Touring Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – 13 & 14 November 2018

Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous in Phnom Penh, just like in many other cities in Asia. They are charmingly photogenic and generally inexpensive – but honestly, not the most comfortable way to travel. But oh well – when in Rome and all.

So, off I went in a tuk-tuk for the 15 minute ride (per Google Maps) to meet up with this evening’s food tour of Phnom Penh. Even with the 15 minute buffer I’d added, the trip was frustratingly slow thanks to the usual cuckoo traffic. But I made it just about on time and met my guide for the evening, Vanarith at the appointed location near Olympic Stadium. Happily, I was the first to arrive, so I didn’t feel so bad about being a bit behind schedule.

The two other women joining our tour showed up a few minutes after that and, I’ll confess, I was initially leery. They were Western and I assumed American – so I was prepping myself for some eyeroll-inducing cluelessness. Instead, it turned out they were Canadian and I heaved a big sigh of relief. We had something else very much in common, as I was to find out later…

Anyway, we explored a bit of Olympic Stadium, which is much different in the evening compared to my visit that morning. Not only were there a bunch of food carts and vendors selling their wares, locals turn out for semi-organized dance rehearsals. It’s kind of like a community Zumba? Anyway, it was super fun to watch but I declined the opportunity to participate.

We grabbed a table near the food carts and our guide ordered a bunch of stuff. Now, here’s where I have to confess – I did a terrible job documenting either with notes or photos all of the food we tried over the course of the evening. And further confession – while it was all tasty, none of it bowled me over, though this was pretty much the case with most of the food I ate while in Phnom Penh. Now, don’t get me wrong – nothing was bad. I think it’s just that compared to Vietnam and Thailand, I didn’t eat any Cambodian food that was particularly memorable, even though it was all good and freshly prepared.

Now, this should also not be considered a knock on this particular tour. In some ways, I think it was my favorite of my visit – thanks largely to the good chemistry between our guide and my two new friends from Canada. Vanarith was extraordinarily engaging – he knew plenty about the food we were eating of course, but shared wide-ranging information about local life, Cambodia’s history, the changing face of Phnom Penh. He’s a great guide!

At some point during the evening, I shared email or IG or something with Tania and Arielle and thanks to my highly-Jewish surname, we discovered we are all descendants of Abraham. Yes, yes, I’m still a devout atheist, but am most certainly culturally Jewish. And of course, all three of us swung right into action, teaching Yiddish to Vanarith. “Oy vey,” “fakakta” and “schvitzing” all made the list and he was an impressive student – though “schvitzing” proved particularly challenging to pronounce.

I had so much fun yakking with everyone, that I didn’t take as many photos as I’d’ve liked – but that’s quite indicative of how much I enjoyed this tour.

The next morning I was up early since I had to be back in the center of town for a bike tour that started just before 8:00AM. It sounded like it might be raining a bit, so I opened the draperies to check the weather and it was POURING. Like crazy buckets and cats-and-dogs raining. I was semi-relieved since I kinda wanted to go back to bed – but then remembered I’d already paid for the tour and they expect you to show up rain or shine since weather can change quickly.

And sure enough, by the time I was on my way, the rain had completely cleared up. I got to Grasshopper and we were on our way soon enough – me, a Swedish couple, a young Tunisian man who lives in Qatar and our guide.

First we rode along the river on a nice paved bike and pedestrian path – though constructed of some kind of slippery material, so I managed to halfway wipeout on our way to the ferry to cross the river. Oopsie! I guess I was being punished for the hubris of bringing my own helmet…

Made across the river and started our ride on paved and then gravely roads. All was AOK! Then we got to the unpaved portion of the tour…

Hoo boy! After that mornings torrential downpour, there were mud and puddles everywhere. It was challenging going to say the least. I did OK, particularly once I gave up and accepted the fact that I was going to end the ride covered in mud from head to toe. This realization really sunk in (no pun intended) when I had to put my foot down to keep my balance and I want calf-deep into the mud.

Ultimately, it was really kind of hilarious. I mean, sure, the paths were quite treacherous in a couple of spots but I survived. I think I felt worst for the other solo rider. He didn’t seem an especially experienced cyclist and rather than steering around puddles, he’d attempt to power right through them – and they often turned out to be quite a bit deeper than they appeared. I think he was knee-deep in mud more than once. At one point during the ride, I think he was trying to shake some of the mud out of his gears by braking the bike hard – but he did so using only the front brake and managed to send himself ass-over-handlebars onto the paved road we were on. Happily (and somewhat shockingly) he sustained no injuries.

