transforming former loggers and wildlife poachers into tour guides, guest house owners, and taxi drivers. CBET offers travelers trekking, mountain-biking, kayaking, and camping expeditions through the jungle, as well as opportunities to stay at homestays in Chi Pat village. For detailed information about how to get to Chi Pat, what to do there, and what to expect, read my guide to Chi Pat.

img_0293

Sihanoukville
As Cambodia’s top beach destination, Sihanoukville is much more expensive than the rest of Cambodia. While I do not find its beaches as beautiful as those in Thailand or the Philippines, they have white sand, warm water, and calm waves which make them ideal for sunbathing and swimming. Plus, with fewer crowds the only sounds you’ll hear are the breeze blowing, waves lapping against the shore, and the occasional snack seller hawking her wares.

12530868_235315293485504_1024241293_n

Travelers wanting to get away from it all can stay on one of the islands off of Cambodia’s coast, such as Koh Rong Samloem (not to be confused with the party island of Koh Rong) and Koh Ta Kiev, but beware as the islands have limited hours of electricity, bucket baths and Asian-style toilets, and no wifi. Personally, my top choice in Sihanoukville for fun in the sun is Otres Beach because of its many shade-providing trees, laid-back environment, beachside restaurants, and Cambodian vacationers. You don’t have to leave the sand to enjoy a brunch of Eggs Florentine or Baked Eggs at Sea Garden or appreciate the homemade pizza, pasta, and cheesecake at Pappa Pippo. Other nice beaches include Sokha Beach and Independence Beach. You can use Holiday Palace Resort’s day beds if you buy a drink from Palais Coffee; Palais makes a yummy Ferrero Rocher Frappe.

12816969_933752960072389_1574731729_n

Last but not least, travelers interested in developing or deepening a yoga practice can attend a yoga and meditation retreat at Vagabond Temple. Retreats are open to beginners and advanced practitioners alike. The Temple also offers detoxification programs, Reiki courses, and healing sessions.

12825998_586682151488946_868439147_n.jpg

More Guides to Cambodia:
Guide to Siem Reap
Guide to Phnom Penh
Guide to Battambang
Guide to Kampot
Guide to Chi Pat
Vegetarian Guide to Cambodian Cuisine

 

 

Advertisements

Bats, Boutiques, and Billionaires: A Guide to Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s second-largest city, but it feels much more like a small, sleepy town. Upon your arrival, the view of the Sangker River flowing lazily by the city greets you.

What to See
Start by seeing the sights on foot through a self-guided walking tour. Khmer Architecture Tours has free downloadable maps on its website. While the tour stops are not particularly memorable, the maps provide a nice introduction to quaint Battambang. That the numbered streets and roads (Roads 1.5 and 2.5 among them) neither run precisely east to west nor north to south only adds to the locality’s charm.

Due to its burgeoning art scene, Battambang is gaining recognition as the creative capital of Cambodia. Leading the cultural revival is Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a nonprofit organization formed in 1994 by nine students and their art teacher when they returned home from a refugee camp after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s rule. PPS provides over 1,700 students with arts education through its public, art, music, and theater schools. Many of its graduates perform in Battambang and Siem Reap through Phare the Cambodian Circus, a Cirque-du-Soleil-esque show combining Cambodian stories, theater, dance, music, and circus arts.

12568823_920070424779632_674095560_n

Beyond PPS’s students, there are a number of artists-in-residence in Battambang including the unforgettable Marine Ky. Raised in France after her family fled the Khmer Rouge, Marine returned to Cambodia in 2000. Her textiles combine Western and Khmer printmaking techniques and explore the journey from genocide to inner peace, happiness, and harmony. Marine welcomed us into her gallery and her home with a presentation of her artwork, a pot of tea, and tales of her life, and sent us away with embraces and mandalas for protection. To embark on a self-guided tour of Battambang’s art galleries, check out the following guides by Granturismo, Move to Cambodia, and Bric-a-Brac.

