Saturday, May 25, 2013

Khmer...My Love - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

In the attempt to see all of Asia on the salary of a Level 6 employee my travels so far have taken me throughout mainland Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, Singapore and their islands.

In October of 2012 I replicated the travels of the French colonialists and decided to visit the self-proclaimed Kingdom of Wonder, Cambodia. Since October 2012 I have been back to this amazing almost landlocked country seven times and yes that wasn’t a typo, I’ve averaged one trip every month since. Why eight times I hear you say? Well those of you who know me well know the main driver for my reoccurring transit to and from this wonderful country. Absolutely hedonistic but not in the way many would assume. That however is not my only reason, the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia I feel in Singapore continues to grow, and over the past five months with the absence of The Chen this has spiraled almost out of control. Being only a short flight for me Cambodia seems to be fertile ground for me to quash this claustrophobia and if planned correctly can be cheaper than a weekend out in Singapore.

In February of this year I intelligently utilized the double public holiday that Chinese New Year brings and worked from my hotel for a few days to acquire a nine day stay in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. Previous trips to the city had always been with my good friend Claudio but this time I flew solo and made the most of the time on my own.

Before I moved to Asia my knowledge of Cambodia was limited to the fact it plays piggy in the middle to Thailand and Vietnam. I also knew from a book I’d read back in college that the country’s most prominent attribute was a man hell bent on genocide and revolution known as Pol Pot. Since moving to Singapore my interest in the cultural continent of Asia has soared. I’ve since read a book on the history of Thailand which touched upon the emergence of Cambodia from the Great Plains of South East Asia and the history of the once powerful Angkor Empire. Thanks to Ben Kiernan I’m currently reading further into the Pol Pot regime and the reign of terror inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. It’s as equally horrifying as it is interesting. This part of history has really caught my attention.

 Khmer My Love

The Skulls of Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek or The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh is one several sites throughout Cambodia used for the  persecution of the people of Cambodia by The Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge is a name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 and was the ruling party of the country from 1975-1979. During the party's rule of Cambodia the state it controlled was known as Democratic Kampuchea or DK. Pol Pot was it's leader.

Pol Pot was a Cambodian Communist Revolutionary was born on the 19th May 1925 in Kampon Thon Province. Real name Saloth Sar he was the General Secretary of the CPK from 1963 until the party's dissolving in 1981. He was prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea during the party's rain. Between himself and the fellow leaders of the CPK they were held accountable for the death of 1.7M Cambodians during this period. Summary execution, starvation and disease were his weapons.

I went to visit Choeung Ek, the concentration camp of Phnom Penh while I was there. The small area is about 15km outside of Phnom Penh, forty five minutes by Tuk Tuk from the centre of Phnom Penh.

I opted to use the audio tour which is narrated by a Phnom Penh local who survived the persecution. Take off the headphones and you’re assaulted by a gripping silence as all the other tourists are listening to same horror as you. It only adds to the grim reality of this place.

No caption needed.

Wrist bands of support from thousands of visitors

Monarchs and things made of glitter..

On the way back to Phnom Penh from the Killing Fields it started to get dark, as the Tuk Tuk driver entered the hustle and bustle of the centre I was blessed with a sunset photo opportunity of the Royal Palace of Cambodia.

Khmer Sunset

The royal palace currently has a larger than life portrait of abdicated King Norodom Sihanouk who died in October 2012. I was actually in Phnom Penh on the weekend of this funeral and was lucky to watch the way the Cambodians celebrated his life. Huge firework displays and day long funeral processions through the centre. It was a magical to watch the respect and love the people had for their monarch in true Khmer style. 

The Royal Palace faces the Tonle Sap River and at night stands illuminated in golden lighting. Walking past the palace at night and watching the youth gather on the land in front of it is a very special experience. It would warm the blood if it wasn't already 38 degrees outside. 

The Palace by Day

Walking around the circumference of the palace during daylight hours is just as special, the buildings of red and gold stand stunning against the backdrop of crystal blue clear skies.  The palaces don't seem as grand as those of Thailand but are more floral and more classically designed.