We stopped at small silk weaving outfit, which was quite fascinating to watch – especially for the very intricately patterned fabric that one weaver was working on for a bride. There was also a super friendly doggo there, so that was an extra bonus!

Once we’d gotten past the worst of the mud, things went more smoothly. The countryside was very pretty and we spent a bit of time exploring a local temple complex while waiting for another boat. We ended with lunch back in the city. Sure, I was filthy and smelly, but it was a pretty great half-day in the saddle.

I’d wisely booked a massage appointment for that afternoon, back at Bodia Spa – and let me just say, they were just as welcoming and gracious as on my previous visit, despite my monstrous and filthy appearance. And I was able to have a nice hot shower before my massage, so by the time I left two hours later, I felt absolutely fantastic!

Headed back to my hotel and had a quiet evening in, while I packed and got ready to leave in the morning. Next stop: Luang Prabang!

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – 11, 12 & 13 November 2018

The flight to Phnom Penh was uneventful – really, the best kind of flight. The most memorable part of the trip was Vietnam Airlines’ promo video for their international service, in which happy passengers enjoyed their flights in economy, premium economy and business class – though the business class passengers were all white, unlike those in economy. A little bit racist!

Getting through the airport in Phnom Penh was easy – much more so now that online visas can be procured prior to one’s visit, a big improvement over visa-on-arrival that I’d used in Siem Reap. Leaving the airport? That was another story. Traffic was at a literal standstill – and even once out of the worst of it, traffic remained slow and congested. The 7-mile trip from the airport to my hotel took over an hour – longer than my flight from Saigon!

Happily, though, arriving at my hotel, the Rambutan Resort, showed that the place was even more delightful than it appeared online. A small boutique style place with an open lobby, pool and restaurant occupying the ground floor, all of it lushly landscaped – this place is a real oasis in this very hectic city. And the staff were all delightful – so genuinely friendly and helpful throughout my stay.

I’d splurged a bit on this stay and was staying in the penthouse. The quarters were spacious and comfortable and the large terrace was a lovely extra. Really, I couldn’t have asked for more. Well, OK, maybe one thing – the bidet sprayer (a.k.a. “bum gun” per my friend Ak) was a little weak pressured and thus not quite as effective as it could be. But other than that, all was well!

Dinner and drinks at the hotel that night and breakfast there the next morning. Food was all very good, as were the mojitos I had with dinner. After breakfast my first day, I spent some time lounging by the pool and it was wonderful. Read, swam in the saltwater pool, finished a crossword puzzle. I’m not always good at “allowing” myself to have downtime when I’m exploring a new city, so this was a nice way to start my visit.

Eventually, I made my way into the center of Phnom Penh. The city is larger and more bustling than I’d imagined for some reason – and while the location of my hotel away from the center meant having to take a 15 minute (or more when traffic turned bad, which is often) tuk tuk ride, it was nice to be located in a relatively quiet neighborhood.

I had a bit of time before joining my walking tour that afternoon, so I had a mediocre lunch at a noodle place (well-reviewed by foreigners on TripAdvisor – which should have warned me away) and then a nice visit to a cat cafe, where a little tuxedo fellow became my BFF. Oh cats!

Walking tour with Grasshopper Adventures was pretty good. We covered a lot of central PP and explored many of the tiny alleys and streets where locals live and lead their lives. While it was interesting, it did feel a bit invasive at times. I think maybe working with some locals who are actually interested in sharing a bit of their lives with tourists might make for a better experience.

There’s still a good amount of colonial architecture in PP in varying states of repair. The old abandoned police station is a bit worse for wear, but is home to an assortment of apparently thriving used car sales and detailing businesses. There’s also a volleyball court – one of the most popular sports in Cambodia – where we stopped to take in a bit of a game being played by some local fellows.

Climbed to the top of Wat Phnom and my guide told me about the legend of a wealthy widow called Penh who found a tree with Buddha statues inside, inspiring her to construct a small hill and temple on the site, and eventually lending her name to the city (Phnom means “hill”).

We finished up the tour with an afternoon snack at a very local place – so local in fact that my guide warned me that I probably shouldn’t eat the greens and herbs served with our rolls, due to my presumably delicate Western constitution. Though after we were halfway through our meal, I mentioned that I’d been eating everything in Saigon including local and street places – and he told me then I’d probably be fine if I ate everything we’d been presented with. I was tempted, but he’d gotten me sufficiently paranoid that I declined.