Battambang is not only home to local artists, but also to international performers. Movie star Angelina Jolie owns a house in northwestern Battambang which she purchased after the adoption of her oldest son, Maddox, from Cambodia. During my visit to Battambang, the town was abuzz with preparations for the shooting of First They Killed My Father, a motion picture directed by Angelina based on the memoir written by a childhood survivor of the Pol Pot regime. Even though I was more than a little disappointed when my submission to the movie’s open casting call and my dreams of stardom went unanswered, a few friends and I managed to sneak onto the movie set and witness Angelina in action.

Spend a few days wandering around Battambang and soaking in the art and culture scene, and then hire a tuk-tuk to see the attractions outside the city, namely the Bamboo Train, the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, the Bat Cave, and Wat Banan Temple. The Bamboo Train is a touristy but entertaining excursion where bamboo rafts powered by gas engines transport passengers seven kilometers through the countryside along metal rails.

The Killing Caves – one of the sites of Khmer Rouge mass executions – provide a sobering look into a human tragedy, while the Bat Cave exhibits one of nature’s wonders. At sunset every day, thousands upon thousands of bats fly out of the Bat Cave to feed, a breathtaking phenomenon to behold. If you drive down the road, you can watch the bats soar over the rice fields and disappear over the horizon. During my visit to the Bat Cave, we were equally astounded by the spectacle of two of Angelina’s children, Shiloh and Pax, standing before us.

I expected to be tired of Khmer temples after three days of touring the Angkor ruins, but Wat Banan was worth the visit. The temple dates back to 1050 AD, even before Angkor Wat, although it was rebuilt in 1210 AD. Like many of the Angkor temples, it was originally dedicated to Hindu gods before its conversion to a Buddhist temple. That its four towers are still standing is a miracle as they look ready to collapse at any moment. Luckily they remain erect, giving visitors the opportunity to examine the captivating carvings adorning their exteriors. Climbing the 360 stairs up to the temple can pose a challenge, but results in a rewarding view of the surrounding countryside.

Where to Stay
Hostel BTB Cambodia is so new that it was still being built during my visit to Battambang. Don’t let that deter you, however. Despite construction, the dorms and bathrooms were clean and the showers were hot. The owner is very knowledgeable about the area and can share with you a number of things to see beyond the main tourist attractions. He helped us book bus tickets to our next destination and offered us a resting place when our bus decided to show up not one, not two, but three hours late. At $3 a night, Hostel BTB Cambodia is a steal!

Where to Eat
The Kitchen’s Coconut Strawberry Freeze and Fish Taco Salad are the perfect antidotes to a long day of traveling. You can sit and eat in the downstairs café or browse the exhibits in the upstairs art gallery. Apart from the Mexican food at The Kitchen, you can get decent Spanish tapas at The Lonely Tree Café and tasty Indian food at Flavors of India. Pay a visit to White Rose for fruit shakes, my favorite of which is the creamy pineapple, banana, and soursop shake. For prime people watching, get a drink at Bric-a-Brac, a boutique which specializes in Asian cookbooks and hand-made tassels, textiles, and scarfs (perfect gifts for your family and friends after your trip to Cambodia!). Every evening, the shop transforms its storefront into an al-fresco wine bar. Lest I forget, no visit to Battambang would be complete without tasting the divine chocolate hazelnut cake at Choco L’Art Café.

Finding ‘The Lost Room’

When I heard about The Lost Room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the name immediately intrigued me. Hidden in a back alley, The Lost Room serves a selection of Australian and internationally influenced small plates meant for sharing. Although it has a limited menu, its staff happily offer recommendations and cater to a variety of dietary restrictions including vegetarianism, veganism, and gluten-intolerance.

IMG_2002
My friends couldn’t wait to sample the food at The Lost Room!

