Phnom Penh Highlights

The Mansion Phnom Penh

The Mansion

A few mentions from a Phnom Penh resident. I wanted to share a few things to see for visitors other than the Genocide museum, killing fields, Grand Palace, and the riverside. After living in Bangkok for 11 years it was quite an adjustment living in a much smaller city.  There’s a charm about Phnom Penh that I don’t think Tripadvisor can capture.

An interesting bit of history after reading a lot of the Thai point of view. By the middle of the 19th century Cambodia had been reduced to a vassal state of Siam which had taken three western provinces of Cambodia while Vietnam threatened its eastern provinces. Desperate, Cambodia’s King Norodom requested a French protectorate over his Kingdom. In time the French eroded Norodom’s power but also regained territories previously taken by Siam and kept Vietnam at bay. Cambodia could have easily been absorbed into Siam and Vietnam and disappeared all together. An interesting point as I always thought that the French had imposed themselves as nasty colonizers and that the Thai King Chulalongkorn was a genius in “keeping the French and British out of Siam” when really it was a Cambodian king who had played the French off of Chulalongkorn.  But to more pressing matters—little secrets of living in Phnom Penh…

St. 123 Russian Market

The restaurant business is in perpetual flux here in Phnom Penh with more international franchises entering the scene like Starbucks, Cold Stone, Carl Jr., and Gloria Jean’s. Smallish businesses open and close here every day here fighting for scraps.  They say it’s very easy to start a small business here as a foreigner, but it’s very difficult to survive.  New coffeeshops are everywhere.

On Street 123 in the Russian Market, the Brooklyn of Phnom Penh, there is developing a trendy area with small expat run restaurants run out of Chinese shophouses serving the expat community.  Lot 369  is the motherload of woke culture with its menu and advertising materials flush with the latest NGO terminology:  “fair working conditions,” “women’s economic empowerment programs,” “dark chocolate cashew butter,” “locally created food,” “upcycled wood,” and Cambodian employees “treated fairly & equally.” Bay Area Tacos was recently opened by a Cambodian-American man who grew up in California. Hee serves tacos and nachos in a simple operation with just a couple of tables—small, quaint, personal. Trattoria Bello is an Italian restaurant with wine racks and brushed, faded yellow stucco walls of ancient Rome run by… two Japanese men. I laughed when I learned this.  This restaurant is a master class in cultural appropriation and why not? Surely there are Italians selling sushi in Italy.   

Flicks Phnom Penh

Flicks Phnom Penh

Art House Indie Movie Cinema

Flicks (Streets 348/95) is a community movie theater located in a converted home.  I recently saw Searching for Fellini here and it was a great experience. Flicks is staffed by volunteers from Workaway. I loved this place as soon as I began walking through the red silk drapes to the meeting area, where it was all tacky John Waters kitch. After seeing a movie in this way—set up like a big sleepover with couches, pillows, and comfortable lawn chair style seats and a medium-sized screen, I will never go to a mall cineplex again. Regular popcorn too.  This would be the perfect place to see classic movies.  A perfect place to escape to for the air conditioning.

Mental Health Breaks

Japanese Massage Phnom Penh

One of the great delights in Phnom Penh is getting a blind Japanese massage on Pasteur Blvd (242). There are many blind Japanese massage joints in Phnom Penh, but this one is by far the best.  Here they dig deep and go hard for a real therapeutic event.  Having spent many years in Thailand I never got a massage like this one. Jogging at Independence Monument at night is also a real treat though at rush hour can get annoying dodging skate boarders, footballers, and tourists walking eight abreast across the path.  Sauna-steam rooms are a popular way to unwind in Phnom Penh and cheap for $4 (that is, the budget Cambodian ones!)


