Phnom Penh; Mightier than the Sword

My introduction to the city of Phnom Penh is much like every other introduction has been during my time in South East Asia, whizzing by in a clapped out old bus…followed by a clapped out old shoddily-negotiated tuk tuk. This time I am arriving from Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with (increasingly ill) travel buddy Buffie.

We check in at Eighty8 hostel which touts itself at the ‘flashpacker’ market, those willing to pay an extra dollar or two for increased luxury. After the rat infested beachfront pad on Koh Rong, we feel we owe it to ourselves. This is the glamour to which we have not become accustomed.

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Named after the street it is on, it’s in the north-east of the city around 5 minutes walk from Sisowath Quay where the boats arrive from Siem Reap. So exploration starts with a long walk through the city from north to southern tip.

Wat Phnom is the first item on the agenda. It’s the hilltop sanctuary from which the city takes its name. Cambodian legend has it that a wealthy widow called Daun Penh (try saying it without thinking of Sean Penn) found five bronze and stone Buddha statues in 1372 during a walk along the Tonle Sap river. As a mark of respect, she built a sanctuary on the top of a hill to house them. It became known as Phnom Penh, translating as the hill of Penh. Over time, it became the shorthand for the city that sprung up around it.

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With $1.50 ticket in hand, I ascend the stunning naga staircase passing bronze carvings of battle scenes and Apsaras dancing, replicated to look like those at Angkor Wat.

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The sanctuary, or vihara, at the top was rebuilt in 1926 and little of the original building remains but it is very close to the heart of the population here, so it’s worth spending some time at the summit surveying the city or cross-legged in meditation inside the Wat itself.

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The inside is beautiful, vibrant and colourful.

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Behind it, a stupa has been built to honour Daun Penh.

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Not unlike neighbouring Laos, the Cambodian people also release birds from cages at the top of the hill to invite fortune and good health.

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Offerings are left inside the wat for the statue of Buddha; some of food and some of local currency the Riel.

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Continuing south, at the crossing of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, I see the Independence monument which has the dual role of commemorating independence from the French in 1953 but also stands as a cenotaph to those who have died in war.

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On display around it are the riches of various parliamentary buildings, in stark contrast to the poverty I’ve seen elsewhere in the country.

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I swing into Mali’s for lunch and a couple of Kingdom beers on nearby Norodom Boulevard. It’s a grand spot, if a little formal.

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After lunch, I set my internal compass for Psar Toul Tom Poung (the Russian Market) but I seem to be following a slightly fraudulent map. I’m still walking 90 minutes later…but many of the sites along the way have kept me in good humour.

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Despite this, I swiftly come to learn two key facts about Phnom Penh:

1) It is nigh on impossible to cross the road. You’ll find many of your restaurant/shop/sightseeing decisions are led by this.

2) As a visitor, you’ll be offered a moto taxi or tuk tuk approximately three times per minute. It’s not at all irritating.

Eventually, (273rd time’s a charm) I grab a moto taxi to the Russian Market, so-called as all the goods would have originated from there, Russia being the only country to provide aid during the Vietnamese occupation. Browsing through the ramshackle tarpaulin-covered market, I find it’s the usual miss mash of textiles, hand-carved artefacts…and knock off electronics. Dr Dre was kind enough to reduce his speakers to a mere $3 here. What a philanthropic gent.

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But there’s no show without punch…

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Back into the tuk tuk

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and (via the petrol station) I’m headed north again.

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Street number 240, just behind the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, is where you’ll find the craft boutiques and book shops. After a browse at D’s Books on 240 and Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, I bag a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ before scooting back to the hostel to scoop up a much less peaky Buffie.

We head out to Bopha Phnom Penh, a beautiful outdoor restaurant on Sisowath Quay.

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Despite this being the site of our initial hoodwinking when we first arrived in Phnom Penh ($5 to tuk tuk 25 steps) we still manage to enjoy the lights twinkling on the Tonle Sap river and the Apsara dancers defying the laws of joint capability.

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They accompany our Fish Amok curry washed down with a house speciality cocktail made with their local spirit. Game.

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We dart across to the Flicks 2 on 136 which is a comfy, cozy cinema that regularly screens movie The Killing Fields.

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It seems a fitting way to mark visiting Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) the day before (see previous post.)

The next day, we swing by Friends which is a not-for-profit cafe that supports the training of young chefs and servers in the hospitality industry.

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There is so much to compute at the end of our trip to Cambodia. We do so with outstanding falafel burgers and raspberry rum cocktails.

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Afterwards, we cross to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club to watch the world go by below.

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And I watch my final sunset over the Mekong (on this trip at least.) It’s how this trip started back in Ventiane so it seems right and proper to end it that way.