My friend and I ordered an assortment of “keys” or dishes, including the Pear & Blue Cheese Parcels, Feta Bouyiourdi, Crab Cakes, Pan Fried Sea Bass, Roasted Caramelised Pumpkin, Pan Fried Green Beans, and the Rich Chocolate Pot. A complimentary basket full of bread accompanied by garlic confit arrived first. We appreciated the warm and crusty bread, but the confit would have made a better spread with the addition of oil and salt. The parcels were served with a mango-basil purée which pear-ed nicely with the pungent blue cheese. The succulent red and yellow peppers similarly complemented the savory olives and salty feta cheese in the bouyiourdi dip. While I remained a fan of the mango-basil purée, the crab cakes which it came with were mushy and lacking in texture. My friend, a Maryland native, complained that they were missing the freshness of crab cakes back home. The sea bass was savorless by itself but appetizing when combined with tartar and herb gremolata. As for the vegetable sides, the roasted pumpkin was dulcet, pleasant and sweet, but the green beans topped with garlic confit were bland and in need of salt. We ended our meal with the chocolate pot, sweet chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream.

Clockwise from top left: The Lost Room, Pan Fried Sea Bass, Rich Chocolate Pot, The Lost Room decor, and Pear & Blue Cheese Parcels and Crab Cakes

Overall, my experience at The Lost Room was enjoyable but not outstanding. Service was prompt, the atmosphere was classy, and the staff was cordial, but most of the fare was underseasoned and pricey given the tiny portion size.

Seeing the Angkor Ruins: A Guide to Siem Reap

Siem Reap is my least favorite city in Cambodia, but is worth a visit because it is home to Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former capital city of the Khmer Empire (802 AD to 1351 AD). Read on for recommended accommodation, restaurants, and sightseeing itineraries.

12383368_721845327919025_771388959_n

What to See
Angkor, encompasses thousands of temples, notably Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. Having declared themselves devarajas (Hindu god kings), Khmer rulers built the temples as monuments to Mount Meru, the divine residence of the gods. With the adoption of Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, the majority of shrines were converted from Hindu to Buddhist. Construction of the renowned Angkor Wat began in the 12th century under King Suryavarman II and continued under King Jayavarman VII.

12716573_677188409088252_604917784_n

If you have one day, make sure you see Angkor Wat, Bayon, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan. The main attraction, Angkor Wat, presents a gorgeous sight at sunrise. Arrive early in order to purchase your tickets and avoid the crowds. After taking photos of the sun climbing above the front temple’s towers, walk across the bridge and enter the temple complex where you can capture the classic photograph of sunrise over the reflecting pool.

12627962_1522702461364172_1045649232_n

From Angkor Wat, visit Angkor Thom, a city within a city featuring numerous places of interest including the South Gate, Terrace of the Elephants, and Terrace of the Leper King. At the center of Angkor Thom sits Bayon, recognizable for the 216 smiling faces sculpted into the temple’s towers which may represent Jayavarman VII or the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Next head to Ta Prohm, the temple made famous because of its appearance in the movie Tomb Raider, a Hollywood film starring Angelina Jolie which significantly boosted tourism to Cambodia and Angkor in particular. Then move to Preah Khan, my favorite temple because of how time has transmuted the sandstone carvings into pink and green reliefs. I felt like an adventurer exploring uncharted territory as I darted over fallen stones, ducked under low doorways, and sprinted through the House of Fire and the Hall of Dancers.

12748273_1677131779224583_1602315397_n

With three or more days, you have time to visit the more distant temples like Banteay Srei, which is celebrated for its intricate carvings, and Beng Mealea, which is often referred to as “the Indiana Jones temple.” Beng Mealea is what Ta Prohm would look like if archaeologists had not completed any restorations. Nature has made its presence felt through vines and trees growing in the temple courtyard and the piles of rubble surrounding the temple’s perimeter. As seeing temples day after day can become repetitive, I suggest selecting different transportation modes to vary your sightseeing experiences. My friends and I biked to the closer temples on the first day, hired a guide and rode in tuk tuks to the main temples the second day, and drove scooters to the far-off temples on the third day.

12558663_1693411824209330_880223408_n

Know Before You Go
You can purchase a one-, three-, or seven-day pass for Angkor for $20, $40, or $60, respectively. For multiple day passes, you do not have to visit the temples on consecutive days, only within the same week. Beng Mealea requires a separate entrance fee of $5. Bring lots of water and sunscreen as temperatures can reach 104° F/40° C during summer and there is little shade within the complex.