The 100 year old French presence in Cambodia can be seen everywhere, especially in its colonial architecture. Phnom Penh was originally designed as a 

The Mansion Bar Phnom Penhcity of gardens and avenues, unfortunately this has been lost on the Cambodian government whose gaze is turned towards Siem Reap and Angkor Wat for heritage sites, not Phnom Penh. Many of these decomposing 19th and early 20th century colonial relics have been torn down to be replaced by Chinese condos or modern high rises. The Mansion Bar is the best example of beautiful decay ( #abandonedplaces #urbex #beautifuldecay #haikyo) in the city, built in 1910 by a rich Cambodian trader it is now used for art installations and expat parties.

French Colonial Homes

Le Point Phnom Penh

Le Point

Phnom Penh’s fusion of French and ancient Khmer culture, especially in architecture makes it a special place. There are a few coffee shops and restaurants that make good use of this cultural inheritance.   The Java Cafe is a restaurant in a World War II era French Colonial villa right on the main Sihanouk Boulevard across from the Sihanouk monument.  Open at 7am the balcony is the perfect place for coffee and not-to-easy-to-find bagels early in the morning.  Le Point is a Japanese-owned coffee shop/restaurant also housed in a French Colonial villa on a deliciously quiet street in a city with nonstop building & noise.  The VMansion is a boutique hotel housed in a French Colonial villa with rooms starting around $50/night.  Staying at a place like this would be much nicer than staying in some sanitized hotel. 

Small Locally Owned Businesses

They say it’s easy to start a business here in Phnom Penh but impossible to survive.  Small businesses open and close all the time here. One way Phnom Penh is different than the much larger Bangkok is that it has more internationally owned small restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. A few businesses of note:

• The Rush Bar is a small French bar run by two French women and popular with French expats located off the beaten track off of St. 63.
•  Nike’s Pizza House is owned by a Cambodian family and offers a wide selection of Italian dishes including a long list of salads. This Cambodian family has managed to learn how to prepare Italian food properly. I only order the epic four cheese gnoche. The male co-owner is the same age as I am and it was haunting to listen to him talk about the Khmer Rouge and how he lived in some work camp when he was kid. Both of his parents, being educated and middle class, were killed. Cambodian restaurants like Nike’s need to be supported by tourists.
•  Finding authentic Thai restaurants is not easy in Phnom Penh, but I have found two: Indy House
in the Russian Market and Yosaya on St. 105.
•  Tarrazu is a Korean owned coffee shop onSt. 370 which is small and quiet and sells upscale

Bophana: Heroine of Khmer Rouge Era

An interesting Cambodian person from history I stumbled upon was a young woman named Bophana, who was a young woman during the Khmer Rouge regime, Bophana Khmer Rougewho got caught writing love letters to her husband and was executed for it along with her husband. She represented the “New People” the Khmer Rouge wanted to replace to build their Communist utopia: beautiful, educated, and bourgeois. Her husband went to the monastery to avoid becoming a soldier and then later joined the Khmer Rouge appearing periodically in the black pajamas of the Khmer Rouge to see Bophana. She referred to herself as “Seda,” the heroine of the Ramayana, in her letters and asked her husband to dress her in her evening gown after her certain death and she would come back as a ghost to haunt her murderers. Years later after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power Elizabeth Becker, a journalist, found this woman’s file in the S-21 Prison where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed. These documents are the only record there of a romantic relationship.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej 1927-2016



A few selected links from Denis Gray, Paul Handley, and Christine Gray reflecting on the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol after a 70 year reign:

Denis Gray described his encounter with Bhumibol on a trip up north with him:

The king clearly savored such encounters, bantering with rural dwellers and trying to solve their problems, even marital ones. He once told me the story of a hilltribesman whose wife ran away after he had purchased her with two pigs. The king decided the husband deserved compensation which would allow her freedom. “The only trouble was I gave the money,” he joked. “So the woman belonged to me.”

Paul Handley offered a more sober account of Bhumibol’s reign:

Yet like Tito, Bhumibol failed at securing a stable future for his kingdom. He had made his throne dependent on its alliance with the military, an institution that remains thoroughly corrupt and convinced of its right to arbitrate power. Amid this, the other key institutions of a modern parliamentary democracy have shriveled.

