Phnom Penh: Chaos and Creation
ARRIVAL IN INDOCHINA
Only now looking back do I wonder why I never came here after Turkey and Thailand went pear shaped and I suppose the answer to that is… it would’ve have been too similar and maybe not so much work as China offered in 2011 and still.
So Cambodia and Laos remain the last two countries in the bulbous cluster making up the Indochina peninsular to see and it isn’t everyday you get to go to a place which has your initials ‘kh’ as its internet code. It begins in a chaos akin to many other cities in the region (Hanoi, Bangkok, KL), most clambering for a visa, some ahead of the curve have e-visas.
By the time it comes to collecting my bags I wonder if the pre-arranged tuktuk driver will still be there. When I emerge from visa land and the carousel there he is, standing dutifully with my name in big black letters on a piece of A4 paper.
We drive through the night the short distance to my residence in the narrow lanes and tin roofs of the community (a bit like the Hutong’s of Beijing) and I pay him extra for his diligence. If only the airport meet and greet in Turkey had been like that instead of the farce I had to face.
SCENT AND A SOUND?
The airport may be international but rest assured this is indeed the ramshackle wilderness of developing Asia. In my neighbourhood alone you can walk through scents ranging from shampoo, washing powder, barbecue meat and unfortunately the putrid stench of the tip with rancid chickens stepping through the rubbish strewn everywhere.
Only in the centre do signs of modern sanitation appear and even then scarcely. Also in the immediate vicinity to my digs is the Cheata Cafe, it’s the kind of dark cafe Simon LeBon appears in during the Hungry Like the Wolf video, only the fan isn’t working. One thing is certain, you probably won’t be hungry after some of the sights and scents mentioned above!
PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES
As for transport you soon see what an amazing job the metro does when you visit a city without one. The city has introduced smart air conditioned buses along key routes but there is no smart card and only some have route info by way of an info graphic – but only in Khymer. Also don’t expect any change, you will however get a smiling conductor; not necessarily in a malicious way, more a ‘that’s Cambodia; can’t be helped’ kind of way.
There are further teething problems with this service (no.3) in that the map shows the final station as being the night market. It isn’t, the bus carries on a few kilometres down river to a depot and it seems even though it’s their error I need to pay again to get back to where I thought I was.
You may guess that having already lost money on their ‘correct change’ policy that they should have given me courtesy carriage but no the driver is adamant so I walk – it doesn’t take too long but of course I’m running the gauntlet with no pavement, oncoming motorbikes, tuktuks and of all manner of other traffic including sexed up prostitutes and the no.3 itself.
By air Phnom Penh is a relative curiosity – there are plenty of flights to neighbouring Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City but precious few to Laos or Hanoi with only Vietnam Airlines servicing the route at the time of writing.
Phnom Penh is a nice little airport with mostly regional connections. Further afield Doha and Dubai are serviced by the ever present Qatar and Emirates. No direct flights to Europe, the States or Australia so far though the latter is surely on the cards with the amount of Aussies residing in or visiting the city.
A light rail line to the city is planned but how they will build it is anyone’s guess*. In Tallinn a tram station is being annexed to the terminal and I can see how that will work as it adjoins a direct route into the city.
While the route in Phnom Penh is direct to an extent via Russian Federation Boulevard I can’t picture a light rail in the frenetic chaos of south east Asia. As always all will be revealed in time. There is however a rail service to Sihanoukville which sadly I never got to sample but I’ve heard great things about it. *on an old railroad, it’s since opened and runs behind Russian Blvd to the station.
All along Kampauchea Krom and neighbouring Russian Federation Boulevard are cool cafes (Amazon – not to be confused with the colossal company of the same name, Big Apple, the somewhat aptly named Brown Coffee, T – as in tea – shop, 1989, Coffee Today to name a few).
There’s also several TOUS LES JOURS bakeries which surprises me if only for the fact that in Guangzhou they are seen as well to do places but in PP they are often tacked onto the forecourts of petrol stations!
