Sunday, 23 August 2009

More than a gateway to Angkor

Pathway to the past: The gardens behind the National Museum, which houses a vast array of Angkorian artefacts and Buddhas. (JP/Sara Veal)

Sun, 08/23/2009

Thinking of visiting Cambodia? You’re likely picturing the serene faces of the Angkor temples. Possibly even the sandy beaches of Sihanoukville. But what about Phnom Penh?

I’ve met countless people who have either entirely bypassed Cambodia’s 143-year-old capital city in their quest for ancient empires and beach parties, or merely considered it a stop-off point, a place to quickly view the tragic remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime. Which is a shame, as Lady Penh (the city’s founder and enduring spirit) is a charming hostess – give her the chance, and she will make you feel right at home, offering an intoxicating, accessible mix of rich culture, fine cuisine and aesthetic delights.

In a single day you can visit elegant pagodas, inspiring exhibitions, learn Khmer cooking, browse markets for silks and keepsakes, watch traditional dance and cruise along the Mekong. Punctuated this with mouth-watering meals and cap it off with hours of dancing at a sardine-packed nightclub and you may never want to leave.

Holly and I touched down in Phnom Penh International Airport in the early evening. After breezing through customs, we took a taxi into town – a flat US$9 to anywhere in the center – along the way admiring the eye-catching blend of reinvigorated yellow French colonial buildings, art-deco structures, Khmer temples, glassy office buildings and tacky, cake-like residences.

We stayed at the Blue Dog Guest House (#13, St. 51). Owned by newlyweds Ty and Hun, it’s within walking distance of one of the city’s key sights, the Independence Monument. Launched just over a year ago, it offers eight rooms priced between US$5-12 a night, as well as a limited but cheap and delicious menu.

If you fancy something more upscale, Phnom Penh is full of boutique hotels and 5-star luxury, such as the Frangipani Villa 90s ($25-60) or the Amanjaya ($155-250). If on the other hand you’re really trying to save, look around the Boeung Kak lake area for rooms as low as $3.

It is easy to get around Phnom Penh, as there is little traffic and most drivers know the city like the back of their hand. Pick up the free The Phnom Penh Visitors Guide as soon as you see it, for maps and tips; its usually available at eateries and guesthouses.

Visitors mostly travel via tuk-tuks (motorcycle trailers), which offer a surprisingly quiet, pleasant ride. I recommend committing to one tuk-tuk driver. Tuk-tuk drivers, who mostly have impressive English skills, can help you with booking bus tickets, arranging river cruises and even getting a SIM card ($10) for your cell phone.

Monument to past and future glory: The Independence Monument, which was inaugurated on November 9, 1962, to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from colonial rule. (JP/Holly Kosmin)

All the city’s major points of interest can be visited within a day, but its best to set aside at least two or three. The Independence Monument, an architectural celebration of Cambodia’s independence from foreign rule in 1962; Wat Phnom, a small hill that marks the city’s legendary founding site; the National Museum ($3 entrance); the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum; the Killing Fields; and the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the King’s residence, should all be checked out. A market visit to either Phsar Toul Tom Poung, the Russian market, which offers a large selection of souvenirs, silks and curios, or Phsar Thmey (Central Market), a striking art-deco building, which specialises in jewels and gold, is also a must.

Beyond the obligatory sights, the city centre has much to offer in the way of shopping and dining. There are four main areas for these more leisurely pursuits: Street 178 or “Art Street”; Street 240; the Riverfront area and the Boeng Keng Kang area or “The Foreigner’s Quarter”.

Street 178 is right by the National Museum, so after I had spent the morning browsing Angkorian artefacts, I wandered around “Art Street”. Most of the artists can be seen at work and are happy to answer any questions you might like to bother them with. Chea Hak, of shop Hak Rachana, was working intently on a wood carving, which he said would take a week to complete. He can sell it for $100.

The best place to eat near Art Street is Friends (#215, St. 13), a delightful tapas restaurant that is run as part of a program to teach street youth marketable skills. Holly and I feasted on several dishes ($2-5), including mango coleslaw and zucchini fritters.

My favourite place in Phnom Penh is Street 240, a tree-lined avenue near the Royal Palace, which boasts excellent boutiques, unique handicrafts, second-hand bookstores, delectable eateries and the best spa in town (Bliss, #29). I splurged at Mekong-Quilts (#49, St.240), a non-profit organisation that aims to provide employment and increase family incomes for communities in the remote villages of Svay Rieng province.

