Getting Acquainted With Phnom Penh

Pig at market

To market, to market…

Upon landing at Phnom Penh International Airport on a Sunday, it took me less than 10 minutes to get my visa on arrival, go through immigration, pick up my bag and go through customs. That’s got to be some sort of record. It took me another 10 to get a SIM card for my phone and hop in a tuk tuk bound for The Irish Place, which would be my home for the next week. I found it on TripAdvisor, and figured any guesthouse with a pub downstairs was something I needed to give proper consideration. Pat, the Irish expat owner, and his Irish/British/American staff were beyond hospitable, as were a few regulars who greeted me by name when I came in and out.

Mornings began with a cup of coffee and my computer at one of the tables outside before I ventured out for the day. Each day saffron-robed monks with their matching umbrellas would walk from business to business and stand outside, quietly awaiting alms. If no one came out, they would move on to the next. One morning I grabbed a few bills from my wallet and put them into each of three monks’ bags, then placed my hands in prayer position while they chanted. I had watched what others do so as not to be a fumbling tourist, and read that women are not supposed to touch monks (or vice versa) so you never hand them the money. It always goes in the bag. Learning small customs like this makes me feel a little less alien, and I got an approving nod from one of the pub workers. Karma intact for at least a few days.

View from The Irish Place

Mornings at The Irish Place

Monk receiving alms

Monk receiving alms from a shop owner

My friend Natalia was to arrive the following Monday and spend two weeks in Cambodia. She is the second friend from LA that I was able to coerce into vacationing in Asia. Color me blessed! In the meantime I would hang out in Phnom Penh and get to know the city a bit. Many places are within walking distance, although that doesn’t deter the constant calls of “tuk tuk, madam?” or “moto bike, lady?” After half a day of repeating “no thank you, no thank you, no thank you,” I discovered that smiling and shaking my head would suffice. The motorbike drivers don’t know where they’re going anyway, so unless the destination is quite far, hoofing it is the way to go. One day I went to the Russian Market on the south side of the city, which was much too far on foot, so I finally nodded my head yes to one of the drivers near my guesthouse. I said “Russian Market”, which is an old and well-known fixture in the city. I received a blank stare. “Market,” I repeated, followed by “street four, five six” while I held up four, then five, then six fingers. Phnom Penh is on a grid system with numbered streets so it’s extremely easy to navigate- even for the directionally challenged like me. He still looked puzzled, but motioned for me to get on the bike. I then pointed south and we were on our way. My driver stopped twice to ask others for assistance, which said to me that he understood where I wanted to go, but had no idea where it was. 15 minutes, several zig-zaggy turns and $2 later, I arrived.

The Russian Market is hot and stuffy. It’s covered, but narrow alleyways don’t allow for much airflow between stalls. Old Navy t-shirts can be found next to pirated DVDs on sale for $1.50 as well as souvenirs, bolts of fabric, rows of tailors and various handicrafts. After a fantastic lunch at Sumatra, an Indonesian restaurant, and some sweaty wandering, I plopped myself in the air-conditioned Café Yejj and read my book. Café Yejj is one of several “good cause” dining options in the city; this one promoting fair trade and responsible employment. Other such restaurants offer street kids hospitality training or support the rehabilitation of former sex trade workers. It’s a simple way to support organizations in Cambodia, and I’ve patronized a few. The ride back to my guesthouse was no easier. Again, I held up fingers while saying, “Street one, one, zero” to no avail. Again we zig-zagged and again he stopped to ask for directions. Finally I just directed him back. Someone told me drivers are often from outside the city and don’t know their way around, but I’d been in Phnom Penh for three days at that point and could navigate pretty well. It’s a strange phenomenon. One of the biggest tourist threats in Phnom Penh is purse, phone and camera napping. Everyone from tuk tuk drivers to hotel staff will tell you to hold onto your stuff as motobike riders will come up along side of you and swipe whatever you’re not clinging to. After awhile, I started noticing a crafty way for tuk tuk drivers to keep their passengers safe. They would use a curtain, mesh netting or fishing line to keep snatching arms out of the back of the open tuk tuk, where riders sit. It’s not high tech, but it works!

Tuk tuk

Tuk tuk with fishing line to protect passengers

There are a lot of foreigners and expats in the city, which probably contributes to the many international restaurants. Thailand aside, I hadn’t had much variety, so I was thrilled to chomp on a beef shawarma sandwich at Beirut Cafe and a proper thin crust pizza at Limoncello. They even have Mexican! Local street stalls are also not to be missed and I had an amazing coconut soup with pork and vegetables for $1.50. Soup has become my go-to dish when eating on the street because if it’s piping hot, it’s usually safe. Fried noodles and veggie dishes are also on my likely-to-be-ok list. Markets are fantastic for fresh fruit and I’ve had my fair share of bananas, oranges, pears, jack fruit, watermelon and, my favorite, mangosteens. Mangosteens are nothing like mangoes, which I also love. They have a hard, dark red exterior with a fleshy white interior that is incredibly sweet but has a slightly sour note as well. It is the perfect tropical fruit. Pomelos, part of the grapefruit family but larger and sweeter, have also made their way into my heart. Fresh squeezed pomelo juice will set you back $1 from a street vendor- affordable refreshment to combat the midday heat.

Fried noodles- Phnom Penh

Fried noodles from a stall in the Central Market

One of Cambodia’s signature dishes is fish amok, which consists of fish steamed in a banana leaf (or boiled in cheaper restaurants) with coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger and spices. I’ve had it a few times with very different preparations. One was rather dry, served atop rice, and another was more like a heavy Thai curry. Both were good, but nothing totally unique. Cambodian food is the red-headed step child of Southeast Asian cuisine, and it doesn’t help that it’s sandwiched between two great culinary countries- Thailand and Vietnam. The food certainly isn’t bad; they just can’t compete with their neighbors. That’s ok, I need to catch up on my pizza eating.

Amok- the curry version

Amok- the curry version

Two wonderful holdovers from French colonization, however, are wine and baguettes. Cambodia is the first Asian country I’ve been to where wine isn’t over-priced and of poor quality. You can get a glass of house wine (usually from Australia or Chile) for under $3. Sante! And the baguettes… OH the baguettes! They are everywhere in the form of sandwiches and garlic bread, and a staple at hotel breakfast buffets. These aren’t the kind that tear up the roof of your mouth and make you wish you’d ordered wheat bread. No, these are light as air with a delicately crispy outside and soft inside. Pure heaven.

While the official currency of Cambodia is the riel, most transactions take place in US dollars. Even ATMs dispense greenbacks, a first in my international travel experience. Prices at hotels, restaurants, shops and even street stalls are quoted in dollars, and riels are only given as small change. If your total is $2.50 and you hand over a $5 bill, you’ll receive $2 and 2,000 riels as change ($1 equals 4,000 riels). It does slow things down a bit when a shop owner has to punch figures into a calculator to determine the exchange rate for $.72, but apparently it works for them. It certainly beats having a bunch of change wearing down your wallet.

I’ve enjoyed exploring a bit of Phnom Penh, but look forward to Natalia’s arrival. We’ll spend two days in the city, then take an overnight bus to Siem Reap for a little temple action. I can’t WAIT!

Phnom Penh National Museum

Phnom Penh National Museum


5 thoughts on “Getting Acquainted With Phnom Penh

  1. Pingback: Cambodia’s Wild East- Ban Lung and Sen Monorom | Plans Subject to Change

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