Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Holiday in Cambodia: Phnom Penh

While I live in third-world China, and had previously been visiting third-world Thailand, Phnom Penh was an immediate third-world shock. While the small airport was really quite modern, clean, and efficient, the drive to the city proper, and my hotel, took me on a bumpy garbage-lined road through a progression of small dirty shacks. It felt like being back in the shantytowns of Bombay, granted with about one tenth the population density.

That may sound superficial or ugly, but it's honest. While I ended up very much enjoying both the city and the country, it was in spite of all the garbage, the poor infrastructure, and the aggressive touts. Those negatives are at the beginning of this update, and similarly they were the first thing that stood out about the city, but really the rest of my impressions of the city were much more positive. The city center is relatively compact, and although of course the reasons are tragic, a lot of the old French colonial buildings are still standing, they're beautiful:

I'm not one to shop, and all I bought for myself was a couple travel necessities and Sinn Sisamouth CDs, but really the market bazaars of Phnom Penh are a lot of fun. There's a number about town, with a bunch of smaller competing stalls inside. Different markets sell different products, and are open at different times, and there's both outdoor and indoor markets. It doesn't seem very efficient, but they're heavily used by the local population, merchants will bargain fairly with foreigners, and some of the markets are interesting locations of their own right, like the old art deco stadium that's now the Central Market.

Phnom Penh seemed to be maybe 25% Chinese – most hotels and small businesses were Chinese-owned. Surprisingly enough, they usually spoke Mandarin Chinese – I say surprisingly, because Mandarin is a Beijing-government-invented language, Chinese emigration pre-dates its (still only partial) implementation, and I'm not aware of any other foreign Chinese communities that speak it. I used to have a Chinese-Cambodian friend, and she told me that as a child in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, she wasn't allowed to speak Chinese at all, even in private – maybe afterwards, the local Chinese re-learnt Mandarin?

Despite some misgivings, I ate Cambodian street food, and I ended up falling totally in love with it. It's better than the street food in China, or maybe even Thailand. Here's two of my favorites: barbequed pork skewers, eaten alongside French bread (sweetened with condensed milk) and lightly pickled radishes. It may sound weird, but if they had them in Shanghai, I'd eat them every day of the week!

Secondly, while I understand fruit shakes are basically a tourist thing in most of SE Asia, in Cambodia everybody drank them: fresh fruit, blended with sweetener and ice. What made Cambodia's stand out from the crowd was the fresh tropical fruit, but also the secret ingredient: raw egg! In fairness, I used to make Juliuses as a kid with raw egg white, it's basically the same thing. Many places didn't give raw eggs to foreigners, so I made a point of going to local-style places and then asking for them specifically.

Part of what contributes to Phnom Penh's strong colonial flavor is that foreign NGOs are everywhere in Cambodia, and these foreigners dominate the local economy. It can seem that what visible economy does exist, is either just a step above being a flea market, or services foreigner's various needs. That goes alongside low import taxes, and there's a huge amount of very good foreign restaurants and import grocery stores and the like, in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. They're far, far better and cheaper than anything available in Shanghai, and I varied between local style restaurants and foreigner restaurants. There's also similarly shoddy copyright protection, but with a looser control on the published word, and so Phnom Penh's foreigner areas have bookstores full of English novels, both second-hand and Xeroxed.

What else? There were several temples and the King's palace. Impressive, although I admit I found them to be a less-impressive take on similar structures in Bangkok – even though Phnom Penh's were often the original model.

Just walking the streets was interesting, there was a lot of activity. Motorcycle taxis and tuk-tuks were easily available for a dollar or two (literally – Cambodia uses American money) and they all spoke English, so I could just walk around until I got tired of walking or lost my way, then hail a taxi back. On the downside, in central areas people would yell “hello, taxi” at me every few seconds.

I thought the Tuol Sleng Museum, at a former school that had been converted into a processing station for the genocide of Cambodia's Cultural Revolution, was an interesting and illuminating site:

All in all Phnom Penh was a low-key but interesting and inexpensive city. I don't know if it's a destination of itself, but as part of a larger exploration of Cambodia or SE Asia, it's definitely worth having a look around.

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