I returned to haunt Street 240’s cafes several times, enjoying Mediterranean tapas at Tamarind (#31), burgers at Freebird Bar and Grill (#69) and cakes at The Shop (#39).

The Riverfront is a great place to spend the evening, affording a view of the Mekong sunset. It is home to many of Phnom Penh’s most enduring institutions, such as the famous Foreign Correspondents Club and the original Happy Herb Pizza. Cantina, a popular “gringo” haunt decorated with onset photos from Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts (2002) had excellent Mexican food. Most of the best places to boogie are nearby too, such as the Riverhouse Lounge (#6, Street 110).

A thing of beauty: Street 178 artist Chea Hak at work, in front of his shop, Hak Rachana. He is carving an intricate, decorative wooden piece that will form part of a door. (JP/Sara Veal)

“The Foreigners’ Quarter”, near the Independence Monument, is rife with embassies, hotels and expatriate residences. I frequented the Java CafĂ© and Gallery (#56, Sihanouk), a must for lap-top addicts, sampling a range of teas and fresh salads.

Nearby was Romdeng, a sister-restaurant to Friends, which offers Khmer specialities like fried spiders, as well as a fascinating exhibition “Imagine That” that showcased pictures street kids had taken of tourists in Siem Reap. The infamous Heart of Darkness nightclub is around here (#26, St. 51), where you can dance until dawn.

Besides all this, you can also take cooking classes at Khmer restaurant Frizz (#67, St. 240), watch shadow puppet performances at the Sovanna Phum Art Association (#111, St. 260), and Apsara dancing at Bopha Phnom Penh Titanic (Sisowath Quay). And no trip to Phnom Penh is truly complete with a boat ride down the Mekong, perfect around sunset ($5).

After a week of such delights, I felt relaxed, exhilarated, inspired and fatter. As the airplane took off, I watched the city disappear into the patches of green and brown paddyfields that dominate the Cambodian landscape, watching the ever-present Mekong shrink into a shimmering, twisting snake… and planned my next visit.

The gateway to the rest of Cambodia

Roads have been greatly improving in Cambodia, making it increasingly easy to travel from Phnom Penh to other Khmer cities. Buses are a (usually) comfortable and affordable way to get around, with one-way tickets starting from $5. You can also hire private cars from $25. There are several bus companies dotted around the city, especially near the Riverfront and Boeng Kak lake area. I visited Sihanoukville and Kampot.

Sihanoukville: (Paramount Angkor Express, $11 return, 4 hrs each way) Cambodia’s premier beach town. Stay in Ochheuteal beach or Serendipity beach if you’re the dance-til-dawn type… if you’d prefer a blissful getaway, try the more low-key Otres beach or Victory beach. Sample fresh seafood, scuba-dive and take day trips to exotic islands. Stay at the Beach Road hotel ($10-45) and dine at Cambodge Garden ($2-5 per dish).

Kampot: (Phnom Penh Sorya, $10 return, 3 hrs) A quaint, sleepy town, with few tourists, colonial architecture and breathtaking views of the river and surrounding mountains, sheltering ghostly hill stations. The perfect place to truly get away from it all. Stay at the Bodhi Villa ($3-8), which offers an excellent mix of homemade comfort food and Khmer specialities, and a friendly bar.

Flights: Ours were $170 there and back thanks to Air Asia – book in advance and be prepared for two check-ins

Visa: $20 one-month tourist visa available on arrival. Can be extended for a further month. Good to have a passport photo ready.

Airport Tax: $25 – payable upon departure.

Currency: US dollars and Khmer Riels (about 4000R to US$1).

Accommodation: From $3, depending on where you’re staying

Meals: Expect to pay $4-7 a meal, minus alcoholic drinks, at popular eateries. Water is usually provided for free.

Transport: Tuk-tuks ($1-2 for short trips, $10-15 all day), motos and cyclos (1500-4000R, $8/day), taxis ($4-5, $35/day). You can also rent a bicycle, motorcycle or car for your trip – inquire at your guesthouse.

Language: Khmer. Most people you will encounter speak reasonable English, and don’t expect visitors to understand Khmer. French can also be useful.

Wi-Fi: Many cafes and guesthouses offer Wi-Fi access, either free or available through Hotspot cards (starting at $5 for 5 hours), which you can buy from most supermarkets.

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