Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Round the world: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Where we were

Compared to the identikit shiny, newness of the Asian cities we've visited so far, Phnom Penh was a bit of a shock.  It seemed we were finally and definitely in 'foreignia'; no recognisable shops, no malls, alien aesthetics.  Arriving at night after a surprisingly pleasant and comfortable coach journey from Siem Reap, the bus station was crowded with aggressive tuktuk drivers and unwelcoming stares.  But, while it never quite lost its aggressive edge, over the week we started to see why so many people have fallen in love with this beautifully messy city and why you should always step outside the tourist traps.

Where we stayed

La Rose Boutique, a very new establishment towards the nicer end of town.  Opened in November 2012, you're advised to get in quick while their prices are low, because this is definitely a place on the up and up.   If you can't stay, you should at least go to the restaurant for some of the best food we've had all trip.  The lovely hotel manager arranged a sampler of Cambodia's best dishes for our first night and oh my it was good.  Seriously, seriously good.

On the receiving end of another free upgrade (thanks, universe), we found ourselves in a spa room - double bed, huge bath and separate waterfall shower and our very own massage table.  The hotel has a gorgeously decorated spa on the first floor open to guests and non-guests alike.

Best of all though were the staff, an army of sweet, smiling and funny girls, some of whom were employed through a local charity helping former street children, all of whom were nothing but attentive and helpful.  We didn't hardly have to ask for anything before it was done.  After all my 'DIY is best' sentiment in former travel experiences, these guys made me realise how much nicer it is to ask for assistance when you need it.

What I read

'Wolf Hall' - Hilary Mantell.  Finally got around to this award winning novel and I can safely assert that I see what all the fuss is about.  The third person, present tense narrative from inside Cromwell's head is so clever.  To take a tale for which we all know the end and make it seem like anything could happen is the sort of skill that makes me realise I will probably never write a novel, because there'd be no point if it couldn't be as good as this.

What I listened to

Nothing of note.  A rare occurrence!

What we nommed

The aforementioned delicious 'Cambodian food for beginners' at La Rose's restaurant.  Fish amok, crispy noodle salads and rice porridge were the highlights.

NYE drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a bastion of colonial elegance along the Mekong River.

An excellent pizza with even more excellent company at Nike's Pizza, courtesy of the gorgeous Our Dear Lady Expatriate's Ashley and her lovely man, John.  The pizza was yummy, but more importantly it gave us a chance to see the city through the eyes of people who live and work there.  There was a whole side of town we never would've found without their input.  Cheers guys!

Cocktails at the historically elegant Raffles Hotel Le Royal's Elephant Bar.  Relaxed, welcoming and wildly expensive, it was worth the near-death-experience of crossing the road to get to it.

A fresh and zesty noodle salad at the Boddhi Tree, another charity run affair which helps street kids to learn to chef and waiter/ress.

Homemade ice cream at the Blue Pumpkin on the riverfront.

A green tea and banana smoothie concoction at Cafe Yejj.

What we did

Walked the main length of the Mekong riverfront.  It's a bit of a tourist heavy area supposedly, but didn't feel it as we dodged exercise classes, barefoot football matches (ouch) and food carts.  It was peaceful at sunset, at least compared to the other side of the street, and the photography exhibitions were really interesting.

Got buddha sculpture overload at the National Museum. Just as well they have a lush courtyard to recover you senses in then.

Spent lots of time pointing and gesturing at tuktuk drivers most of whom are out of towners and thus have no better idea where you're going than you do. In fact perhaps less, because you can read a map. Thankfully the western male reluctance to ask for directions doesn't exist and we got everywhere we wanted to eventually and in good humour.

Laughed at ourselves as, wanting to buy some kit for our upcoming Nepal trip, we asked to go to the only mall in the Lonely Planet, expecting something similar to KL and instead found a shiny building exterior full of market stalls, not glossy boutiques.

Were disappointed by the Russian Market.  There was literally nothing there that we would ever want to buy.  And it all looked like it needed a good clean.

Thankfully found the NGO run shops, like Friends, to be reasonably priced and full of innovative, desirable creations.  Bought lots of gifts.

Wandered the lawn outside the Palace soaking up the boisterous evening atmosphere.

Got sickened and depressed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a school where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed an enormous number of people.  They took photographs of every victim, now chillingly displayed on large boards in each room.  I can't really articulate any more than that.  My mind goes to blanks and whys and what the hell is wrong with people's.  I had to go eat ice cream in the sunshine.

Cheered ourselves up with a half day couples spa treatment back at the hotel.  Facial, lengthy full body massage, mani-pedi, foot bath...  I'm going to be so sad when I get back to a land in which these things are prohibitively expensive.

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