While Christine Gray was more optimistic:

The end of Bhumibol’s reign is an incredible historical moment, one of genuine grief for the late king, if not for opportunities missed during his reign. But also an opportunity for change.


Kurosawa critiques

Fascinating film commentary by Tony Zhou in the following film clips.

Film critic Jonathan Crow @jonccrow offers a bit of context:

“Compared to Ozu and Mizoguchi, Kurosawa’s movies are noisy, masculine and vital. Unlike Ozu, he didn’t challenge Hollywood film form but improved on it. Born roughly a decade after the other two filmmakers, Kurosawa spent his youth watching Western movies, absorbing the lessons of his cinematic heroes like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra.”



The Future of Thai Politics at the FCCT

The Future of Thai Politics talk at the FCCT on March 11th with

• Alongkorn Polabutr, senior member of the National Reform Council & former deputy leader, Democratic Party
• Chaturon Chaiseng, former Education Minister, Pheu Thai Party
• Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, Democratic Party
• Phongthep Thepkanjana, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Pheu Thai Party

A great evening and great responses from various stakeholders in Thai politics. The FCCT did a great job with this one. A few tweets below and the full discussion in three videos at the bottom.


Ajan Cha (1979) BBC Documentary

I spent about three days at Wat Pha Nanachat (วัดป่านานาชาติ), the international forest monastery in Ubon Ratchatani several months ago and it was quite the experience, though difficult to maintain coming from a world of distraction.  This monastery, or wat, was the fruit of Ajan Cha, an eminent monk of the Thai forest tradition.  The hardest part about staying there was sitting on the ground all the time with legs made of tin.



Thailand’s Tainted Robes by Pailin Wedel


A brilliant video about Buddhism in Thailand.



Final Round Up from the Protests




Now that things have settled down a bit I decided to comb through my twitter timeline of the protests and display a few photos and tweets.  I have also retrieved an interesting interview with a prominent Thai academic, Professor Likhit Dhiravegin, who, in my opinion, spoke most intelligently about the protests.  He spoke at length about the concept of sovereignty and harshly criticized the PDRC for seizing the state with no legitimate authority.  His ideas are nothing new for Western observers, but as a respected Thai authority, they are worth repeating.  Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the PDRC, went on and on during the protests speaking of the Great Mass of the People.  Dhiravegin assails his claim that he is speaking for any mass of people.

…If there’s a new coup d’etat to topple the 2007 Constitution, you will be effectively robbing the people of the power—you yourself asked them to vote in the referendum. Even the 1997 Constitution had no referendum. It would be going against the people—about the 60% who voted in the referendum. [The Constitution] is not a toy. Wouldn’t it be an insult to the people?…

…And after 20 million people have voted, the election is ruled unconstitutional. That’s a violation of 20 million people’s rights…

…Who rules this country? The powers of legislative, executive and judicial branches are separate [but] all of a sudden the courts have the powers to decide on everything and become a supra-organization, with the highest power of the land, even more power than the sovereign…

…And how do we hear the real voices of the people? Two ways only: first, from a general election [to know] which party or group they support, and second, a referendum, if there’s a problem. Referendum is the clearest way to find out. Not claiming the “great mass of people.” Have a referendum on what to do…

…Sovereign power belongs to the Thai people. One man, one vote. All people in the North, Isan, South, and Central regions alike are all Thai. What audacity to say you are greater than the rest and that people upcountry are of lower quality than people in Bangkok? …Every person is equal as a human being…

The interviewer said that the PDRC was arguing that elections are not legitimate because they are bought.

What?… Well… (laughter), if the voices of the great mass of people are really great, no amount of vote buying will buy the other side victory.

Below a montage of this absurd protest.  It’s better not to explain them and let viewers figure them out.

