Phnom Penh

Compared to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh seems much less developed (I’m trying not to say ‘it feels like a third-world city’ – but it does, with its dirty broken-up pavements/sidewalks and lack of garbage collections), but there are quite a few tourists and expats there now and it’s beginning to feel more mainstream. The airport certainly has a pretty modern terminal, and is being expanded. However it’s worrying that Hun Sen,  the former Khmer Rouge cadre chosen by Vietnam to become prime minister when they overthrew the KR, is still in power three decades later and is currently in the process of closing down opposition parties and any democratic alternative to rule by him and his increasingly corrupt cronies. [Update  – by December 2017 he’d managed to effectively ban strikes and create an authoritarian one-party state. It’s getting to the point where tourists may have to decide to boycott the country.]

The one unmissable sight, of course, is the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes (also known as School S-21), just southwest of the centre on the corner of Streets 113 & 350 (daily 7am-5.30pm, US$3) – you should definitely take an audioguide (US$3) or a guide (US$6). It’s very well presented, with lots of photos – like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge took records of everyone, even if there was next to no chance of their not being killed. You may even meet one of the very few survivors – see below (some say just seven prisoners were left alive when Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese, some say that up to 200 survived in one way or another – but there’s no doubt that between 12,000 and 20,000 took the one-way journey from here to the Killing Fields). Yes, it’s harrowing, but if you do it properly you can then allow yourself not to go out to the Killing Fields as well.

The National Museum is worth visiting for US$5, mainly displaying Khmer sculpture from the 6th century on, as well as some ceramics. Next door, the Royal Palace (including the Silver Pagoda) keeps slightly erratic opening hours – we found it closed for some royal event or other. Just north of the centre, Wat Phou (daily 7am-6pm, US$1) is not particularly interesting, but it’s near some French colonial buildings which will be very attractive when they’ve been refurbished – on the post office square there’s also the Hôtel de la Poste (1890s) and, at the north end of the square, the former police station (c.1910), which may reopen as a boutique hotel at some point. There are some lively bars in this area too! Khmer Architecture Tours offer tours on Saturdays and Sundays – it’s also worth seeing some of the buildings designed by Cambodia’s best-known architect, Vann Molyvann (1926-2017), such as the National (or Olympic) Stadium and the National Theatre.

For sale – potential boutique hotel

Genocide Museum

I was very grateful to be able to meet Chum Mey, one of only seven known survivors of the S-21 Tuol Sleng Camp, who has written about his experiences there in the book SURVIVOR which raises funds for those in poverty.

Cur-tailed Cats

As we wandered thru’ Laos and Cambodia we noticed more and more cats and kittens without tails or with stumpy tails or tails with a kink. Was there some strange cruel tradition of tail deformation at birth and if so, why? As it turns out, after a fair bit of googling I discovered that this phenomenom is due to a recessive gene! There is a short-tail gene which is carried by Japanese Bobtail cats and Siamese cats whose naturally short, kinked tails have been bred out in Western countries, but has spread all over Asia helped by in-breeding between stray cats.

Some practicalities – where we slept and ate

You Khin House is a peaceful and comfortable place to stay away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets of Phnom Penh. It provides the best of any B&B with many additional advantages, not least that the whole operation exists to support disadvantaged children. It was created in 1990 by Mrs Muoy You and her late artist husband who designed the building, which also houses a collection of his paintings.

Funds generated support underprivileged families who are offered a quality education for their children to help break the cycle of poverty. By staying at You Khin House you are supporting the running of a Montessori nursery and a primary school 30km south of Phnom Penh.

Rooms are behind the courtyard so very quiet apart from the squawk of a resident cage-bird! There is a small pool in the internal courtyard where a cafe serves fresh food all day, and in the evening, prepared by three local women. The breakfasts are delicious and varied and included fruit and pancakes. There is a second street-side building which is currently in development and will provide affordable apartments for people staying longer than the average tourist. A lovely home from home. There’s also at least one tuk-tuk driver usually just outside the front door for convenience!

There are a couple of very special restaurants in Phnom Penh, run by Mith Samlanh, the Cambodian branch of Friends International, which was set up here to help the 10,000 or 20,000 children left living on the streets after the Khmer Rouge nightmare. The restaurants both raise money and provide training for youngsters wanting to work in the hospitality business. We ate at Romdeng, serving fascinating Cambodian dishes (with plenty of vegetarian options); it’s an attractive villa with tables on the patio and by the swimming pool, and food and service are both great. It would be wise to book in advance. They also have their original, less fancy, restaurant, Friends, which produces food for their training centre, and more recently they’ve opened Marum in Siem Reap and Makphet in Vientiane, which like Romdeng are aimed at tourists and expats. However in March 2017 it was announced that Makphet had to close temporarily due to the expiry of its lease.

Although Thai- and Vietnamese-style food was all that was available when the founders of Friends International first came here, and it’s easy to assume that Cambodian cuisine is something in between the two, it’s actually distinct from them. Many dishes are based on prahok (fermented fish paste), but otherwise meat and fish play a minor rôle. Chillies are usually served on the side, so it’s not too hot. Tamarind is important, as well as galangal (part of the ginger family), banana flowers, unripe mango, amok leaves, morning glory (water spinach), winter melon, and lotus root. I learnt this from the Romdeng cookery books, which are fabulously produced but very heavy – luckily they can be bought online when you get home. Incidentally, there are stalls in a few locations across town that offer delicacies such as grilled beetles, spiders and even snakes.

