Travels with my Godmother: Phenomenal Phnom Penh and some too authentic dinners
As mentioned earlier, my travel activity of 2021 so far comprises of thumbing through my treasured travel diaries.
At present, there is a single country in Europe that you may enter and leave without prerequisite quarantine (Iceland). Since I have a full-time job, I have no option but to defer travel – for a bit.
However.., I never blogged about my travels with my godmother, which remain some of the best trips ever! Starting with some very traditional Bangkok fare, we travelled to Angkor Wat , and after a week of mostly ancient temples, we moved on to Phnom Penh.
We spent three days in the capital, seeing the sights and staying in a rather swanky hotel where we may well have had the pleasure of spotting the first-generation travel blogger. Laptops by the pool any one? I thought a tthe time how terribly pretentious, but hey, bingo to the travel blogger cliche!
Table of Contents
Arriving in Phnom Penh
My first trip to Phnom Penh was a fairly romantic one. I say fairly because feeling attracted to your seat neighbour on a plane to Siam Reap does not usually have the longevity of a stable healthy relationship. Anyway, our lasted all the way to Phnom Penh.
So, this time, having left the city on a high note, I knew this trip would be quite different.
It did not stop me picking a pretty romantic hotel since it was my turn in choosing our abode. I picked the beautiful Pavilion Hotel. And hey, we needed it ! Having booked the cheapest coach (5US$ for 350km), we were picked up at 06:30, somewhat earlier than we had agreed on, a somewhat bumpy ride to a Phnom Penh bus depot, then a tuk-tuk ride to the hotel – getting lost included. I finally try to direct the driver to the correct street, from where we walk to the fortress, and ask to be let in at the guards booth. Once inside, we got this for unter 65 US$… it’s become a bit more expensive these days, but only a little – if you travel in shoulder season.
We acquainted ourselves with the city centre the rest of the day by walking to the Royal Palace, then on to the and Foreign Correspondents Club and Sisowath Quay. The area is pretty much a tourist circus and quite noisy, with balcony bars sprung up left, right and centre. Only on the actual Mekong waterfront promenade do tourists mingle with locals, all here to watch the sunset -and do do a spot of line dancing.
After dinner on Sisowath Quay and a massage in one of the side streets (prices halve when you move hundred metres away from the quay), we got lazy and got a tuk-tuk to drive us back to the hotel, negotiating a price to take us sighteseeing the next day. Then we luxuriated in our twin four-poster beds and high-thread cotton sheets and slept like babies.
Phnom Penh Day 2
Not a bad breakfast at the Pavilion, great quality and somewhat small portions served with indifference, but very prettily by the pool .
We hopped onto our pre-arranged tuk-tuk straight to Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial. It was still early and hardly anybody there. Everywhere were shallow pits – mass graves excavated in 1980. The whole history of Cambodia since the 1960s is rather tangled and a little difficult to comprehend. But what sticks is that the Khmer Rouge upheld their bloody regime between 1975 and 1979 and slaughtered millions of their citizens over about 300 extermination sites all over the country, mostly around the south of the capital and along the Tonle Sap lake.
In reverse chronological order, me moved on to Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, a former school turned prison. Here, people were rounded up in the thousands, tortured for confessions, then moved to Choeung Ek and killed. One of its buildings now houses gruesome exhibit after exhibit: bare rooms, sometimes with the school blackboard still in place, room after room similar, for three floors. We moved along to the second building, past some gallows to the small exhibition area.
This was a very sombre morning, but in my opinion no visitor to Phnom Penh should miss learning about this dark period in Cambodias history.
After a morning of very heavy fare, I was nor surprised by the hoardes that dive into the garden of a nearby guest house for refreshments.
We wanted a bit of a contrast programme in the afternoon and asked our driver to drop us of at the “Russian Market” where we disappeared into the huge market building, Almost every tourist seemed to be here.
We left in the late afternoon when the stalls were beginning to pack up. All in all, I liked the Russian Market for its balanced offerings of tourist tat, local products and fresh produce, but in recent years there has been an increasing bias on souvenirs. All in all, I still favour the Psar Thmei (Central Market) – more interesting architecture, good mix of local produce and cheap clothes and silver, less packed with tourists and I thought prices were somewhat better.
