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!