We also stumbled across the Himawari Microbrewery, in a big new hotel right on the attractive promenade by the Mekong – just like the Siem Reap Brewpub, they produce a range of golden, IPA and stouts, with a US$4 flight of samplers available, and they also do pizza. The beers were perfectly acceptable but to my mind they seemed just slightly blander than the Siem Reap offering.

Angkor, an ocean of temples

Normally I put ‘Some practicalities’ at the end of my posts, but on this occasion I’m going to start with some practical points that seem pretty fundamental. Firstly, the ticket office for all visits to the Angkor temples has moved a little way to the east – your driver (tuk-tuk, car, bus) will automatically take you there, but if you’re cycling on your own you’ll have to find the new place (there are road signs). It’s a spacious new complex (open 5am to 5.30pm daily), but bizarrely it doesn’t have credit card facilities – you’ll have to get US dollars from the ATMs conveniently placed for that purpose. And the prices just went up on 1 February 2017, from US$20 to US37 for one day, from US$40 to US$62 for thee days, and from US$62 to US$72 for a week. A big increase, but it’s all still unmissable. Signs say that a passport photo is required, but in fact they take one for free to print on your ticket.

The currency situation in Cambodia is generally a bit weird – the Khmer Rouge abolished money altogether in the 1970s, but the country once again has its own currency, the Riel; however prices are quoted in US dollars and generally that’s what they want – although everyone is very flexible and willing to take a combination (with the dollar worth a not unreasonable 4000 Riels). ATMs (of which there are plenty) may only offer you dollars, or may give you a choice. As in Laos, there are no coins – change below the one-dollar level comes in Riels.

Angkor is wonderful and unmissable, of course. What struck me most strongly was the variety of temples, of different shapes, sizes and styles, and levels of conservation and rebuilding. There’s one that was a hospital and another that was a seminary for monks. There are plenty of guidebooks that give detailed information, so I’ll confine myself to saying that it is possible to do both the Small and Grand Circuits in a day with a helpful tuk-tuk driver, but it can be tiring, especially if the temperature is in the mid-30s Celsius, as it often is. It may be better to spread it over two days with relaxing lunch breaks. You also have to decide if you want to see the sunrise or sunset, and if so where – I’d rule out Angkor Wat itself for starters, given the hordes there. Likewise, Phnom Bakheng is horribly crowded at sunset. There are various smaller, less famous, temples that are much less crowded, but, in any case, if you’ve seen some stunning sunrises and sunsets elsewhere in the world this probably won’t be any better. Angkor (from the Sanskrit Nagora or city) refers to the whole area; Angkor Wat is, of course, one of the largest and finest temples, while Angkor Thom is a walled city just to the north of the wat, centred on the Bayon temple, another of the finest sights here.

The next day you could go to Banteay Srei, 40km north of Siem Reap, which is known for the finest and most detailed carvings of all the Angkor temples. It’s another 12km to Kbal Spean, which is not a temple but a series of Shiva lingams (some of them just pimples on a square rock slab) in the bed of a stream – they’re rather underwhelming in themselves, but the 1.5km (each way) hike up a rough trail provides a enjoyable dose of jungle, although most of the wildlife is nocturnal, or just keeping out of the way. With hindsight it might be better to go to the Roluos group of temples, east of Siem Reap, instead. In any case we got back in time to spend most of the afternoon at the modern Angkor National Museum (US$12 – not covered by the Angkor temples ticket), which gives an excellent overview of the temples’ histories and their architectural and sculptural styles.

If there’s one name to retain here, it’s Jayavarman VII, who was born in 1125 and was the last of the great rulers of the Khmer Empire, from c1181 to 1218 – he brought the empire to its greatest expanse and built a new capital at Angkor Thom, with many fine temples, notably Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, as well as 102 hospitals and 121 rest houses about 15km apart along the empire’s main roads. Unusually, he was a devout Buddhist, and when Hinduism returned to fashion after his death his temples were somewhat messed about with and many statues lost.

You’ll often see a tug-of-war motif, on balustrades and on bas-relief carvings – this is actually the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, an episode from the Mahabharata and other Indian epics, in which asura (demons) hold the tail end of the serpent king Vasuki, and devas or devata (defenders) hold its head end, churning the cosmic ocean for a thousand years and produced Amrita, the elixir of immortality, the goddess Lakshmi, and the Apsaras or celestial dancers that are another common theme in Angkorian sculpture.

 Eating and drinking in Siem Reap

We did not research the drinking dens of Pub Street nor anywhere much else, but we can recommend two excellent places to eat and drink. The Purple Mangosteen, on a pedestrian alley near Pub St and the river in central Siem Reap, is a boutique hotel and restaurant that does a fine lemongrass mojito (two for one during happy hour (4-9pm), as well as a better than usual range of options for vegetarians and vegans. It’s owned by someone I happened to go to school with many years ago who has been training in stonework and sculpture restoration and conservation at Angkor for a couple of decades. The Siem Reap Brewpub, opened in 2015, occupies a Corbusieresque villa with a lovely terrace and produces a range of tasty craft ales, from blonde through to stout, and also serves a decent range of food, all at very reasonable prices.

The Siem Reap Brewpub