The pool hipsters at the hotel had now disappeared, so we had the choice of daybeds and sunloungers and spent our last afternoon in luxurious surroundings by the pool.
We didn’t make it far for dinner – the trendy 240th street is right around the corner form the Pavilion Hotel. With some really expensive boutiques (and some nice non-profit shops too). We sampled the delights of various fine shops like Mekong Quilts and Daughters of Cambodia. We eventually settled for an all-white restaurant called Frizz (once fabulous, gone downhill, now closed), with a somewhat more upmarkt clientele than on Sisowath Quay.
Phnom Penh Day 3
We dedicated our whole day to visiting Phnom Tamao, a Wildlife Rescue Centre 50km outside Phnom Penh. I am pretty much anti-Zoo, but my godmother really wanted to visit. And I was pleasantly surprised! Animals are held captive in this wildlife rescue centre, but they are rescue animals, and those suitable are actually released int he wild. We hired a guide to take us through the huge sanctuary with its large enclosures – not really that great for photography, but much better to see the animals have plenty of room to move and being cared for.
We had originally booked a tour, which was cancelled two days previously, so we set off in a tuk-tuk that we had hired for the day, and as soon as we reached the entrance, we were literally mobbed by blokes on motorbikes trying to sell us coconuts and to be our guide. We eventually set off on our own, and didn’t get lost or confused, so I’d say unless you get a guide directly from the wildlife centre, it’s perfectly fine to visit independently.
On the way back, we say goodbye to the splendour of the Pavilion and moved to the north of the city centre, close to Wat Phnom and a glut of hospitals, to the new-ish Hotel Cara, for about at a third of the price of the Pavilion.
As we’d been back on town quite early, we went to enjoy a late lunch at the restaurant attached to the Calmette Hospital nearby for something fishy.
Pleasantly full, we strolled to Wat Phnom in the late afternoon. The pagoda itself is a rather psychedelic spectacle. Not quite the ancient temple as its history going back to the 14th Century suggests, but a rather pretty 1920’s rebuild surrounded by a busy roundabout. Once you have braved the roundabout, a spectacle of bright colours and LED lights awaits. Some rather esoteric-sounding music is playing in the background, too, which helps the somewhat strange but very pleasant atmosphere.
Among the usual offerings of coins and banknotes tucked into every available statue and figurine, foils covered coconuts, drinks and incense, we also admired these beautiful flower arrangements
We made it so Sisowath Quay just in time for the sunset and another bit of people watching. We strolled along the river, not the bar-lined quayside, to the Foreign Correspondents Club. The FCC is a bit of a legendary Phnom Penh landmark, having served a a place to meet, work and sleep for journalists since the early 1990s. Cambodia may have been an adventurous place to visit then, but now it was absolutely rammed with more of a party crowd and super touristy.
Not really into super mainstream bars, we buggered off and sat on the railings at the river front, with a lovely view of the Royal Palace . Then, on for a little massage, and a walk back (great exercise) . Here, godmother thought a restaurant opposite the Calmette might be both good and authentic and its dining room was air conditioned. It was a bit retro, too, tiled to eye level, then painted with mountain scenery murals. Only one waiter spoke English. And the fish curry wasn’t nearly as good as lunch. Oh well. Fate would strike later, much later.
Phnom Penh Day 4
So, this day was to be my special request show, and I was suitably excited.
Godmother is a good sport when it comes to interesting architecture, especially semi-derelict sites, but being carted out of the city to look for a bit of New Khmer Architecture may not have been top of her list. The Khmer Architecture Tours would only run very sporadic tours of the 1960s gems I wanted to see, so we got a tuk-tuk to the Royal University – not exactly a tourist magnet, and the driver didn;t even try to get some inflated fare out of us, and confidently chauffeured us past the guards right onto the campus passing a couple small road blocks.
We had just taken a taxi to the outskirts of town. It was the day we had planned to indulge in modernist architecture, starting with the Royal University of Phnom Penh. And even though Cambodia was full of foreign tourists in 2009, at the university there weren’t any of them. With our friendly stealth and a naive Western smile, we managed to silently walk thorough all buildings of this New Khmer Style gem we were interested in. We may no thave gotten the tour, but we saw some iconic buildings still in use and in good condition.
Being pretty much the only white faces in the university area, we mixed with what looked like very wealthy students in a fancy coffee shop before hailing some transport to the National Olympic Stadium.