Back to the Rambutan by tuk tuk – and I will just say again how wonderful it is to return to this place after exploring the hectic city. The setting is so tranquil and all of staff are so welcoming. This is really a special place.

Got an early start the next morning, this time for a tour of the city’s 1960s architecture with Khmer Architecture Tours. We started at Olympic Stadium, designed by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. It’s a pretty amazing site, despite the fact that it’s fallen into a bit of disrepair and all of the original reflecting pools on the site have been converted to parking or other less inspiring functions.

The indoor stadium is clearly 60s in style with both Brutalist and Modernist styles. However, the adaptations to local climate are ingenious, like vents under the tiered seating to allow airflow. The angled metal “windows” allowed some light into the venue, but shielded it from direct sunlight and was another path for airflow.

The surrounding area is home to numerous recently-built highrise condos, all of them pretty fancy looking and not affordable for most Cambodians. They are primarily being built by Chinese for Chinese. It’s a decidedly double-edged sword, given that the developers have chipped in to maintain and repair the stadium and are providing construction and other jobs – but these projects are massive and are substantially changing the city, for better or worse (probably a bit of both).

Next stop was a visit to the 100 Houses, another Vann Molyvann project. The project was conceived as a block of 100 houses for middle class workers – sort of a Khmer version of California’s Eichlers. Simple and identical floor plans, designed to maximize airflow, vent cooking fumes and provide some outdoor space for growing a garden.

Built in the 60s, then largely abandoned during the Khmer Rouge genocide, those that haven’t been razed and replaced have been mostly re-occupied with massive additions and renovations. But we did get to explore one semi-dilapidated house that remains vacant on an overgrown lot. It really was a thoughtfully conceived living space.

Our last stop was at Royal University of Phnom Penh, home to quite an assortment of 60s modernism – most notably, the main hall with it’s parabolic roof. As with our previous stops, it was quite fascinating to learn how modern architectural styles and designs were adapted to function in the climate of Cambodia, where airflow and rainwater mitigation are always major concerns.

My guide’s knowledge was exhaustive – which was great, though also a bit literally exhausting. She shared so much information, it was hard to absorb it all! It was certainly a great way to get a bit off the beaten tourist path in PP and see some of Cambodia’s history.

After another unremarkable lunch, I had a massage at Bodia Spa – and it was wonderful! I’d visited their spa in Siem Reap a couple of years ago and had good memories. The spa in PP was really lovely – a very friendly and gracious staff in a beautifully designed space. My therapist was very skilled and my massage was a wonderful treat after spending much of the morning on foot.

Back to the hotel for a bit of a rest, then time to head out for another tour: this one a street food tour that I’d booked last minute. What a day!

 

More from Siem Reap

Our next day in Siem Reap was in many ways similar to our last: up early (though thankfully well after sunrise this time) and back to visit more of Angkor Wat, though this time focusing on temples along the “Grand Circuit” so we wouldn’t be visiting the same places as yesterday. And as much I as enjoyed exploring Angkor Wat by bicycle, there is certainly something to be said for touring via an automobile with AC!

Our guide, Kimthet, was great. Extremely well-versed in the history and construction of the various places we visited during the day, including the ruins of Neak Pean, a 12th century hospital made up of pools that were believed to have curative powers and Banteay Srei, an amazing temple from the 10th century carved largely from pink sandstone. The materials and motifs used to construct this temple were notably different than other temples in the Angkor Wat complex, so it was a particular highlight of our visit.

Now, with that being said, I rarely post about my travels without acknowledging my own philistinism, particularly when it comes to visiting ancient ruins. Don’t get me wrong – the temples here are fascinating! But after visiting several of them over the course of the day, they do start to feel rather similar (with the fairly notably exception of Banteay Srei) – and the 100° heat can make getting out of the car a positively Herculean effort. But Ak and I soldiered on and really enjoyed our day.

It certainly helped that we had a nice break for lunch. The tasty food was welcome of course, but even better was making some more new cat and dog friends during lunch. We ❤ cats!