12716556_1506376499668554_271507514_n

If you are visiting Angkor after having stopped at other shrines in the region, know that unlike the wats in Thailand and mandirs in India, the Angkor temples are not functioning religious sites. As I was expecting a more spiritual atmosphere, I was disappointed by the overwhelmingly touristy environment. I was equally disheartened by the poor condition of the buildings. Notwithstanding its recognition as a shining exemplar of Khmer architecture, conservation of Angkor edifices has been lacking. Where restoration work has occurred, it has largely been paid for by foreign governments, which is a shameful indictment of the Cambodian government.

12599082_185815231781990_229187804_n

Where to Stay
Backpackers and budget travelers should stay at Onderz Hostel. Both times I visited Siem Reap I stayed at Onderz because of its cozy beds, powerful air conditioning, cheap breakfasts, and rooftop pool. During my first visit, I had one complaint about the cleanliness of the bathrooms but management quickly remedied the problem.

12907400_1098118233579094_259151529_n

Where to Eat
After a hot day touring Angkor Wat, enjoy dinner or a drink while relishing the cool rooftop breeze at ABBA Café. ABBA’s menu comprises a small number of dishes from Cambodia, Korea, Japan, and Italy, which the kitchen is more than willing to modify to accommodate various dietary restrictions. Vegans and vegetarians should stop by Banllé Vegetarian Restaurant or Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant. While Banllé’s verdant scenery, comfortable couches, and nutritious, delicious food make it a tranquil spot for lunch, you can’t go wrong with Chamkar’s Wedding Dip and the Pumpkin Curry for dinner. For a romantic setting, good food, and great service, make a reservation at Haven, a vocational training restaurant for disadvantaged Cambodian youth. Vegetarians should try the Zuri Gschnetzlets with Swiss Rosti. For cheap local food ($3-5 for a meal), check out the small restaurants surrounding the Old Market and on 2 Thnou Street (near Pub Street). Last but not least, pop into The Blue Pumpkin for dessert and sample its homemade fruit ice creams and fresh fruit sorbets with refreshing flavors like strawberry, passion fruit, mango, and Khmer fruits.

Dining in the Dark: An Eye-Opening Experience

During my last visit to Phnom Penh, I had a novel experience eating dinner at Dine in the Dark, a restaurant where diners experience eating a meal in complete darkness with the assistance of visually impaired guides and servers. Guests pick from three set surprise menus, the contents of which remain unknown until after dinner when the dishes are revealed to them. The prospect of a culinary adventure thrilled me as I have heard that not being able to see heightens the other senses, including taste.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I was seated in the garden lounge where I ordered a mocktail and a vegetarian three-course menu. The hostess placed my phone and camera in a lockbox, and then introduced me to my guide for the night, Freddo. I took hold of Freddo’s shoulder as he led me up a flight of stairs and into a pitch black dining room. After helping me to my seat, he directed my hands to my plate, cutlery, drink, and glass of water.

Did 9.jpg

A short while later, Freddo announced that he had arrived with my appetizer. I detected a vegetable with the consistency of green beans covered with a slimy substance. I tried to pick up the food with my utensils, but without my sight to rely on I kept narrowly missing it, forcing it to slide across my plate. After a few failed attempts to spear the not-beans with my fork, I resorted to using my hands. As I was licking my fingers clean, Freddo returned. Even though he couldn’t see me, I blushed at my lack of table manners.

I waited in silence for the entrée to arrive. Since Freddo was proficient in English, I tried to make small talk with him. He was sweet but shy, and left after a short while to check on my food. He came back with my main course. It had a gelatinous consistency – not quite liquid, not quite solid. I guessed that it was a curry of some sort, especially as it was accompanied by rice. I tried to spoon the rice and maybe curry onto my plate but dropped rice everywhere. In the dark, I felt like a toddler sitting in a high chair, making a mess for my parents to clean up.