Of course, aforementioned stadium never saw any Olympic games but its tribunes hold an impressive 50000 visitors, and the large football pitch has been put into good use – unofficially. Like so many noteworthy New Khmer Architecture buildings, it was designed by Vann Molyvann, the grand master of New Khmer Architecture of the liberal and progressive 1960s. As we pulle dup, there was nothing going on at all – the stadium was semi-locked up and deserted, apart from a few kids playing football.
Despite feeling a bit ropey there already, there was still so much to do on our last day in Phnom Penh. We hailed another taxi where, despite quoting a very reasonable price, the driver did not speak English at all, but with a lot of map pointing we got dropped off at the National Museum, a beautifully restored former Royal Villa and home to some rather impressive Khmer sculpture and art. The area around it is very pleasant too, with some upmarket cafes and restaurants definitely geared towards foreigners. We had lunch at the “Friends” Restaurant a training project, with the greatest service and predictable but nice “fusion” food.
We decided to walk, hopping along the side walks from shady spot to shady spot, so look at more random cool Modernist Architecture between here and Wat Phnom, taking in the central Market as well.
After a trip to the beautiful Post Office, we got chauffeured back to the hotel where I fall into bed for my usual power nap, but an hour later, godmother had real trouble getting me out of bed. It was pur last evening in Phnom Penh after all. Being suprr original, we went for the third sunset watch in a row on Sisowath Quay, mingling with the line dancers as usual. We had a last dinner in a simple little riverside restaurant that no longer exists, and then, wishing to end our last night in style, took a taxi to the Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh. There, entertained by the tinkling of a piano and hushed conversations, we thoroughly enjoyed our 6 dollar cocktails.
But all was not well. I blamed it on the alcohol at first. My godmother doesn’t drink, so I hadn’t, either, for over a week.
Feeling a bit dizzy, I blamed it all on a cocktail. But when I woke up in the early hours, I changed my mind. Ten or fifteen vomits later, it was finally morning and time to leave.
Pale faced, I leaned onto my backpack and let myself be dragged onto a minibus, then a larger coach. How I managed it to the first toilet stop en route to Kep I do not know, but I was the first in line when we eventually did stop at some delightful cafe with squat toilets. I had not dared to eat and drink, but when we arrived in Kep and gotten off the tuk-tuk to out classy little guesthouse, the Kep Bungalows, I threw myself into the fluffy pillows, asked for a coke and some pretzels and did not leave bed all day. But what happens in Kep… will be told in the next instalment of “Travels with my godmother”.
This trip is over ten years old, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt. We stayed in two hotels in Phnom Penh, as we extended our stay by a couple of days, and the pavilion Hotel was fully booked ( and a little pricey for more than a couple of nights)
Pavilion Hotel Phnom Penh
This very pretty hotel in an old French style mansion is in southern central Phnom Penh is stylish and practical, being in a quiet area yet in walking distance to the Mekong Riverfront, Royal Palace and National Museum. The decor of the rooms is simple and calm, breakfast is a tasty affair served in the garden, and you can relax in a beautiful well tended garden and swim modest laps in the pool. All in all, a really nice relaxing place, although they do not bend over backwards with any service, and it is a bit anonymous and indifferent. We paid 65 US$ for a twin room including breakfast back in 2009, and amazingly, prices appear to have remained pretty stable since.
You can reserve it through Booking.com.
Hotel Cara Phnom Penh
At about a third of the price of the Pavilion, we expected something a lot simpler, but this new build in northern central Phnom Penh really puts in an effort in the style stakes. Its communal areas are pretty and practical, the bedrooms slightly spartan but comfortable and super clean. The hotel is on a busy street in walking distance to Wat Phnom without much outside space to speak of. I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of the breakfast, but for a cheap yet clean hotel, thisis great. When we stayed there, there were nightclubs next to the hotels (now there is a hospital right next to it) so don’t expect green seclusion like at the Pavilion.
You can reserve it through Booking.com.
The Small Print
We travelled to Cambodia in 2009, so take this practical information with a grain of salt. I have deliberately not recommended any restaurants, and have been quite careful with my hotel recommendations, as things will have changed in a decade. This post contains affiliate links to Booking.com, which means that if you book through any of these links, I may ear an a small commission at no extra cost to you.