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The last supper is Pad Thai alongside numerous Pina Coladas and Angkor beers.

The next morning, we trip out to Psar Thmei (the central market) to pick up some gifts to take home. It is much more glamourous than the Russian market, housed in an actual hall with art deco arches stretched above.

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The art of the oversell is not lost here, and it is a fittingly frenetic final experience for my time in Cambodia.

To balance things out, we head out to the local Wat and are blessed by Buddhist monks. We are ceremoniously soaked by litres of water thrown over us as the monk chants his blessing.

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It’s a strange sensation, but there is certainly something very  peaceful about it. Blessed, and soaked, we tuk tuk back so I can pack for the flight home to London.

You might remember that when I embarked on this trip, it was after a fairly grim few months. South East Asia has helped me draw a line under that, with aplomb.

My tuk tuk ride to the airport is insanity personified, and with joy in my heart and tears in my eyes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’

The Antlers ‘Familiars’

Him Sophy ‘A Memory From Darkness’

Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’

Midlake ‘Antiphon’

Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

 

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Reaping the benefits in Cambodia’s Vegas

Siem Reap is like Vegas in comparison to the places I’ve visited elsewhere in South East Asia. Tourists are drawn there in their droves to Angkor Wat; a complex of Khmer temples scattered over 300 square kilometres of countryside between the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen mountains in the north of Cambodia. The searing temple towers and their intricate brickwork give way to remarkable stories of the Khmer empire, and are a must-see for pretty much every passer by…even those jaded by the usual tourist trail.

By day, the town is somnolent as its visitors traipse round the grand avenues and grounds of the temple multiplex. By night, it comes alive with Khmer cultural shows and outstanding Cambodian cuisine all designed at the tourist’s behest. The impact of this is certainly felt, with bright lights, pumping European dance music and English signage all adding to that feeling of ‘I could be anywhere…’ Hyatt and Ritz have made their presence known, and there is even a road called Pub Street which really caters for the delightful 18-30s market.

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Thankfully for myself and my Cambodian co-pilot Buffie, we’ve chosen this city as a place to try to invest ourselves in the spirituality of the country, a spirituality that is a remarkable attribute given the atrocities it has experienced in terrifyingly recent years. To that end, we check into our yoga retreat The Bodhi Tree where we’re greeted by owners Bob and Claire, originally from Australia.

Staying here is a little like staying with family, more like living in their home than in their guesthouse. We’re very well looked after.

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During our time here, we rise at 6.30am for sun salutations then Kundolini yoga after breakfast. Free time is followed in the upper floor by either stretching classes, Nidra meditation, Kundolini chanting or Hatha Flow yoga depending on the day.

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There is even water meditation sessions in the beautiful garden, where we’re challenged to find our inner calm amidst peeping horns and whirring tuk tuk engines.

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We take absolute advantage of this, and of the incredibly early nights, by way of preparing our energies for Angkor Wat. Beforehand all that though, we get to know the city starting with a walk along Tonle Sap river to the Psar Chas market.

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The market is your classic South East Asian explosion of colour, unique sights and sounds.

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From fragrant herbs and spices

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to shocked and stunned featherless chickens.

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We take in a handful of bookshops along the way. Always good to be able to reacquaint yourself with the classics whilst on the road…

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then there’s time for a quick sundowner.

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As far as restaurants go, there is quite a broad spectrum from the sublime

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to the ridiculous… (look carefully.)

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For casual lunches, there is ex-pat haven Sister Srey which serves a mean mango slushy from a menu housed in these quaint children’s book covers.

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Or settle into the huge linen-draped beds at The Blue Pumpkin and treat yourself to a lazy brunch or some exquisite pastries.

Real, authentic Cambodian cuisine is best sampled at The Sugar Palm, where expert service compliments an extremely tasty stir fried fish with chilli and peanuts served in the airy, spacious restaurant.

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For dinner, some of the standouts are the stunning caramelised ginger fish at La Noria, set in a tranquil tropical garden on the Tonle Sap river. We also loved Nest Angkor which is a sleek, contemporary cafe bar smack bang in the centre of town.

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Look out for the stir fried prawns with vegetable and rice, but don’t forget to wash it down with their signature Tamarind Margarita.

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Culinary attributes aside, we, like hundreds of thousands of tourists before us, are here for the temples. Ahead of these less doomed Indiana Jones style adventures, our yoga retreat ends in rapturous style with Kundolini chanting and a tribute to the stunning full moon above us. It’s a session rich in depth and meaning and, aside from the fact that one of the mantras rhymes with the word Sat-Nav, I keep it together long enough to ohm better than I ever have.

