Sunday, 3 February 2013

Travel To: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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While I always enjoy each trip I take, and can always take something great away from it, I don't always fall head-over-heels in love with the place. Sometimes I appreciate the journey for what it is, and admire and explore the local culture (and food!) happily and thoroughly. Sometimes I can see myself going back someday, sometimes I can't. And then sometimes, I'm filled with a feeling of oh-my-goodness-there-is-just-something-about-this-place-that-I-cannot-get-enough-of. The adventure to Cambodia was one of those times.  The sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes! Yes, please. Cambodia is definitely dream holiday worthy. Definitely.

We started our trip into the country in Phnom Pehn, the capital city, and were greeted with beautifully hot weather, a hilarious mash up of glitzy Christmas decorations, and a warm and friendly atmosphere.  We stayed at the Silver River Hotel, which is basic, but exceptionally welcoming and clean, and offered 50 cent beers at happy hour and free wifi (at all hours). It's certainly not the cheapest room you will find in Phnom Penh, but the biggest benefit to this hotel is its location. It is a minute walk from the national museum, the royal palace, the boardwalk and countless delicious restaurants.

The grounds of the Silver Pagoda - the only part of the palace that was open

As far as eating in Cambodia goes, it's hard to go wrong. Their most common dish, and by far my favourite was the fish amok. A creamy coconut curry with white fish, herbs, and vegetables all steamed together in a banana leaf bowl. Yum.

While we ate at a lot of really great restaurants, my biggest food takeaway and recommendation is a place called Friends. It is located very close to the national museum and royal palace, and is often very busy (with good reason).  The restaurant is actually run by Mith Samlanh a Cambodian NGO that focuses on providing education and skills training to former street youth.  Everyone who works in the restaurant (and their sister store Friends 'n Stuff, along with their other locations in Laos) is a former street youth at various levels in their training. And that's not even what makes this place so great... it helps, but really it's all about the FOOD. And they do not disappoint.  The food is categorized as fusion, and the flavours definitely borrow from a mixture of South East Asian countries.  We dined on leek and mushroom spring rolls with a dill aioli, smoked eggplant dip and a wildly complex flavour mixture of spicy grilled calamari and pomello salad. I was so satisfied with the meal that I immediately walked next door and bought their cookbook. Seriously, go there.

Love the face peeking over top!

elephant friends

Phnom Penh is a large city. It's filled with a lot of people, a lot of sights and a lot of sounds. We found that the major sites took us a bit less time than originally anticipated, but that suited us just fine because it meant we always had time to enjoy a (very cheap) happy hour beer.  We filled our days with the main tourist sites, but were unfortunately not able to visit the majority of the royal palace due to the extended mourning period for the recent passing of the former king (though what we did see was beautiful, and quite elaborate).

Exterior of the Phnom Penh National Museum

The National Museum of Phnom Penh is small but well done, and definitely worth a visit. You can only take photos in the court yard, but it's well worth it as the grounds and architecture of the building is quite stunning.  It provides an excellent insight into the history of this great country, and it's not huge, which means you're not being overloaded all at one time ... anyone else every feel that way in really giant museums?

Exterior of the Phnom Penh National Museum

Courtyard - Phnom Penh National Museum

We also spent some time exploring the two main memorial sites left over from the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970's - Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21) and the Killing Fields.

Tuol Sleng is a former high school turned prison and has been left nearly untouched since the day the regime dispersed in 1979. What remains is a haunting display of the gore that took place every day. there were approximately 17,000 prisoners over the 4 years that it was open, and only 7 survived.  In the grounds you are able to see everything from the instruments for torture to the minute cells that were constructed in the former classrooms. It makes for a melancholy morning, but it also helps put the country's modern history in perspective.

Part of the grave for the last 14 victims - found onsite, presumed killed
the day regime abandoned the prison

Hallway leading to detention cells

The upper floors were covered with barbed wire to prevent prisoners from committing suicide

standard cell.

The cells - inside former high school classrooms

After the gloom of Tuol Sleng, you may want to continue your education in the history of the Khmer Rouge and head over to the Killing Fields, an exceptionally well done and emotive exhibition of what was essentially a mass execution site.  The entire grounds is led by an audio tour, which means if you aren't wearing your head phones it is eerily quite - the air is thick with respect and remorse for the many (millions) of lives lost. Even with fairly extensive digs to release the bodies from the mass graves, the ground keepers still find pieces of bone, teeth, and clothing drift to the surface after heavy rain and winds.

Offerings for lives lost.
The memorial tower - filled floor to ceiling with the bones of victims
found in the mass graves

While not all the sites within Phnom Penh are of the cheeriest nature, they are really well done, really affordable (I don't think we ever paid more than $3 a person), and really, really, worth a visit.  Phnom Penh was our first taste of this country and is essentially where my love affair with Cambodia began. The city left me eager for much, much more. And more I got! Next post: Siem Reap!

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