As I said, Kimthet was a great guide, a real storehouse of knowledge about Angkor Wat. At one point during the day, we were talking about tourism’s impact on Siem Reap. Despite the huge influx of tourists and the money they bring, much of that money doesn’t stay in Cambodia. Many of the large resorts are foreign-owned and even the merchandise at the tourist markets tends to be made in China and Vietnam. Kimthet gave us some excellent recommendations when I asked what I could do to be a “good” tourist (or at least nominally less awful). One was to donate to the local children’s hospital (something I was happy to do); the other was to avoid shopping for trinkets and souvenirs at the tourist markets and instead visit Artisans Angkor, which trains young people in various Cambodian handicrafts and offers their works for sale.

Kimthet also told us a bit about his own quite harrowing experiences growing up in Cambodia. It was eye-opening, to put it mildly. He reminded us that fully half of Cambodia’s population today is under 22 – a sobering legacy of the millions killed during the Khmer Rouge and in the subsequent Cambodian-Vietnamese war. Should you find yourself visiting Siem Reap, I certainly encourage you to engage the guide services of Mr. Kimthet Lay – you’ll find him to be an excellent guide who’ll teach you many things about his country. You can email him at artisansangkor@yahoo.com.

After our long, sweaty day visiting temples, Ak and I were happy to get back to our little hotel and have a swim. We had a bit of time to waste before dinner – so I had the clever idea of returning to Bodia Spa, just for a quick hour of foot reflexology. Happily, they had room for us and sent a tuk-tuk over to ferry us back to the spa. I could def get used to this…

After the spa, we went out in search of Miss Wong Cocktail Bar, someplace Ak had read about in his research for our trip. We got a tiny bit lost but eventually found our way up a small alley to a cozy bar done up in Shanghai 1930s style. Had a couple of very tasty cocktails, posed for our lives for some selfies and then ambled off to dinner at Viroth’s Restaurant, located at our hotel’s sister establishment. Dinner was outside, the food was great, the waiter adorable – can’t ask for much more than that.

Saturday morning we headed over to the “real” (as opposed to tourist) market, Psha Leu. We wandered the aisles for a good hour or two, staring at all the things for sale: everything from freshly-caught fish to just-slaughtered pigs to umbrellas to ballgowns. One of the more fascinating sights was a lady selling corn. She had a large bowl of kernels that had been stripped from the corn and was scooping them up and dumping them out in front of an electric fan – thus blowing the silk remnants out and leaving just the kernels behind.

After our shopping excursion, we headed into town to visit Angkor Artisans, per Kimthet’s recommendation. It was great! Really beautiful silk ware, wood and stone carvings, some lovely jewelry. I got charming little carved pig to take home with me and Ak picked out a necklace with a soapstone pendant. We didn’t have time to take the tour of the workshops, but I was really impressed with the fine quality of all that was being sold in the shop.

Then, it was back to the hotel to collect our luggage and head to the airport. A relatively uneventful trip back to Bangkok – though I did have to perform some ridiculous charade of moving stuff between my suitcase and my backpack in order to meet Air Asia’s absurd weight limitation for carry-on bags. The end result was that I brought on the exact same two pieces of luggage I arrived with and put them in the exact same location in the overhead bin – but that some of my clothes were now in my backpack rather than my suitcase. Proving once again, I suppose, that you get what you pay for…

As much as I enjoyed Cambodia, I was also happy to be back in Bangkok. Sure, it’s only my second visit and I have much to learn still about this city, but there is already an element of “coming home” when I get here.

And here we are in our tuk-tuk, heading to the spa. Wheeeee!

 

 

First Day in Siem Reap

Off to Cambodia! Things started off well enough, with Ak and me managing to arrive at Don Mueang airport nearly simultaneously. This is Bangkok’s “old” airport and currently serves mostly low-cost carriers on short hops in and around SE Asia. It’s also really crowded and not the most modern of facilities… and the AC was mostly conked out. So, all in all, not the most glamorous introduction to air travel for Ak, who was making his first flight!

Our flight on Air Asia was delayed by about an hour. And, in a bit of “are you for real?” on my part, my “Premium Flex” ticket for which I paid extra and which included among other things pre-boarding of the aircraft was rather a misnomer. Our aircraft was out on the tarmac and we were transported by bus from the terminal to the plane. So, while I did indeed get to board that bus first, I schlepped up the stairs in the midst of all the hordes of people who’d crammed onto the bus after me. Yes, yes, first world problem, blah, blah, blah. But I did in fact pay for something which I didn’t get.

Anyway, the flight itself was pleasant enough and Ak didn’t flip out – though he may gone just a bit saucer-eyed at the landing, which was a bit of a jolt. The small Siem Reap airport seems very new and immigration was relatively painless, if not the friendliest. And even after such a short flight, it’s always a lovely thing to see a driver holding a sign with one’s name on it when entering the main terminal.