Did 7

Freddo returned to clear my plate. He reappeared with dessert, creamy and fruity deliciousness which I devoured all too hastily. When he came again, he asked if I needed anything. I replied that I was fine and awkwardly continued sitting there, not realizing that the meal was over and I could return downstairs. I had assumed that the grand unveiling would take place in the dining room with a flick of the lights and a collective gasp. I finally grasped the situation and asked Freddo to escort me downstairs where the hostess showed me beautiful pictures of my meal on an iPad. I could tell you what it is, but you’ll have to try it for yourself to find out!

DiD 3

Having dinner at Dine in the Dark certainly was an interesting experience. Eating in the dark and speaking with Freddo provided me with a glimpse into a blind person’s life and raised awareness of the limited job prospects for the blind in Cambodia and in other countries. I realized how much I relied on my sight to have a meal, and how differently visually impaired people must perceive the world. Dining alone in the dark also made me appreciate eating’s social aspects. As an avid foodie, the food guessing game fascinated me. For that reason, I was hoping that there would be more discussion of the fare served after the meal. Without a smartphone or a book to distract me, the wait times for the various courses seemed interminable. A dining companion would certainly have remedied these problems. If you’re game for an unusual and thought-provoking dining experience, book a table at Dine in the Dark, but make sure to take a friend with you!

Dine in the Dark
Freddo, my guide, and I

Images courtesy of Dine in the Dark

Weekly Vegetarian Find: Chamkar House Vegetarian Restaurant

Vegetarians rejoice, Siem Reap has multiple vegetarian restaurants just for you! Chamkar House Vegetarian Restaurant is one such restaurant with two branches, one on Alley W near the Night Market and the other on National Road 6. I frequented both branches during my stay.

Chamkar House Vegetarian Restaurant on National Road 6

My first night in Siem Reap I ate dinner at the branch near the Night Market. Situated in an alley, it can take some searching to find Chamkar Restaurant but the hunt is worth it. I ordered the Wedding Day Dip and the Cambodian Pumpkin Melody. Packed full of peanuts and with a base of coconut and mushroom, the Wedding Dip tastes like a vegetarian version of satay and is a must-try for peanut butter fans. The Pumpkin Melody combines yellow coconut curry with sweet pineapple, hearty pumpkin, crunchy peanuts, and minty basil. Both dishes were flavorful, yet comforting and were complimented with nutritionally dense brown rice, a treat in the land of white rice.

IMG_1416Cambodian Pumpkin Melody and the remains of the Wedding Day Dip

The newer location has open-air seating, a spacious foyer, nature-inspired décor, and an organic garden in which it grows many of the vegetables on its menu. Instead of a traditional bread basket, diners receive complimentary sweet chili popcorn. After devouring the sticky starter, I tried the Crispy Veggies as an appetizer, consisting of lightly fried vegetables including the usual suspects – carrot, squash, bell pepper, and onion – and a few surprises – ginger, sweet basil leaf, baby corn, and Frangipani flower. I was surprised that a restaurant which cited the Slow Food International Association on its menu listed tempura as an appetizer, but the vegetables tasted garden-fresh despite being fried. For my main course, I sampled the Truly Rooty, crunchy cassava fritters with fruit sauce and mango chutney on the side. While I liked the mango chutney, the fritters themselves lacked flavor.

IMG_1762
Crispy Veggies

Be warned, multiple fried dishes are not for the faint of heart. I struggled to finish the fritters after having eaten the tempura. Not to worry as Chamkar has an extensive menu. I look forward to checking out its other offerings, for example the vegetarian Biting Amok, Monsoon Salad with yam, mushrooms, rice noodles, and tofu, or signature Rediscovering Tofu with pumpkin, curry, and toasted peanuts. In touristy Siem Reap, Chamkar House Vegetarian Restaurant is a solid option for vegans, vegetarians, and foodies.

IMG_1768
Truly Rooty

Puttering around Phnom Penh: A Guide to Cambodia’s Capital City

Many travelers will tell you to skip Phnom Penh, but it was one of my favorite places to stay while in Cambodia and a place I can easily imagine living for a few years. While backpackers decry the city as dirty and hectic, I found the city to be much less chaotic than other Asian metropolises. With a population of 2.2 million people, Phnom Penh is a small and manageable city; it has far fewer residents than Bangkok (14.6 million), Ho Chi Minh (9 million), and even Washington D.C. (6 million). I enjoyed wandering around town, going on self-guided food tours of the city, exercising along the riverside, and unwinding at the cinema.

