Throughout the thirteen hour plane ride to Taipei, I could not stop watching the woman in front of me. Between bouts of sleep and finding myself staring at the ceiling, I would notice faintly but strongly her presence in a plane full of people. Forty years old or sixty, it was difficult to gauge. Her high, gaunt cheekbones battled against full, tanned cheeks and her hair flecked with dove grey stranded elegantly through inky black. I never quite got a strong, clear look at her eyes or mouth, only glimpses through the space between the seat and the window as I sat behind.
I imagine the heavy thrum I hear when inside an airplane being similar to that of what a baby experiences in the womb.
Several friends and a few acquaintances from back in the states have expressed interest in visiting my new home of Phnom Penh. The questions of what to expect, what there is to do and eat and see are endless and considering I’ve only lived here five months in a working stance with not as much sightseeing or a traveler’s point of view, it can be difficult to come up with an answer. I’ve spent short times at temples and tourist attractions, from the time I visited in April 2012 and small trips here and there. Since I am working and if visitors do ever arrive, I’d like to give my viewpoint on the travel time and the daily life. Nothing wildly different, yet no less exciting, the day to day and in and outs of my life in Phnom Penh.
I have flown both Asean and Korean Airline and they’re so similar I couldn’t recommend one over the other, just go for whatever is more cost effective. Although 27 hours of flight and travel time may seem daunting, with the right mindset, a good enough book, plentiful snacks, notepad, and a couple Xanax its quite an enjoyable journey. You have time to unwind, disconnect from work and anything gripping you from home, and enjoy a menagerie of movies and snacks on the plane. The layover time I’ve been able to arrange on my way over is only about an hour in Seoul, Korea, just enough time to grab a coffee, freshen up, and scurry to the next flight. The first leg of the flight is roughly 14 hours, once you make it past that you can pop a sleeping pill and the second seven hour flight is basically non existent. When arriving in Phnom Penh, you’ll step into a tiny airport (not Long Beach tiny, but small) and a wave of mugginess will inevitably hit you. I’ve only landed at night, around 10 or 11 and haven’t experienced the Phnom Penh hustle and bustle and highly recommend it. Buying your visa into Cambodia is the easiest thing, just have a passport photo ready and $20, pay at the counter before leaving the airport and just wait to hear a very jumbled version of your name. Snag your luggage, grab a taxi or tuk tuk (I recommend arranging pickup before your arrival, just ask someone who lives in Phnom Penh for a good driver) and be on your way.
On your way to where? I haven’t stayed at any of the hotels or guest houses in Phnom Penh as I haven’t had need to, but there is something for everyone.
If you’re in the mood for something more backpacker friendly, laid back, lots of drinking available, and a place to meet fellow travelers I recommend The Mad Monkey or Eighty8 Backpackers, better known as The Eighty8. The Mad Monkey is run by really friendly guys who have opened up another two locations in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, employ the friendliest of staff, sell bus tickets and services right from the bar, serve great food (especially the chorizo pizza), and seem to be the most popular guesthouse in town. There are dorm rooms available along with private, a rooftop bar, and a cat named Squeaky. I recommend booking here in advance. The Eighty8 is where all the WUPP! parties are hosted, has a small but lovely pool, serve happy truffles, and offer dorm and private rooms. Prices at these two spots range from $7 to $12.
I’ve spent less time around mid price hotels in the area, but my mom always puts up guests in Villa Srey, a boutique hotel conveniently located right next to .BEYOND Interiors where she works. Located on Street 360, this little guest house offers a small pool perfect for hot afternoons and is a block away from dozens of modern coffee shops and eateries. Rates start at $50. I’ve also heard excellent things about The Plantation located behind The Royal Palace. With two bars, two pools, a gym, and voted as one of Conde Nast’s 2012 best hotels I can only assume you’ll be well taken care of. I’ve stepped inside the hotel and wandered about and can tell it would be a lovely getaway in the city. Rates start at $60. Hotel 9 is another boutique hotel located right across Psar Kabko market in Tonle Bassac, about 5 blocks from where I used to live. What seems like a noisy street gives way to this stylish spot complete with a pool and fantastic happy hour. Ideal for a quick walk to Equinox, Vego, or Independence Monument, Allison’s parents will be staying here when they visit in February and I look forward to hearing about their experience. Rates start at $55.
Even less time have I spent at the higher priced hotels Phnom Penh has to offer. The Sofitel‘s all you can eat breakfast is delicious and expensive. The Raffles lunch, famous classic appeal and pool are wonderful and expensive. The Quay‘s rooftop is fantastic and expensive. The White Mansion is gorgeous, refined and expensive. I won’t even go into the details of each of these places as they all boast excellence, if you’ve got a little extra money to spend (when I say expensive, this is by Cambodian standards. It’s about the same price you’d pay for a Red Lion at home) and want something with a bit more of everything, check out these venues.
There is never a shortage of places to eat in Phnom Penh. Eateries are abundant as New York, but with a bit more excitement. Tarantula, anyone? For a gastro involved individual like me, it’s a never ending adventure of the palate. There are, however, some spots that have stolen my stomach that I will continue to frequent.
Taqueria Corona: I consider this the best Mexican spot in town. Owned and run by a San Diego (San Francisco? San something…) native, this restaurant serves up homemade tortilla chips, salted to perfection and fried to a golden crisp along with burritos thick with tender barbacoa, chicken, or carne asada and topped with an ample amount of cheese. A far cry from the bean laden burritos, sparse with toppings offered up by different Mexican restos around the city.