The first thing I noticed on the short trip to our hotel was how much calmer the traffic was compared to Bangkok. Granted, Siem Reap is quite a bit smaller – but the roads were populated with more bicycles than cars on the road from the airport and drivers seemed pretty mellow.

Arrived at our hotel for the next few days, Viroth’s Villa – a groovy little boutique place. TBH, I might’ve been happier with a room on the second floor, but I got the only room furnished with separate beds. The place was quite comfy, the staff extraordinarily kind and helpful throughout our stay and the pool provided a lovely way to spend the afternoon after visiting Angkor Wat during the day.

Our first evening we ate at Chanrey Tree. I think I stumbled across it online. It wound up being the perfect choice: a short walk from our hotel, a lovely outside table on a very warm evening, cocktails, tasty food, all in lush garden setting. We loved it!

Made an early night of it, since Thursday morning started early: our guide from Grasshopper Adventures was picking us up at 4:30AM for the short drive to Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise. This certainly seemed like a great idea when I was reserving this trip, though somewhat less so when faced with the prospect of actually piling into a van at 4:30AM…

But pile we did! And it was an ideal way to start our visit. One thing I hadn’t paid attention to, however, was that the tickets required to visit the Angkor Wat compound were not included in the price of this tour. NBD – we stopped to purchase them on our way in. The only little problem was that the tickets are cash only (and US dollars at that), so I was a little more tapped out than I’d anticipated once the trip was over and it came time to tip… Not that I had nothing mind you, but I wish I could’ve been a bit more generous.

Anyway, we got to the main temple of Angkor Wat and found our seats along the exterior moat waiting for the sun to rise. There were a lot of other tourists there – though my sense was that many of them actually walk into the central enclosure for a close-up view of the sun appearing behind the wat’s towers. However, I really enjoyed our vantage point along the moat – not just because it wasn’t too crowded but because the reflection of the ruins on the water was especially lovely as dawn crept up on us… Our guide was great, providing us with snacks to tide us over ‘til breakfast and helping us make friends with the local temple dogs who were hanging out with us.

Once daylight was upon us, we explored the interior structures and frescos. A hike up to the towers via some very steep staircases (to remind us of the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods) provided a splendid view of our surroundings. And, as if that was not already fantastic enough, we came upon a dozing mama cat and her three gamboling kittens! Really, is there anything better than temple kittehs?

Next we had a simple breakfast before starting the bike portion of our tour. It was a small group – just Ak and me; a fellow from South Africa; a nice woman from Singapore; and a Canadian who was a bit out to lunch: she didn’t realized she’d signed up for a bike trip…  It was kind of funny that it was all singled folks on the trip. When I’d been in Thailand last October, I was typically the only sad Mary-Ann-Singleton on the various tours I’d signed up for. Now, here I was with a traveling companion and everyone else is on their own. Anyway, it was a nice enough group, though no long-lasting friendships were forged.

Now, I do love riding, though I also forget that my urban bike riding experience doesn’t always translate very well to a more off-the-beaten path ride. Luckily, though, one of the fellows in our group looked pretty experienced so I did my best to follow his lead. And I did OK! No wipe-outs and no dropped chains – can’t ask for much more than that.

The rest of the day was spent biking around from temple to temple, with stops to explore on foot. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we had a really enjoyable visit. And I was very pleased that Ak – despite insisting dramatically a couple of times that he was very close to death – held his own on the bicycle, despite not being a daily rider like I am.

Of course, after ten miles of riding in 100° weather, one does get a bit exhausted. So, when we wrapped up our tour with a stop for lunch that include a couple of beers? We were all pretty delighted.

Back to hotel where we washed our stanky grimy selves off. No time to waste, since Bodia Spa was sending a tuk-tuk to collect us at 3:45PM for our our three-hour “Relaxation” package. WELL. This was a delight! Gentle therapeutic massage along with an invigorating body scrub. Really the perfect way to end a rather strenuous day.

Dinner at Cuisine Wat Danmak, listed as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. And it was OK – though TBH, neither of us were particularly bowled over by the meal. It was fine and the price was reasonable – but we actually enjoyed the previous night’s dinner more than this one.

A short tuk-tuk ride back to our place and an early night. Tomorrow: more temples!

And here’s a few shots from my helmet cam from our biking trip!