IMG_0641

What to See
Travelers interested in the history of Cambodia can pay a visit to the National Museum of Cambodia which houses the country’s largest collection of Khmer art and artifacts, including countless statues of Hindu and Buddhist divinities which survived the ransacking of temples by tomb raiders. You can learn about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and bear witness to victims’ sufferings by seeing Choueng Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly the S-21 Prison) and hiring a guide or an audio guide.

Disturbing images from the Killing Fields 

Architecture buffs and the spiritually-minded should check out Phnom Penh’s many wats, or temples, in addition to the Royal Palace. While Wat Phnom is the most famous pagoda, I was taken with the vast temple complex of Wat Botum Vatey and the sun setting over Wat Ounalom.

Images of Wat Botum Vatey and Wat Ounalom

The Royal Palace, the residence of King Norodom Sihamoni, resembles the Grand Palace in Bangkok but with a tenth of the tourists.

Images of the Royal Palace

For prime people watching, take a stroll down the historic riverside of Sisowath Quay at dusk or stop by Royal Palace Park or Wat Bottom Park at night. Cambodian families, monks, and tourists alike often gather in parks during the weekends and evenings to converse and picnic, while vendors sell food, toys, and balloons, resulting in a carnival-like atmosphere wonderful to observe. Active travelers can utilize the free outdoor exercise equipment, join a game of soccer or doeurt sai, or participate in an aerobics class.

Monks chatting and a vendor selling food in Royal Palace Park

Lest I forget, make sure to take advantage of the green spaces (a rarity in Southeast Asia!) surrounding the Independence Monument and Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

Images of the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, Golden Bird Statue, and Independence Monument

Where to Stay
I almost chose to stay at the party hostel behemoth, Mad Monkey, but I opted to stay at the much more peaceful Envoy Hostel instead. Although the hostel was on the quieter side, I found it easy to meet other travelers. The dorm beds were comfortable, the air conditioning was a godsend, and the communal kitchen was an unexpected treat in Southeast Asia.

Where to Eat
St 63 Restaurant & Hostel has an extensive selection of appetizing Cambodian and Western dishes, as well as cocktails and mocktails. I liked the vegetarian pumpkin curry and vegetarian spring rolls so much that I ate at St 63 two nights in a row! Brunch enthusiasts can dine at Java Café while gazing at the current exhibition by Marine Ky. I happily devoured the monthly special, an Avocado and Smoked Salmon Stack, along with a Café Freddo there one Sunday morning. Offering a choice of burritos, quesadillas, bowls, and soft tacos with a selection of toppings, and sides of chips and guacamole and rice and beans, Cocina Cartel is, for all intents and purposes, a Cambodian version of Chipotle. Its glass noodle salad with tofu, sesame sauce, and lettuce and spicy watermelon smoothie make Sesame Noodle Bar a great lunch option for vegetarians. Lined with rows of fresh vegetables, freshly caught fish flopping on blocks, and dried foodstuffs, Kandal Market is my go-to spot for fresh fruit and fruit shakes. Lastly, ice cream lovers should check out Toto Ice Cream & Dessert Café. Try the soursop and mango-passion fruit flavors.

Images clockwise from left to right: Sesame Noodle Bar and Cocina Cartel

Where to Relax
Due to lenient copyright restrictions, Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities have small movie houses which screen the newest films, host daily movie marathons, and rent private movie rooms for a much cheaper price than official movie theaters. You can even download movies to your phone or hard drive! I visited The Flicks Community Movie Houses multiple times while in Phnom Penh to catch the 2016 Oscar-nominated films. If you’re looking for the big box movie experience combined with the thrill of a theme-park ride, check out the 4D movies (3D movie + wind + water + movement) playing at Aeon Mall.

Supreme Court (1)

Image of Cambodia Supreme Court