Indochina with Selective Asia – Chapter 6: Phnom Penh

Foreign Correspondents and Buddha Bellies

Our boat ride along the Bassac river delivered us to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia since 1430 when Angkor was abandoned (that’s the year 1430, not half past two, just saying). Here we would be staying at the VMansion Boutique Hotel. We loved its uniquely styled rooms and tranquil ambience right in the heart of the city. Read my full review of this hotel.

Cocktails at the FCCWe were expertly guided by Sarik, whose personal insights into the area were invaluable, including The Killing Fields where he had lost siblings during the atrocities. Whilst the visit to Choeung Ek, one of over 300 mass grave sites in Cambodia, and the Genocide Museum (Tuoi Sleng) was informative it was also depressing. It was an emotional insight into another dark chapter in human history that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge added to so many others. A stark reminder that we are part of a species that is capable of many great achievements and acts of compassion, but also a darker barbaric side still lurks.

The Foreign Correspondent Club provides a link to these events and the UK’s efforts, spearheaded by Lady Diana, to clear up the huge amount of land mines left over from Cambodia’s troubled times. A cocktail or two (well it was happy hour), at sunset overlooking the Tonle Sap river was a gentle way to reflect on this part of history.

The Royal PalaceThe Royal Palace’s delightful architecture (with classic Khmer roofs) is somewhere between a mansion and a pagoda. This brightly coloured estate of buildings still serves as the residence of the current king, has state rooms for visiting dignitaries and was built in 1866 by King Norodom. Of all the blooms and bushes that adorn the manicured grounds, the flower from the Sala tree is the top delight, but it only lasts for a day before dropping to the ground. The grounds (the site of the former citadel) also contains the Silver Pagoda, so named because of the 5,000 silver tiles (each believed to contain 1.25kg of silver) that adorn the floor. There is a definite affection here for the king, similar to the way most Brits love the queen.

Sala tree flowerOur culinary exploration of Indochina continued with lunch at Friends, a ‘kindness restaurant’ where ex street children are trained in hospitality and restaurant skills. Helping them break away from life on the streets has never been so tasty and my Burmese curry and Linda’s stir fried chicken with cashews and mango was mouth-wateringly good. Surprise, surprise and jump up and down for joy, red berry and apple crumble with coconut ice cream was for desert, oh I’m so developing a Budda belly (as they call it out here).

A walk up the 80 steps that lead to Wat Phnom, the founding site of the city, helps to walk off some of lunch and from here I can see the fruit bats hanging in a nearby tree, ready to take to the wing at dusk. Legend has it that a lady named Penh found 4 Buddha statues floating on the Mekong and this hill temple was built to house them in 1373.

The National MuseumThe National Museum of Cambodia also provided the opportunity to burn a few more calories, exploring the artefacts from Khmer history. The world’s finest collection of Khmer sculptures were roughly broken into 3 periods, pre, during and post Angkor. Four display pavilions are set around a lovely garden courtyard with water features. A word of caution:  No matter how lovely your guide is it’s impossible for them to resist the ‘horns out of the head’ comedy shot outside the museum (see picture).

After dark it was time for our private version of I’m a celebrity get me out of here.  An exploration of street food, leaping from course to course by tuk-tuk, began at the stalls selling deep fried insects. We applied the same rule to stalls as we do to restaurants,  always go to the stall that is really busy with locals, to sample what many predict as the food of the future. With populations expected to continue to grow exponentially, this largely untapped source of food is high in protein and may be the answer to the inevitable food shortage. Sarik recommended we start our entomophagy (big word of the day) with KFC (Khmer Fried Crickets), widely used over here as a substitute for popcorn to munch through whilst watching a film. Deep fried tarantulaFollow that with tarantula, frogs and silk worms, all of which were amazingly good. Crunchy because of the deep frying, except for the silkworms that were still soft inside. It wasn’t all about insects though and our tour around the Russian Market and other stalls and vendors took in beef and liver skewers, bean sprouts omelette, local fish and crab curry, washed down with a modest helping of the local Angkor beer. The Budda belly progressed to another level.

It’s worth mentioning that the traffic etiquette in Phnom Penh is much the same as in Vietnam, see earlier chapters for details.

Time to head for Siem Reap.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia

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Steve Aldridge

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