The bus from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh was about a six hour ride. As soon as we arrived and settled in, we took a Tuk-tuk tour around the city. Tuk-tuks are a great way to travel around Phnom Penh as you see much more than you would from a car-and they are really inexpensive!
Phnom Penh is a growing city with a mixture of old beautiful French architecture and a mixture of Bauhaus and European post-modern architecture with traditional elements from Angkor. There are a few brand new buildings being built now, but mostly, the city is still recovering from the rein of the Khmer Rouge and is in a state of renovations.
The Royal Palace was the first stops on our tour. It is a complex of buildings which has served as the royal residence of the kings of Cambodia since it was built in the 1860’s. It’s divided into three main compounds; the Silver Pagoda which houses national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues, the Moonlight Pavilion which serves as a venue for the Royal Dancers, a tribune for the King to address the crowds and as a place to hold state and Royal banquets, and finally the Throne Hall where weddings and coronations take place.
We also saw the lotus shaped stupa, The Independent Monument which commemorates Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. During national celebrations, The Independence Monument is the center of activities.
We finished the tour with drinks at FCC, The Foreign Correspondence Club, overlooking the Mekong River. It was the perfect way to end our afternoon.
That first night in Phnom Penh, we had dinner at a very important and a very tasty place, Friends the Restaurant. This restaurant is owned and operated by a local organization that works with Cambodian street children, their families and the surrounding community to develop projects that aides the children to become independent and productive members of the community. The restaurant itself helps fund the project and all of the staff are beneficiaries of the program. The Center, behind Friends the Restaurant, called Mith Samlanh offers food, shelter, medical care, training and educational facilities for over 1,800 homeless, vulnerable or abandoned children every single day. In addition to Friends the Restaurant, they have several other restaurants and cafes around the city. It’s a worthwhile stop on any trip to Phnom Penh. Plus, the Beef with Oyster Mushrooms was delicious and the Pineapple Chili Margarita was one of the best drinks I have ever tasted!
The next day we all knew it would be the most somber day of the trip. We started with a drive to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was originally a high school complex but during the reign of Pol Pot was turned into a prison and torture center known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). We toured the grounds, seeing the cells where the prisoners were held till they were sent to the killing fields to be executed. The most haunting part for me was seeing the rows and rows of photographs of the prisoners that line the walls inside the prison. While at the prison, we had the privilege to meet one of the two living survivors from the original seven that were found at the time the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese Army. He shared his story and Sky, our guide, translated for us. It was really remarkable.
After the museum we drove out of the city, past dozens of textile factories, to the Killing Fields, where prisoners were driven to at night to be executed. At the center of the main field is a large Stupa, inside of which contains 17 levels of bones that were exhumed from the fields surrounding it. In all it is estimated about 30,000 men, women and children were executed at this location, which is one of dozens, if not hundreds of killing fields spread throughout the country.
Near the center of the mass graves that are scattered around the main field stands a tree. This is the tree that babies and young children were pulled from their mothers arms and smashed against, and from this spot, even though I was almost 10,000 miles from home, I was giving my kids a huge hug.
On the near silent bus ride back to the city they offered to stop at the Russian Market, so if anyone wanted to get off there and explore, we could, and make our way back to the hotel. Several of us did, wanting to ease the mood a bit. The front half of the market is a combination of t-shirt & Krama, the traditional Cambodian checkered scarf, vendors and booths. Continuing deeper into the market, aromas of the food stalls beckoned! In that dark building, lit only by the rays of the sun coming through dirty, broken skylights and a few bare bulbs hanging from wires, was stall after stall of traditional foods.
Most of the cooking being done was performed in the same way it had been for centuries, over red hot coals in a stone pot. There were grilled meats, fried foods, and of course, noodle soups. The cooking fires had heated the room to what felt like over 100 degrees, sitting at the counter on a low plastic stool I pointed out my order to the women behind the counter, a bowl of steaming broth with silky noodles vegetables and chicken. The bowl was served with a wedge of lime and there are about half a dozen other condiments on the counter, each spicier than the next.
With the sweat running down my face, I savored every drop of the soup, while keeping an eye on everything going on around me at the market. (As an aside, on the flight home, I was watching the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations that was filmed in Cambodia in 2010. I noticed that he sat in the same seat, in the same stall I had lunch at!)
In the evening, prior to dinner, the group met again at the FCC for happy hour. Who could say no to $1 beers on a third floor balcony overlooking the Mekong and the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh? Certainly not me!
Dinner that night was one of the most special moments of the trip, as our guide, Sky, was taking us to a friend’s home. His friend teaches English to local neighborhood kids in the evenings and we had the opportunity to sit with the kids for over an hour, going over everything they learned, playing games, singing songs and just letting them practice their English and of course, ask all kinds of questions.
The kids ranged in age from 6-17 and they come to Sky’s friend’s house every evening to improve their English. We found out later that Sky used to teach there in exchange for a place to live.
After our time with the children, we headed up to the house where set out on the floor was a crimson floor covering set for our dinner. We took our places on the floor and the feast began! Spring rolls, chicken soup, chicken curry, beef kabobs, fried noodles with beef, and stir fried vegetables were on the menu for the night. Everything was amazing! The food along with a few cans of the local Angkor beer made the evening pass way too quickly.
Just as we were almost done, the power went out, leaving us to eat by the glow of cell phones until the generator kicked in and the lights came back. It was almost a disappointment when they did!
We capped off the dinner with shots of spider wine. Yes, I said spider! It’s basically rice whisky where live tarantulas are placed inside the bottle with the thought that when they drown, their secretion will add special qualities to the drink. Little did I know, this would be a preview for the next day’s adventure!
Wednesday dawned and we said good bye to Phnom Penh and set off towards Siem Reap. Our first stop on the road was at “Spider Town”, where they are known for their deep fried tarantulas in garlic oil. If that didn’t whet your appetite, they also had crickets, water bugs, frogs, whole sparrows, and baby ducks- each cooked differently and in the local custom.
Sky was kind enough to buy us some samples to try! The consensus on the bus was that crickets were the favorite, followed by the spiders. The only problem with the spiders was the hairs that stuck in your teeth after. I did not try any of these! Thankfully, he also bought us some fruits, which I did try. The rambutan, sugar cane and lychee were delicious. A stop at a roadside restaurant for a plate of fried noodles with beef was a welcome “real” lunch!
We continued on to Tonle Sap Lake to visit one of the floating villages there. Passing through a local fishing village, two things stood out- one, how incredibly simply people can live and still be so happy and welcoming. And two, that even though most of the houses were on stilts at least 20 feet over the level of the lake’s water, they were under water during the flooding last fall!
We then walked through a fishing village where the local children curiously followed us as we re-boarded the bus for the final leg to Siem Reap. After settling in and a quick change, it was off to dinner at the Golden Temple Restaurant for some spring rolls and a chicken noodle dish with a show of traditional Khmer dancing. We ordered a lot of beer there because it’s actually cheaper than soda and we enjoyed the dancing and colorful costumes. It was a fun, touristy place to dine.
After dinner, we went off to explore the Angkor Night Market and then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
The next day we would get up early to explore Angkor Wat and some of the other temples in the area…