A Week in Phnom Penh

Unexpected Comfort

When we arrived at our hotel, hot and sweaty and tired from a long, crammed taxi ride, the kids surprised me with their attitudes about the place. We had been in high-end Starwoods properties for the last three weeks, making good use of the points Theo accumulated over years of business travel. Lots of perks and special touches come with those reservations, but here at a small hotel that didn’t even muster a guidebook mention, the girls fell in love at first sight. Maybe it was because the pool was in the lobby (pretty much) or we had to climb three flights of funky stairs to our rooms - passing a library on the way - or maybe it was the American contemporary pop and Golden Oldies music they played in the dining room, but whatever it was, the girls immediately responded to La Librairie’s personality.

stairwell at La Librairie in Phnom Penh

The place felt comfortable to me pretty quickly, too. I loved how the staff actually talked to me and looked me in the eye and even gave me the check (!) when we finished dining. We had two adjacent rooms that shared a large balcony, and the layout just felt more like an apartment than a hotel. Our lifestyle in Phnom Penh was more similar to that of our time in Stockholm and Paris - where we rented apartments but ate out for every meal. We did a lot of school work and played games and went swimming and updated the blog. Most nights, Theo and I went to the lobby lounge for happy hour while the girls hung out in the room. We chatted with the staff about American music and how to make White Russians. It was homey.

The Food Scene

Stir Fried Red Ant Beef in Phnom Penh

In my pre-trip research, I read that Phnom Penh had a great food scene with interesting restaurants and unique street food. That set my expectations fairly high, and they were exceeded. The first meal was dinner at the hotel. I had a chicken and avocado salad that was perfect. On the next day, we went exploring for lunch. Just two or three doors down from the hotel we found an authentic Khmer restaurant. Theo and I had Stir Fried Red Ant Beef. Well, I had tarantula, cricket, and beetle in Siem Reap, so I might as well try red ant! It was tasty, but I didn’t love the texture of the ants.

fried tarantulaWe had amazing shouldn’t-be-good-but-it’s-oh-so-good food at a little cafe: spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread, sweet and sour fried fish and chicken, grilled cheese, and French fries that tasted delicious. There was Romdeng, a restaurant with a social improvement mission, where we had tarantula again (had it twice, I’m done, thanks) and spring rolls and green papaya salad and more. All of it was so fresh and flavorful. (I mean, there is just so much gloppy, unseasoned, mediocre food out there. I was so happy to eat food here that was none of those things.) We also found a little French place that took a modern approach to classical French cuisine. SO. GOOD. I mean, I don’t think we had a single bad meal in Phnom Penh.

Street food is plentiful here, as is common in Asia, but we did not partake. No special reason, we just didn’t. But the reminders were everywhere, even on our fourth story balcony. There, we could not escape the sounds of “Liah Cha-aah” blasting through megaphones from carts below. These are the salted or spiced and fried or sun-dried clams people here like to eat as a snack. They are also notorious for making you sick if you get a bad (undercooked) batch.

fried clams cart on street in Phnom Penh

New Year’s Eve

This was the fourth big U.S. holiday we’ve missed, and I do mean miss. I have certainly been homesick at times, never ready to finish the trip but aching to spend time with my family and friends. The holidays are the worst. I really don’t like being away for them.

New Year’s Eve, however, was the easiest. We had a chill day at the hotel and took our first trip to Romdeng, the socially conscious restaurant and gift shop a few blocks from our hotel. Tori and I went swimming; Theo and I enjoyed Happy Hour. There were many hotels and restaurants offering NYE parties and specials, but we chose to stay in. We dined in the hotel, then hung out in our rooms. The big NYE concert in downtown Phnom Penh was televised, so we watched that. We could even hear some of the crowd noise from the balcony, and we saw some of the fireworks. We made it to midnight to “officially ring in 2016 in Cambodia.

New Year’s Day

memorial stupa at Choeung Ek, Cambodia, honoring the victims of the Khmer RougeWe went to the Choeung Ek memorial, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. This is one of the Killing Fields used by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. It is an understandably somber place, as nearly 9000 people of all ages were executed here as a part of the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of genocide, an atrocity that took over 1 million lives. Guests receive headsets and audio guides to listen to along the walk through the grounds. It allows for everyone to learn about the site and the atrocities there, as well as keep the quiet such a place deserves. A Buddhist stupa stands near the entrance, and it is filled with skulls and bones of victims found on site, all cataloged and organized by approximate age, gender, and manner of death.

Angry at what the Khmer Rouge had done, people tore down most of the built structures shortly after the war. They also dismantled buildings for parts, as they were impoverished by years of war and oppression. The bones and clothing of the victims remain, however. Most have been excavated, but some continue to rise to the ground’s surface as rain and erosion work to reveal them.

This is the worst place I have ever been.

We left Choeung Ek, then went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. This is also known as S-21, the former high school converted to the notorious security prison Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge used to imprison, torture, and kill tens of thousands of people accused of “espionage”. They began with the soldiers, government officials, and other who were a part of the previous government, then the paranoia of Pol Pot and his co-conspirators turned to their fellow Khmer Rouge officers. Not only would the soldiers and officials suspected of betraying the Khmer Rouge meet imprisonment and death, but all of their family members would, as well. It was explained that the thinking behind this was to leave no one left who would want to vengeance.

We didn’t finish the tour.

On the ride back to the hotel, I marveled at how far Cambodia has come. I thought about how much had to be rebuilt - the Khmer Rouge wanted the entire country to be agrarian, so they shut schools, factories, and hospitals. They abolished currency and banking, outlawed religion, and drove people out of cities into forced agricultural labor. The genocide ended in 1979, but the Khmer Rouge was part of the ruling class into the 1990s. This had the backing of many Western countries. I don’t understand the politics or reasoning behind that. I don’t know when things really started to improve for the people of Cambodia. I do know that country was restored to a monarchy in 1993, and that the Prime Minister holds most of the power. Corruption is rampant. There is much left to rebuild, figuratively and literally.

Sunset Cruise

sunset cruise on the Mekong River

We didn’t stay in the main tourist section of town, so it wasn’t until we set out for a sunset dinner cruise that we got to see it. The food was delicious, the drinks a little weak and the sights about a 6 out of 10. It was a pleasant cruise and a nice family outing.

night skyline of downtown Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom

On our last day in Phnom Penh, we paid a visit to the Buddhist temple of Wat Phnom, which was built in the late 1300s. The temple’s altar had one large Buddha surrounded by many smaller Buddhas. Money and flowers were placed in each of their laps. Monks came in briefly and prayed, then left. The inside of the temple is painted with scenes of Buddha’s life. Outside, people had cages of little birds. You could pay to release a bird. I have no idea what that’s all about. We had no guide or brochure about Wat Phnom, so we were pretty clueless.

altar at Wat Phnom

General Information

Where we were.

{{ last_loc.name }} starting {{last_loc.whence | date:'yyyy-MM-dd'}}

Where we are.

{{ current_loc.name }} since {{current_loc.whence | date:'yyyy-MM-dd'}}

Where we're going.

{{ next_loc.name }} on {{next_loc.whence | date:'yyyy-MM-dd'}}