I learn of another bakery, Eric Kayser, from another blogger. It’s pricey and I fall for it big time, ordering a pot of tea and lemon cake but above all it’s the bread that is my particular interest. I purchase a half loaf but by the time I get home it’s like trying to get into an awkwardly wrapped Christmas present.
After the mystery is finally unravelled, the bread is a very big disappointment – dry as ciabatta with a cardboard crust. Oh well, the search for the elusive loaf is one of the most demanding things about new countries.
Starbucks? Yes, but not many which may be good in that it gives the more independent cafes a chance. No Walmart or Carrefour, though there is an AEON mall courtesy of the Japanese and it’s them who add a heartwarming shine to Cambodia.
SAFE IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT
The Japanese International Cooperation Agency are helping on a number of levels with schools and all manner of other things (bridges for example). There is a big JAPAN exhibition and promotion on at AEON and again I can only wonder why this fascinating country continues to be as elusive as a decent loaf!
Connecting Hands is an Australian organisation helping to train women with a traumatic past in hospitality which is a brilliant idea. In my research notes for Cambodia and Vietnam are several similar places but this is the first one I come across near the national museum and even though I’m not hungry I enter for a drink.
Likewise Romdeng, an affiliate of Friends International, help disadvantaged kids by retraining them. I call on easily the most sodden day. The building is in the heart of bag snatch territory but rest assured is the kind of colonial building you imagine in the tropics, all very Raffles.
HARD LUCK HARD ROCK
My meal was spring rolls with tamarind sauce. There are other nik-naks on offer, made by the parents so their offspring can attend school; all very worthwhile. Again it’s a fantastic organisation and well done to all involved.
A few days later I discover a second shopping centre behind the Vattanac building. Exchange Square houses the Hard Rock Cafe – which has a rock shop and a very cool Flying V guitar as its door handles. Now I could’ve eaten there but upstairs I spot Nham Central which is run by another organisation I’ve heard of – Hagar.
I ask if the profits go to disadvantaged kids and she nods affirmative but I’m not sure if she’s nodding just for my eating there or if she really does understand what I’m asking; hopefully the latter. In any case it’s more Cambodian than a Hard Rock Cafe burger so I order, albeit with one of those bloody annoying cards that food courts in the far east seem to think is nifty idea when cash would be so much simpler.
Nonetheless, here’s what I have at the Nham: Egg fried rice coupled with slender Fish Cakes (not the same as UK or western versions) more like flimsy fish fingers but ok as a snack. The Nhum Krouk is I’m told a typical Cambodian dessert which of course comes first and as I am by this time more than peckish they are greatly received.
It’s difficult to describe them, they’re similar to tofu white, soft then battered with the addition of a sauce which on the picture looks like Satay but isn’t. It’s an ok entree but I wouldn’t want it too often.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS AND TIPS
I think in the future the Vattanac/Exchange Square and the adjacent Railway Station – which looks more like a government building with members of the Khymer Royal Family on it – will form the centre of new Phnom Penh.
On the same street down from the two shopping centres are yet more bus companies offering services to Thailand and Vietnam. One of them is the ‘giant ibis‘ and its them I’ve selected to swoop me across the border to HCMC city.
KOL House (accommodation near the airport)(if you’re an avgeek you’ll like it here, see my plane videos on my You Tube channel). Atwood Business Centre (between the airport and the city also includes KFC, Amazon Coffee and Pizza Company in the same row along with some banks such as ANZ)
CAB-BANK (Cambodia Asia Bank) for currency exchange.
TO/FROM PHOMN PENH BY SURFACE
Giant Ibis (see link above) is the most popular operator to Vietnam with westerners. However, for the adventurous there is also (among others) Phuong Heng (no website) and Long Phuong Cambodia *I’ve not travelled with the latter two but they are about half the price of the Ibis though apparently you can expect blaring music and other Asian quirks.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
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Cambodia – Kim Wilde
Visa-age – Visage
Hungry Like the Wolf – Duran Duran
Blah Blah Cafe – Jean Michel Jarre
Trauma – David Sylvian
Crossing the Border – Steve Jansen/Richard Barbieri