Friday, November 27, 2009

guide: cambodia (p2 to start more to come)

If you have any sense at all you are going to fall in love with Cambodia. Like anywhere it does have its frustrating aspects (NO I DON'T WANT A TUK-TUK YOU JUST SAW ME STEP OUT OF ONE!) but speaking from a tourist's perspective (not of pcv or ex-pat) Cambodia offers up the goods. Boasting an enviable swath of coast line, jungles, ruins, haunting history and decaying colonial cities, Cambodia counters the resort lifestyle of Thailand and the chaos of Vietnam with a difficult to describe charm. Most people end up in Phnom Penh, so we'll start there and then move out.

PHNOM PENH ('p squared')
Upon first glance I wasn't quite sure what to make of Cambodia's capital city, I arrived at night, and night time arrivals are always a bit disorienting. In the light of day I found PP a mass of slowly deteriorating colonial buildings mixed in with the typical skeletons of concrete structures which were variously in some state of falling apart or being put up. It was familiar and yet distinct and though I found PP at first, tiring, dirty, and unappealing I soon found myself enamored with its charms.
I wrote a bit about PP when I first came to Cambodia on a mission to spend as much time consuming coffee and pumpkin soup with Michael as is possible to cram into a single month. I loved it then and I still love it now.
Most tourists end up down by the waterfront, which isn't an awful place to hang out. PP makes it incredibly affordable to live out your Indochine fantasies, you can spend the afternoon buying silk, eating exquisite food and follow it all up with a cocktail on the terrace of the FCC as the sunsets behind the red sandstone of the National Museum or a pretty nice view of the confluences of three rivers. There is quite a bit to see and do so we'll try and break it down....
things to see...
National Musuem: which might be very cool, I have never seen it and no one ever managed to convince me it was worth a trip inside. It is built in traditional Khmer architecture out of a really nice red sandstone. It is definitely worth taking a photo of, but I'm not making any promises regarding its contents.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda: so maybe this is going to make me seem like a bad Tour Leader but I never ventured with in the walls of the palace. Louise told me it was worth a visit, but somehow coffee always got in my way. Maybe that is a bad excuse, but I figured it couldn't be that different to the Royal Palace in Bangkok. You can correct me if I am wrong. Just remember to dress conservatively, no tank tops please!
S-21/Toul Sleng/Genocide Musuem: This place has a lot of different names and it is certainly worth taking some time to see. I find the idea of coming to Cambodia and not learning at least the basics of the history a bit lame. The museum makes all the stories, all the facts hauntingly real, you don't have to linger, but I think it is worth getting a guide and listening to what they have to say. I've been twice, and although even just sitting outside makes me feel a bit queasy, I encourage you to go. Afterward you can reward yourself with a cool beverage at the bhodi tree cafe right across the street.
Choeung Ek/Killing Fields: The Killing Fields were the last step for prisoners after leaving s-21. Guides hang out here and are happy to show you around the site, but it is well signed and I think wandering around here silently is usually more than enough. They have a constructed a large stupa to store the skulls of the victims, it is a raw look at a sad time in Khmer history.
If one were to take off in the morning at about 8, stopping first at s-21, then at the killing fields you could be back in town by about lunch time and visit Friends for lunch. Friend, the restaurant, supports Friends International the charity. After a sobering morning it can be nice to relax in a place which you know is giving back to the local people and has a profound effect on many young people's lives. Next door to the restaurant Friends runs a store which has been recently redone.
Continuing in that vein, places to shop...
There are a lot of markets in PP most people's favorite for touristy needs is the Russian Market (no they don't serve borscht). Though at its center it is your run of the mil market, the outer layers are choc-a-block with all the crap tourists love: ceramics, lacquer, t-shirts, knock-off rolexes, pirated dvd, gap clothes from the nearby factory, silk scarves, embroidered wallets. You HAVE to haggle or you will get robbed blind, be ready to walk away and compare prices. Central market is huge and it is more than possible you will get lost just trying to get into the market itself. The building itself has been under restoration for the last few years and the work is starting to show, its art deco architecture has been served well by a new coat of lemon yellow paint. Even if you just stop by to take a picture it is worth the trip. Nearby is the Sorya mall, the tallest building PP. Ride the escalators to the top to earn a nice view of the city. They also have incredible collections of pirated DVDs for sale.

Where to eat:
FCC (all the tuk tuk drivers know it) great for happy hours
Elsewhere and the rest of 278 (tell your tuk tuk driver to take you to golden gate guest house) my favorite street for bars
Garden Cafe (#4, St. 57, very near 278 next to smateria) has absolutely everything one might imagine wanting to eat.
Nature and Sea (on the rooftop in 278) awesome salads and smoothies.
Warung Bali (just up the road from the fcc, across from the National Museum) cheap great indonesiian food.
Friends (v. close to the National Museum) everything is good, omg.
Romdeng (street 178) classy Khmer food in a gorgeous colonial house (also part of Friends International).
The Shop (street 240) for a totally french and fabulous moment, don't miss their sister store, Chocolate (also on street 240).

Enough already! Enjoy.

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