Reflections: Phnom Penh

October 2, 2018

If you haven’t read the first half of this post, click here quick because I’m about to reflect on my first time in Phnom Penh, and in Cambodia. There are a few misconceptions, and my view of the city has changed, naturally, however, I was pleasantly surprised by parts of it.


A commemorative statue of the city’s founder Lady Penh next to Wat Phnom.


To start here’s the very first observation on Cambodia I wrote, the night I arrived:


“Driving out of the airport you are immediately consumed into the craziness of evening traffic on the wide, dusty main roads. When sitting in traffic jams its impossible to not notice the clamour of desperately impatient motorbike drivers, as they cluster into any gaps available between vehicles and overtake.i have never known bikes to be so fervently in a  hurry, or have such a distaste for staying still than the drivers in Cambodia. It is so strikingly noticeable that you just can't avoid realising it; anyone would think a tidal wave was coming up behind because they drive over the pavements, through the roughest rutted ground and go totally off road just to get ahead. They come in no less than a pair and swarm your vehicle if you happen to be the unlucky one with lots of gaps around you, stopped next to one of their makeshift shortcuts”.


I just sat in my tuk gawping in disbelief at these bikes scaling 2ft curbs to drive over the pavement to move 10ft in front of the traffic.


I was in Cambodia for a short 6day trip with Geckos Adventures, on their Real Cambodia tour. I basically needed to do a visa run and had no idea where to go, I also really didn’t feel like going solo, so I got lucky when I came across this last minute deal for the exact dates I needed, like, the day my visa was due to expire! Talk about good timing.


Our group had 2 days in Phnom Penh and honestly, it was just enough to see the things I’d earmarked (I’d flown in the night before the group meetup, so I’d had 2 full days and an evening to explore).


A typical city street in the early morning hustle


So, what did I think?


Q: Is Phnom Penh the second-rate city to Siem Reap?

A: I feel bad saying this because I really wanted the city to show me that it had more to offer than just museums, palaces and markets. But, yes, it does kind of feel second rate.


I don’t believe this is something to frown upon as Phnom Penh is going through a big expansion with thousands of Cambodians flocking to the capital each year for the promise of better jobs as it asserts itself as Cambodia’s business heartland.


Because the focus lies on its economic development the city hasn’t got an awful lot for tourists other than the well-known markets (Central Market, Russian Market and the Night Market to name a few) and a handful of museums and the royal palaces by the riverside.


Q: Is Phnom Penh anything special, or should I just head straight to Siem Reap?

A: Phnom Penh is worth the visit, if not so much for what you can do in the city centre then for the various day trips surrounding it. Base yourself here for sunset cruises on the Mekong and to learn about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide sites connected with them.


Q: What is the Riverside like?

A: On our last day here we all separated to do our own optional activities and I spent a few hours leisurely wandering around the public spaces and green in front of the Royal Palace. I was most surprised when I felt it becoming my favourite part of the city; It is immaculately clean, filled with an equal number of locals and tourists either feeding the pigeons in the square, or seeking out the café culture with extended happy hours (I stopped for a $2 Baileys at 10 am and felt no shame, make that two actually). Each side road has multiple cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels – this is the place to stay in Phnom Penh.


This place was bustling with life, but the promenade is so long there were plenty of places to be alone.



Any Misconceptions?


Q: Don’t they eat bugs here? Will I see stalls of deep fried critters everywhere I go?

A: In short, yes and no… Cambodians love their bugs, especially tarantula and worms. Lots of worms. At a rest stop on the bus ride to Siem Reap was an entire food court of bugs, the ladies even had live tarantulas for the brave tourists to touch and get the compulsory selfie with – if only the poor things knew they were soon to go in the pot. As much as insects make my hair stand on end I do feel sorry for them knowing they are born to be fried up.


There are stalls but thankfully not on every street corner. Some popular bugs you will see are Ants, Cockroaches and Grasshoppers. Snake is often deep-fried, but also commonly put into stews. I cant say that I’m brave enough for this cuisine yet. Perhaps in a few years time, I’ll ease myself in with a worm…


Q: Isn’t it a poor country that is underdeveloped and basic?

A: Cambodia is a developing country; after the Pol Pot regime killed educated peoples before all others, the end of the regime saw a country not only struggling to rebuild after years of economic repression, but very few had the education or skills needed to lift themselves out of poverty.


Despite over 20 decades of strong economic growth, the majority of Cambodians are still on the poverty line and living rurally or in simple raised huts even in the cities. Agriculture and subsistence farming provides the mainstream income throughout the country.


Tourism is steadily flowing, bringing income and interest to the Southern region of Cambodia, with verdant National parks and beaches like Sihanoukville that rival the tropical scenes of Malaysia and Thailand.


Q: Is Cambodian food a mix of it Neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam?

A: On first impressions, it seemed this way. I was seeing a lot of noodles and similar curries that you would find in those countries, but with the taste that something is missing from those well-known dishes.


On doing research, Khmer cuisine is similar in appearance to our well-known favourites, but uniquely Cambodian for their use of fermented sauces, pickles and (what I thought was most odd) preserved lemons – for extra sourness. How do you preserve a lemon? I’d never even known this was a thing. Ingredients like chilli never really took off and today few dishes use it heavily.


Cambodia’s colonial past (from the large migration of Chinese during the reign of the French empire) has brought about the adoption of popular ingredients such as rice noodles and the Baguette as staples of today’s diet. Truly local cuisine is harder to seek out though, most “local” dishes are altered to suit the western palate (no fermented pickles or sour lemons!) so do some digging to find those truly local food stalls with Cambodian flare.


I hope that this has helped at least one person to become a little clearer on Cambodia, and after reading, do you still like the sound of it?



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