Sunday, May 5, 2013

Phnom Penh (part 3)

Phnom Penh has seen major changes since our last trip in 2007.  There are obvious changes in the city's infrastructure.  The beautiful French colonial hotel on the riverfront we stayed in six years earlier no longer exists. There are definitely more high rises, more cars on the road and more people. We also noticed many more Western tourists and even met a few expats.  The city is growing rapidly and it's very exciting to visit such a place and witness all the development and growth.

By late afternoon we arrived at our hotel.  We quickly checked in, dropped our bags and left the room. We booked our next leg to Sihanoukville from our hotel receptionist.  When I asked the guy booking our trip if the vehicle has an air conditioner, he remarked as though I was being ridiculous to even have asked him this silly question, "Of course!  It's a brand new costing over $40,000 USD German Mercedes Madame!"  After we booked our car trip he asked if we are hungry and handed us their restaurant menu. I looked at the menu, glancing at the food description and food photos which did not appear to be too exciting or appetizing despite my hunger.  I also did not see anyone eating food which is a bad sign. When it comes to eating out I try to eat in places where I see many local people eating. We thanked him and handed him the menu.  We decided to walk to the local market and I made a few purchases.  

view from inside a tuk tuk in the congested city
interesting architecture of the local market
woman selling bananas and leaves in the market
(as a teenager my mother used to cut the leaves
from the banana grove behind
her parents' yard and sold them to the local
neighbors for extra money)
After wandering the busy streets we found a Chinese restaurant serving dim sum.  I was disappointed by the quality of seafood. Perhaps I am a bit spoiled by living on the NH seacoast and with access to plenty of fresh sea life.  

Earlier my husband read about happy hour served at the Elephant Bar located in the historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal.  The hotel was beautiful with elephant art painted on the walls.  We were pleasantly surprised that our drinks came with some tasty light snacks and we were entertained by a lovely live piano performance. Of course prior to visiting the hotel be sure to adhere to the dress code! Fortunately the staff let us in; I had flip flops, t-shirt and jeans.  

After a fabulous time at the Elephant Bar we walked through the Phnom Penh night market.  If you want to see the night crowd that's the place to be. There was a live entertainer, must be a comedian because people were laughing but we could not understanding Khmer.  In one section of the market there were stalls with people selling all sorts of goods; watches, shoes, clothing, accessories, etc. You can shop and haggle for prices until you drop! In the back there were all types of Cambodian eateries. It seemed to be popular among local families and friends; large crowds of people gathered around, sitting on mats and eating their food. There were no tables or chairs but everyone seemed to be comfortable and having a good time.

Later we passed by the Riverhouse Lounge-a restored French building remodeled in 2009 and is currently a stylish restaurant and bar. We were curious about the interior and it appeared that this place is the place to be.  The upstairs had some very loud music with lots of lights.  We made our way inside through the crowd and walked right out again.  Everyone was half our age and the music was loud and not particularly pleasant.  

Next we visited the brand-new Frangipani hotel, and its popular rooftop bar. The temperature was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit and to me that was perfect to be sitting outside. We sat next to an expat couple who work for an NGO.  They appeared to be enjoying life in Phnom Penh. They were going clubbing to hear some house music after dinner and had invited us to meet them there later. Maybe 15-20 years earlier I may have re-considered the invitation.  However, I was not in the mood for house music, partly due to the fact that I was clueless to that style of music.  On our walk back to our hotel we came across Memphis Pub.  It is known to have the best Rock 'n Roll in the city. Lucky for us there was a live band and the music was exceptionally good.  Although we were tired we ended up staying longer to watch them.  Who would have thought to hear excellent Rock 'n Roll music in Cambodia?!

a few of the dim sum
dishes we ate
enjoying a drink and light snacks
at the historic hotel
the Elephant Bar
with live piano performance
Phnom Penh night market
an entertainer at the night market
view of The Riverhouse Lounge
view from the rooftop bar at Frangipani hotel
Memphis Pub
with excellent Rock 'n Roll music
The very next day we woke early and searched for breakfast in the neighborhood near our hotel.  We were scoping for local crowds in any eateries. We came across a place where there was some Chinese writing posted on top of the entrance and I recognized the food.  I immediately knew we may have found good home-style Chinese cooking.  I looked in and noticed with relief that most of the tables were taken, which to me is a good indication of good food.  I decided to speak Teochew with her and she responded that she knows a little. Lucky for her and for me, I also know a little!  We found a table with 2 seats and I went over to her and placed our order in my best Teochew.  Fortunately she understood what I wanted and brought the correct food and coffee over to us. The food was typical Chinese and it's the same food I grew up eating.  

entrance of restaurant
woman selling Chinese home-style cooking
We returned to our hotel, grabbed our day pack and sat outside our hotel in cushioned chairs waiting to flag down a tuk tuk to take us the Royal Palace. While we waited I noticed a monk in his bright orange robe and an umbrella walking bare foot down the street, stopping in each home or business to collect his daily alms of food.  This is a very common morning scene for monks in Cambodia.