Khmer Cuisine

Cambodian cuisine isn't as well known as Thai, Chinese or even Vietnamese but the Khmer people do have their own tasty delights. Walking around the streets of the capital you'll find in abundance two trademark dishes; Lok Lak usually served with Beef and Amok which is usually served with Fish. Lok Lak is generally shredded beef cooked in a light gravy and accompanied by rice. Most restaurants in Phnom Penh have an English style Lok Lak served with French fries and a fried egg. You'll struggle to find great Beef in Phnom Penh so be prepared to chew, quality and taste will vary restaurant to restaurant but it's a pretty standard dish.

Fish Amok is fish coated in a thick coconut milk with kroeung, either steamed or baked in a cup made from banana leaves. It is often eaten during the Water Festival, which celebrates the reversal of the Tonle Sap River. An important part of the dish is the addition of the leaves of the noni tree and the use of fingerroot.

There are other dishes but to be honest my experience with Khmer Cuisine is poor at best, I've yet to try enough Lok Lak here to differentiate good from bad. I haven't found one that explodes yet but I haven't given up trying. Another famous dish here in Cambodia funnily enough is Pizza, there are tons of Pizza restaurants here but it's not normal pizza, it's pizza with a twist. 

Pink Elephant is one of many restaurants in Phnom Penh offering this special 'herbal' recipe.

The pizza I am referring to is of course the famed Happy Pizza. It's basically a regular pizza cooked to your requirements with your toppings of choice laced with Marijuana. Reportedly local happy cuisine is not limited to Pizza with the ingredient being seemingly versatile with most dishes. In a region of the world renowned for it's tough stance on drugs it was mind blowing to see this with my own eyes. How does it work? What is the history behind this illicit trade? 

Cambodia is a developing country and the streets of Phnom Penh proclaim the fact from the heavens but at night the place changes, it becomes Sin City of Asia. I once said that Bangkok was the Amsterdam of Asia and in many ways it remains the King but Phnom Penh has it's own nightlife that slumbers deeply during the hours of the day.  At night Phnom Penh becomes illuminated by the red neon of the many Angkor Beer themed sign posts. The streets fill with the transformation of pushy self employed Tuk Tuk drivers into hardened gang members offering foreigners drugs and sex. The streets of the city are suddenly laden with brothels and lady bars, invisible by day and reminiscent of a young growing Bangkok of yesteryear. The city transforms itself into an Asian noir.

Sisowath Quay by Night

Reminding the reader that Cambodia is a third world country and that the streets of Phnom Penh are rife with poverty. Walking the path parallel to the Tonle Sap river you are bombarded by suffering. Emancipated mothers holding their naked children, heavily disfigured and disabled locals as well as people beaten by the hands of time all beg for your monetary mercy. Children touting sunglasses, photocopied books and handmade bracelets will flock to you like flies on shit. If you are easily upset by this I suggest you take the little solace side streets can offer and that of the the interior of restaurants. Failing that you can also try to ignore them but if you have a heart or an ounce of humanity it’s difficult I assure you. You can also pay your way out of it but be careful, paying off one child by buying a book or bracelet can actually result in stampede of requests and a harder sell from the kids. 

 It's not all death, marijuana, annoying Tuk Tuk drivers and prostitutes..

Although Phnom Penh has a blood stained past and a red light present don't be put off visiting this splendorous place. The city is filled with friendly locals just who are happy to provide five star service in exchange for a small amount of your hard earned dollars. It plays host to a collective of budding restauranteurs and entrepreneurs trying to make a name for themselves in this growing city. It offers a vast array of delicately beautiful French architecture and boutique hotels at generous prices. It has extravagant amounts of history and culture available ranging from the Kingdom of Angkor and the Khmer Empire to the French colonization and the travesties of the Khmer Rouge. It offers this variety with a smile. This city has personality.

A monk wonders the streets of Phnom Penh in the early hours.
I love this city and will keep using it as my sanctuary away from the corporate life of Singapore, well until i find somewhere more charming. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Fransisco but me, I left mine in Phnom Penh.