A few of my favorite tweets from the protests.  I’ve since been baptized by twitter and think it’s the perfect tool to follow protests like these.  Pure joy it was to be part of the twitter community during these protests.


Thailand Anti-Government Protests Interviews December 2013

Thailand Anti-Government Protests Interviews December 2013 from Mark Moran on Vimeo.

Buffaloes, Crabs, Lizards: Thai protests October-November 2013



Thailand is a land in perpetual protest about, well, just about everything.  Thai protests bring new meaning to the expression “24/7” as their stages don’t stop at all during these protests.  It’s all day and all night talking, speaking, cajoling, screaming, singing.  Thailand also brings an entirely new meaning to the Occupy Movement where one doesn’t merely occupy a street or an area around a symbol of corruption—one actually occupies the symbol.  And of course a Thai occupation must be in style with proper protest food, music, and branding of all sorts: clappers, t-shirts, whistles, wristbands and the sort.  Profanity and politeness exist together closely at these protests with nasty graffiti about Yingluck and her brother, insults at police officers, the next minute it’s prayers and flowers for everyone.  Monitor lizards and buffaloes are seen all throughout the artwork.

Below are propaganda images from the anti-Thaksin protests:

At issue is a majority in parliament pursuing its interests over the will of the minority, corruption, and vote buying.  The commentariat has provided an array of perspectives from both sides.  Thai mainstream commentators from the English language press have offered much of the same in their treatment of Thaksin as an evil octopus with his tentacles reaching every part of the realm poisoning everything he touches.   The Nation’s Pornpimol Kanchanalak, editorialist and fugitive from American justice, weighed in.  In an editorial she lectured the Western media about the assumptions that cloud their understanding of Thai politics.  Ms. Kanchanalak discusses Thaksin Shinawatra’s role in Thai politics, conceding that Thaksin had his strengths:

“His adviser, Pansak Vinyarat, genuinely cared about the rural poor, and together they executed numerous populist policies and hand-outs, including the Bt1-million village fund, one village-one bicycle scheme, one village-one scholarship, one village-one buffalo, one village-one product, welfare housing, welfare taxis, and so on. Thaksin’s first year in office was his finest as a public servant. The rural poor looked to him as their saviour, someone who really cared. They knew they were only getting the “crumbs” of Thailand’s wealth, but at least they were getting something for a change.”

She then goes on to discuss where Thaksin went wrong when the lure of power and money blinded him.  She makes many allegations, but offers no evidence, save for this bit about specific jobs for Thaksin’s cronies:

“Please also look into those who occupy the boards of state enterprises. You will find plenty of red-shirt leaders, their families and cronies among them. And please take the time to read the well-researched accounts of just where the rivers of money have flowed from all the government subsidy programmes.”

Much is said about “corruption” but we see little evidence in the form of statistics, state jobs and political affiliation, or charts and graphs of where “populist” monies go.  Kanchanalak’s argument is thus dissipated.  Thailand could use some quality investigative journalism in this area.

Thai protest propaganda

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University, offers a different point of view of the recent political turmoil:

“The Thai crisis has partly echoed the anxiety of the Bangkok elite as Thais are approaching the sunset of the Bhumibol reign. This shift of political landscape will cause an impact on their wealth and social status. The anxiety has served as a driving force behind the hatred campaign against Thaksin, seen as an adversary of the monarchy.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a moderate observer of Thai politics offers a middle path:

“In the future, the forces of elected power will have to show more integrity and policymaking skill. They will need to bolster the trust of voters and avoid abuses of power. The forces of appointed and unelected authority will have to come up with electoral legitimacy and policy delivery to cater to the vast majority of the electorate. They need to at least have a chance at triumphing at the polls.”

Lizzie Presser  offers a great view of a woman from Isan who has been helped by Thaksin’s programs.

Thai protest propaganda

Yes, those are chopped off heads!

Thai protest propaganda

1. Thai people pay tax so prostitute can have a holiday (criticizing her taking so many trips)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy