April 30, 2018
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. So here’s my Phnom Penh highlights for those who like to get off the beaten track:
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.
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
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
city 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
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 a top Phnom Penh highlight 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, who 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.