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And the soundtrack was:

Bombay Bicycle Club ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’

The Spinto Band ‘Nice and Nicely Done’

Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’

Sigur Ros ‘Valtari’

Special thanks to Buffie Meekison for some of the photography on this post.

(Fa)Lang May Your Lum Reek in Ventiane

Finally, Same Small World has been blissfully reunited with its backpack. Having lain impotent at the bottom of the wardrobe for the last nine months taunting me with the adventures that might never be, it’s now stuffed full of flip flops, mosquito spray and travel adapters once more.

Having spent half of last year sauntering through South and Central America, it seems as good a time as any for a return to South East Asia. The first stop on this particular reunion is Laos, population 7 million, which has fast established itself on the backpacker trail.

This trip is much needed and follows a fairly grim few months at the turn of the year which included frequent 20 hour days at work and an unexpected stint in hospital heralded by my maiden voyage in an ambulance. All the signs were there telling me that a change was in order. As a relatively wise person once said, ‘If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, then you’ll keep on being what you’ve always been. Nothing changes unless you make it change.’ So as I shake off the shackles of a very forgettable chapter of my life, I take my bruised and battered soul back to it’s spiritual home…the open road.

I have my first impressions of Laos in Ventiane, the languid capital which nestles on the Mekong whose banks play host to the majority of my first day here. Capitalising on part of its 1865km share of the river, they have developed Fa Ngum Quay, a stunning stone esplanade the length of the city’s river bank. It’s perfect for the runners zooming by, the impromptu keep-fit class taking place up ahead and the evening offerings made by the locals.

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All human life is here.

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It’s the ideal spot to watch my first Mekong sunset, a hazy affair where a perfectly spherical sun doesn’t so much as drop into the horizon as it does into a thick band of smog burning orange reflections into the water below. It is stunning nonetheless.

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Opposite the quay lies Buddhist temple Wat Chanthaburi, a great introduction to the kind of intricate carvings and stunning architecture that pure unadulterated worship provokes in these parts.

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Ventiane also provides a promising introduction to Lao cuisine. Whilst quality varies throughout the city, value is a constant and there are one or two standout joints including Amphone on Th Wat Xieng Nyean and Yulala Cafe on Th Hengboun. Laos has abundant specialities including Laap, a kind of spicy salad prepared with meat or fish, mint, chilli, coriander and lime juice and Or Lam, a stew of vegetables, smoked or grilled meat and aubergine. Other dishes include the kind of curries, stir fries and flavours you would expect from a nation with such proximity to Thailand and Vietnam.

However, the key ingredient is the universally present sticky rice. Laos people eat more sticky rice than any other nation, in fact it is seen as the essence of being Lao. Traditionally, it is eaten by hand, rolling the rice up into balls and dipping it into your curry or stir fry relegating it to accompaniment status. There is a phrase in Lao ‘Luk Khao Niaow’ that they often use to describe themselves, which literally translates as ‘Descendants of sticky rice’ Thankfully, it is utterly delicious and slightly addictive…although don’t expect many variants other than white sticky rice, black sticky rice or wild sticky rice.

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Further out of the city due east lies Phu Khao Khuay meaning ‘Buffalo Horn Mountain’ which is a nationally protected mountainous area of over 2000 square kilometres home to gibbons, Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards and Siamese fireback pheasants. It’s not only the wildlife that entices me out here, but the promise of Tat Xai waterfall set deep amidst the jungle. We set off waterfall hunting from Ban Hat Kai, a 25 strong village on the banks of the Nam Mang river. The journey starts by long tail boat.

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We get acquainted with some of the locals along the way.

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We trek through jungle, over rock and bridge until we have it in our sights.

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It’s a cracker, made all the more enjoyable by the welcome physical exertion to arrive here. I’m impressed that it still cascades at all during hot season.

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We head to the nearby Pha Xai waterfall, but its 40 metre drop is dry as a bone, bullied into submission by the soaring temperatures.

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It still offers stunning scenery set against a verdant backdrop.

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Now, before I make my merry way north to Luang Prabang, I must nod to this post’s title. ‘Falang’ is the entirely inoffensive colloquial noun for ‘foreigner’ and how the locals will be cordially referring to me during my trip. Think ‘gringo’ but in the Far East. Referring to yourself as a ‘falang’ when talking to Lao people immediately prompts a fit of giggles…So it’s a good one for the internal phrase book.

And the soundtrack was:
David Kitt ‘The Big Romance’
Mogwai ‘Master card’
Drenge ‘Drenge’
White Denim ‘Corsicana Lemonade’
Sigur Ros ‘Kviekur’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’