Our tuk tuk took us to the palace.  We hired an English speaking guide, named Ivenum and he pointed out interesting facts and history of the palace.  The palace was constructed over a century ago and is still used by King Norodom Sihamoni.  Part of the grounds were not open to the public when we visited since the King was visiting that day.  The place has not changed much since our last visit in 2007 and the entire palace is kept amazingly spotless.  It's a beautiful and peaceful place to walk and enjoy all the detailed architecture and sculptures especially when there are few tourists.

tuk tuk
2 monks outside of the Royal Palace

Ramayana Fresco

our guide, Ivenum (wearing a red shirt
because it was Monday--
each day there is a different color)
one of the most ornate doors
on this trip
statues next to a cannonball tree
and flowers

We left the Palace and took a tuk tuk to another market known as the Russian Market that my husband had read about.  Our tuk tuk driver agreed to wait for us while we shopped.  This market has everything you can ever want to buy from food, toys, souvenirs and all sorts of items that you may or may not need!  We ended up buying a few apsara and Buddha statues. Outside the market I smelled pineapple and noticed a young girl selling them from the back of her bicycle. She was cutting the fruits and hanging them in a a clear plastic bags so people walking by can look at her beautiful work and be tempted to purchase them. The fruits looked and smelled amazingly sweet but I had to refrain myself from buying one. When it comes to buying fruits in Southeast Asia I generally buy those that I can peel myself--for sanitary reasons.  

strings of colorful
animal mobiles
indoor food market
meat on the left and vegetables on the right
young girl selling freshly
cut pineapples
beautifully cut pineapple
with amazingly sweet aroma
Once outside we found our driver and his tuk tuk waiting patiently in the crowd in the distance.  We climbed on to the tuk tuk and asked him to take us to a Khmer temple that caught our eye with all its intricate detail while en route to the market.  The temple is typical Khmer-style and we wanted to take a closer look at all the detailed work.  The buildings are very ornate with many beautiful sculptures and carvings.

view from back of the tuk tuk
(our driver was almost hit by the
guy holding some long boards)
another typical view from a tuk tuk
temple entrance

door and flip flops

Next we asked our driver to take us to a restaurant along the water.  He was unable to give us a recommendation since the restaurants there were too expensive for him.  My husband asked him where he goes and he showed him on a map.  We finally asked him to drop us off at Khmer Saravan, one of the busier restaurants.  The food was good but the writing and art from other travelers on the wall was even better!  I ate amok (a popular dish in Cambodia) which was made with curry and fish. My husband had a pad Thai.

our driver showing my husband where he
and the other tuk tuk drivers eat
interesting writing/art on the wall
"Lady!  You want tuk tuk?"
amok-a popular dish in Cambodia
(it seems that all the restaurants in Phnom Penh serve this)
With a full stomach we took a tuk tuk to Phnom Penh Museum before it closed.  We had been there in 2007 but we wanted to visit again.  There are always some history or art pieces that we have missed or had forgotten from the last visit.  My husband is a history buff and he loves to learn more about Cambodia.  I must admit the Cambodian history is quite interesting.  At one point in history Cambodia was this powerful and massive empire with land extended to what is now the Southern part of Vietnam. To this day the Cambodians refer to this region in Vietnam as Kampuchea Krom. As for me I am much more fascinated and intrigued in the architecture, construction, sculptures and gardens.

entrance of museum
beautiful courtyard of museum
apsara sculpture in courtyard

We left the museum at closing and flagged down a tuk tuk to take us to the newly opened Frangipani Royal Palace Hotel & Spa.  My husband read that there is a roof top bar with a nice view.  We were looking forward to a drink and watch the sunset.  We climbed up to the top and by then I was relieved and happy to have any cold drink! There was not much of a sunset due to the haze from burning fields (end of harvesting season) but from the top we could see all of Phnom Penh. The view in 2013 resembles more of a little city than in 2007. Despite the air pollution the view was still beautiful and we enjoyed the cool tropical breeze with our extra cold drinks!

new skyscrapers in distance
Phnom Penh waterfront
Royal Palace
waterfront at night

We left our roof top view and took a tuk tuk to find the eatery that was recommended to us by our previous tuk tuk driver.  After a long day in the tropical humid heat we were happy to sit down for some food and more cold drinks.  I was pleased to see that this place had many customers. The food was home-style, inexpensive and it hit the spot!

