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kc goes to phnom penh

February 24, 2010

After 16 hours of travel, and 24 hours in Singapore, we were ready to get to the trip we had really planned for…Cambodia.  Our first stop was Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia.

I have to admit, for some reason, despite countless hours of research, online forum reading, blog searching and guide book reading, this was the first trip I felt wholly under prepared for.  I genuinely had no idea what to expect.  Strangely enough, that feeling didn’t really go away the entire time we were there.

Generally speaking, the big draw for Cambodia from a tourist perspective is Siem Reap and its amazing temples.  Phnom Penh drew far fewer tourists and I loved it for that.  Unlike Siem Reap, it seemed to be buzzing at all hours of the night.  Guide books warned us to be careful of crime, but I felt safer here than most cities we’ve visited.  People were friendly, accommodating and genuinely happy that you were visiting their city.

We only had 2 short days, and I regret that now in hindsight.  We were so eager to see more and not cut short time in Siem Reap that we cut short our time in Phnom Penh.  2 days wasn’t enough to see it all and still have time to simply walk around enjoying the city.

The driver that picked us up at the airport made us “very good price” and drove us around the city for our first full day.  The two main tourist draws in Phnom Penh were also easily the most moving and disturbing sites that we saw on our trip.  The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek are both monuments to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime and left me with an irrepressible sense of guilt.  The kind of guilt that you feel when you realize just how much you have and how little you appreciate it.  At the Genocide Museum, there were fresh flowers placed on the beds where prisoners were kept.  It seemed everyday, a fresh flower replaced ones that wilted and died.  It seemed fitting.

With the little time that we had left, we attempted to visit the Silver Pagoda.  We arrived in the afternoon after lunch, but were told that it had closed early.  The security guard also kindly informed me that if we were to return the next day that I should make sure to wear a long-sleeved shirt.  Oh dear.  While I am by no means someone that even flirts with the inappropriately dressed line, temperatures were easily reaching into the mid- to upper-90s with humidity levels that I didn’t know existed.  Long sleeved shirt? !  Oh boy.  We called it a day and walked back to our hotel to take in the sunset during happy hour on the roof deck.

The next day, like a good little tourist, I showed up with my long sleeved shirt in hand.  Threw it on before entering and managed a few pictures and about an hour long tour before wanting to succumb to what felt like impending death.  I’ve never sweat so much as I did those 10 days in Cambodia.  The grounds were amazing though and I don’t regret swimming in my shirt for an hour to take it all in.

My favorite part of Phnom Penh though was simply wandering around a bit.  The sights, sounds and smells of Phnom Penh are unique and I felt a little short changed knowing that we were going to have to move on after just two days.  Of course, I spent most of that time wandering about monk-stalking.  I loved those orange robes.  Couldn’t get enough of them and at the end of the trip found myself with around 2000 monk photos, 1995 of which were blurry because I was trying to be sneaky.

Our first night in Phnom Penh, we wanted to try Cambodian bbq.  I wasn’t exactly sure how to find the restaurant.  It became abundantly clear once we approached, which restaurant it was.  It was the only with the giant carcass on a spit.

This was the after dinner picture.  Thankfully we arrived when there was still a little more meat on the bone.  The restaurant was packed, we were the only gringos, but were relieved that one of the waitstaff spoke good (enough) English, helped us order and even taught us how to prepare our sauces.  We were introduced to the simplest yet most delightful concoction that we enjoyed throughout our trip.  Salt and pepper in a bowl with the juice of one lime added to it to create a dipping sauce for the meat.  So simple, yet so amazing.  Where had this been my whole life? (it’s the one that’s mostly empty off to the right of the photo).

We wandered back through a night market that made me want to tempt fate and try some more street food.  Thankfully, we had had plenty to eat at the bbq and I thought, better safe than sorry.  I settled for taking a few photos and calling it a night.

Our second night in Phnom Penh, I thought we were being more main stream and heading to a relatively touristy restaurant, Romdeng.  The setting was beautiful.  A colonial building with a pool and outdoor seating.  It was lovely.

And then we ordered.  And we did something that I didn’t really think we had the backbone to do.  We ordered tarantulas.  The menu said they were fried.  While I knew better deep down, part of me hoped it was just going to come out looking like a big piece of deep friend mystery meat. All that hoping was a waste of time though, I knew it was going to come and look like this.

I refrained from shrieking like a little girl and even moved past to think, “how on earth is a spoon and fork helpful in this situation?”.  Thankfully, these bad boys came with my new favorite salt, pepper, lime dipping sauce and we went to town.  Mr. KC was brave enough to go first and I cautiously followed.  We were shameless in our picture taking.  There was no way we were going through with this, without the evidence to back it up.

The verdict?  Once you get past the gross hairy bit, they don’t taste like a whole lot.  They have the texture of those prawn crisps you get in Chinese restaurants, but without tasting like prawn.  They do not taste like chicken though.  I’ll tell you that.

It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to eat the day before a 6-hour bus ride, but we clearly weren’t thinking ahead (or at all for that matter).  Fun to have said you’ve done, but not craving spider any time soon.

All in all, it was a beautiful city and an amazing way to kick off our Cambodian adventure.


Friends: #215 Street 13 Great lunch spot.  Great food and chock full of tourists.  This is not a bad thing though as most people are drawn to the restaurant for the great food and the mission of the restaurants: offering disadvantaged youth the opportunity to learn about the cooking and hospitality trade to prepare them for future jobs.

The Shop Cafe and Bakery: Street 240 near Bliss Spa (not the big chain) An oasis of smoothies, juices, pastries and sandwiches.  Don’t despair if you don’t see seating in the front, there’s an outdoor courtyard in the back.  Order at the counter and they’ll bring your order to you.  The spicy watermelon juice is highly recommended.

Romdeng: 74 Street 174 Romantic atmosphere for dinner.  Beautifully prepared amok and the perfect place to overcome your arachnophobia.  I also highly recommend buying one if not both of the cookbooks offered at both Romdeng and Friends.  It’s for a great cause and after all the wonderful food you’re going to eat, you’ll want to recreate some of that at home.  Stay tuned for some of those recipes here.

Unnamed bbq restaurant: corner of 19th & 148th Streets Found at the included Chowhound link, this place was great.  You eat (and drink) like a king.  Health and safety nuts, beware.  I don’t think this place would be up to most health codes, but the food was great.  And while Mr. KC and I both suffered from a case of tourista while there, it didn’t come from here, go figure.

Chow: Restaurant at our hotel and beautiful food.  I’m not sure why more people wouldn’t eat there.  Perhaps because they don’t realize that there’s a great roof deck overlooking the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers?  Most of our meals here were for breakfast, but that was lovely every day.  Ask for an iced coffee and you get Cambodian frappuccino…yum.  If you find yourself peckish while wandering along Sisowat Quay.  Save yourself from the hit-or-miss outdoor corner cafes and comes here.

Elephant Bar: Raffles Hotel. Channel your inner Jackie O and order a Femme Fatale, the signature cocktail made from champagne and crème de fraise.  You feel like your a million miles away from a frantic city life on Phnom Penh in their garden. and in many ways, you are.


The Quay Hotel: Sisowath Quay. Splurge for a panoramic suite, you won’t regret it (and it won’t bust your wallet). Breakfast was a highlight every morning, and the location was incredibly central, but for us it was the service that took this hotel above and beyond.  Each member of staff remembered your name and made sure that each of your needs were taken care of.  Free wifi.  But if you, like me, don’t believe in carrying a laptop with you on vacation,  you can rent one for $5/hr.

What really impressed me about this hotel was that one week later we came back, hoping to beg them to do us the favor of holding on to our luggage while we walked around.  Not only did they graciously store them, but they still remembered our names and arranged our car back to the airport while we enjoyed one last iced coffee.  Highly recommended.  Oh, and icing on the cake?  Carbon neutral! After those long-haul flights, it’s good to offset that footprint a little.


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