The next morning we visited the same little Chinese eatery from the day earlier, and ate our final breakfast in Phnom Penh before heading to Sihanoukville.  We sat in lounge chairs in front of the hotel waiting for our pick up.  I noticed a woman with cart of food coming closer to us.  It was very popular, the woman was slow traveling down the street since she stopped many times and was filling multiple orders.  Even our hotel/restaurant owners ordered food from her.  I decided to go up to cart and inspect the food.  To my surprise I recognized the food, they were Vietnamese sweet snacks!  I was delighted and bought a few containers.

Vietnamese vendors selling food from a portable cart--
typical sight in Southeast Asia
delicious Vietnamese sweet snacks
(thank you Paul for the photos)
Our minivan came to our hotel to pick us up. Our driver stopped a few times to pick up the rest of the passengers.  There were a total of 4 of us heading to Sihanoukville, the Southern coastal village in Cambodia. We had not even got out of Phnom Penh when he was stopped at a stop sign by a police officer.  The police started to make a call and our driver wanted to pay off the police.  It turns out that our driver was driving the wrong way down a one way street.  After some negotiation the police took the money and we continued on our journey.  Later when we stopped for lunch I asked our driver how much he paid for the bribe.  He smiled and responded five USD.  The local people such as our driver do not make a lot of money and paying bribes can get expensive.  Unfortunately, that's a typical way of doing business in Southeast Asia.  Lunch that day was nothing to write home about.  I had beef and noodle soup and it was mostly small pieces of bones with hardly any meat.  I left feeling hungrier than when I first sat down!

We were at about half way into our trip and I started to smell a strange odor that I cannot identify.  I thought it came from outside our vehicle so I did not say anything.  Later our driver sensed something was wrong, pulled over and opened up the van.  We all hopped out of the van and stood by the side of the road.  One of the passengers is a French lady traveling alone.  She waved to a young boy on a bicycle to come to her but he was painfully shy so he stood outside his yard.  She then went over to him and gave him a small white bag.  He put his palms together to thank her for the gift and rode off.  I asked her what was in the bag.  I thought it was candies.  She gets lots of toiletry from the hotels during her travel, toothbrushes, soaps, etc.  She would take all the toiletry given to her and then give them out to the local children.  What an excellent idea!  While we waited on the side of the road the local people looked at us with curiosity and some smiled and waved.  We must looked strange since this brand new looking van stopped on the road with what looked like engine problem. While we were standing looking at the van my husband and I simultaneously noticed that our $40,000 Mercedes is actually a Ford.  So much for being "brand new German".

waiting on the side of the road
French lady giving out toiletry kit to local boy
3 happy and well-behaved boys
in cart pushed by their father
We had no idea what was happening and the reason for stopping in the middle of nowhere.  We decided to ask one of the passengers, a young Khmer college student who to our surprise could speak relatively good English and he told us that the problem is the car battery. Apparently it was getting hot and leaking acid.  The interesting thing is the battery was partly under the driver seat and in front of my seat, next to my feet!  It was inside a black hard plastic case.  After we were waiting on the side of the road for about an hour for it to cool down we finally boarded the van and headed down the road.  I heard some noise down by my feet and my husband thought that I should move away from the battery--good idea Paul! Apparently it was spattering acid inside the case.  The last thing I need is acid eating up my feet!  Our driver was being extra cautious and started driving extremely slow. These drivers usually drive pretty fast.  He was going so slow that the French lady asked if he can speed it up, she was getting sleepy from his driving!  I laughed to myself and I wonder if our driver understood her. By the time we made it to Sihanoukville it was very dark. Our hotel (Orchidee) sent a tuk tuk to pick us up.  We ate a late dinner and sat with the hotel owner (Jan) who is a Dutch expat and had a lovely chat with him.  While we stayed at his hotel we learned more about life in Sihanoukville and Cambodia.  The most disturbing fact that he told us is the poor medical care.  It is possible for someone with no medical background to obtain a paper license to practice with $1500 USD.  It is not surprising that those who can somewhat afford anything will seek their care outside of Cambodia.  When I was in Saigon there were Cambodians who were staying at the same hotel as I was, they were there for medical care and treatments.

the sun going down and we were still far from Sihanoukville
To be continued...

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