Sovanna 1/2: This Khmer BBQ spot seems to be the best known and for good reason. The menu lists everything from grilled sweet corn to morning glory salad and frogs legs to favorites like pork fried rice and barbecued meats. Not drinking a ton of Angkor beer isn’t an option but when you can eat to your heart’s content for $6, you’ll need something to wash down everything you’re shoveling into your maw.
USA Donut: I’ve tried many a burger in Phnom Penh, even the famed Mike’s Burger, but none comes close to touching the classic cheeseburger from USA Donut. Delightfully sloppy and enough grease to moisturize your entire body with cheese melty enough to evoke sighs, this ones a winner. Bangin’ donuts are available here too along with any other Costco sized American product you may want. Honorable mention: Lonestar’s Bacon Blue Cheeseburger. Simply bomb.
Vego: To offset my carb heavy intake, sometimes I treat myself to Vego. The Istanbul wrap (feta, sun dried tomatos, cucumber, olives, rocket, onions, vinaigrette) from this salad and sandwich spot is perfect for a hangover or feeling fat day and delicious to boot. Their bagels are a taste from home and both their locations are clean, welcoming, and they offer free delivery.
Pho 24: Strange to think my favorite pho would be from a chain restaurant, but Pho 24’s Beef Pho is simply the best I’ve had. The meat is always fatless, heavy on the broth, and all acoutrements are freely given. For $3.50, I’m a happy camper. My only qualm is that they don’t offer delivery. For the mornings I can’t make it out of bed for pho, I’ll order from Magnolia Wrap and Roll, another delectable option (although the sprouts come soggy and there isn’t much broth).
Nike Pizza House: Last night Ritchie, Allison, Duncan, and I hit up our favorite pasta spot and ordered 4 Cheese Gnocchi, Spaghetti Bolognese, 2 Penne Alla Creamy, Penne Amanda, a Pepperoni Pizza, a Greek salad and 5 Coke Lites for $35. To fill these two gents up generally takes quite a land fill of food, so the fact that we always leave fat and happy says a lot. The prices are prime, the portions hearty, and the quality excellent. You can also order in free of charge from Nike, last time I did they told me I was the boss and that they knew where I lived. Success.
Bar.Sito: My top place for a classy cocktail in a small, hidden lounge on Street 240 and a half, whenever I step into Sito it feels like I’m back in Seattle or some sneaky spot on my last trip to New York. Cocktails are all $4, but are made to make you woozy and kick your tastebuds into high gear. My favorite is the Espresso Martini, dangerously good.
Eclipse Sky Bar: Not generally the type of place I frequent, but enjoyed every time I do go. With an excellent view of the city lights and open breezy air, this bougie spot on top of The Phnom Penh Tower is a pleasant place to go on a weekday evening after a shopping date at Mango and dinner at Phnom Penh India. It also holds a very special place in my heart after New Years, but just make sure you don’t try to walk down the stairs…you’re bound to fall at some point about half way through at floor 12.
Zeppelin Cafe: Hands down our favorite place for a drink, Zeppelin Cafe plays the most excellent classic rock and vodka Red Bulls flow extra easy for dirt cheap. Dumplings also available, again for a couple thousand riel. Ideal.
La Croisette, Recovery on Friday night: Ritchie and Duncan man the table and bottle of Jim Beam (almost) every Friday at La Croisette to play our favorite music. There’s nothing like hearing Arcade Fire or The Cribs in a public place overseas with a vodka in hand, friends by your side, and a restaurant open for your terrible dance moves, which are all the more fun shared with friends and lovers
The Flicks Cinemas (1,2,3): I’ve mentioned The Flicks cinemas a couple times before and with reason, this place is the perfect vacation from a long day. Showing indie and harder to find Hollywood blockbusters, classic films, and run by a gem of a man, Ramon. My favorite location is Flicks 1, with a palatial hot dog, ice cold air conditioner, and plentiful lounge space. The Flicks 3 is a fun outdoor showing at Gasolina, just remember mosquito spray or your legs will be ground meat by the end of the night.
The Kanika: Floating down the Mekong River at dusk, sipping a Whiskey Sour and feeling the cool air slowly rising up is one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had in Phnom Penh. This boat, serving cocktails and dinner, departs from the Himiwari Hotel at set times and takes you for a 2 hour or so cruise up and down the river. The last time I went was in April when visiting and we made it off the boat right in time, watching lightning run across the sky and a sheet of rain move across the river.
Random Events: It seems there is always, always something to do here. My Events page on Facebook has never gotten as much activity as it has since living in Phnom Penh. Let’s take a gander at this past month:
January 12: Grass Snake Union plays at Equinox for their 7 Year Anniversary
January 12: Kimchi Collective presents: The Meta House Sessions 7
January 17: Feral Is Kinky @ Pontoon
January 18: Bangin’ Birthday Bash, theme: When I Grow Up
January 18: Friends Charity Party @ Doors, hosted by WUPP!
January 18: Recovery @ La Croisette
January 19: Little Kitchen presents Iranian dishes & fundraising for the Cambodian under 15 Woman football league
January 24: The Flicks 3 Open Air Cinema: GREASE + INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
January 25: Le Jardin Latin After Work, Tapas and Wine
January 25-27: The Village, 5 Course Menu Food Festival
January 25: What’s Up Pool Party #5 @ The Eighty8
January 26: Australia Day @ Rubie’s w/ Kimchi Collective
January 26: Australia Day: AFL, The Cambodian Space Project (band) at The Phnom Penh Navy base
January 26: Full Moon Party @ Rahu
…it goes on. Not to mention rugby and soccer games of your pals, boxing matches, and photo shoots. The Riverside is a treat to stroll in itself, dismissing pushy tuk tuk drivers and Ray Ban salesmen, smelling the different foods and peeking into different clubs and restaurants and looking out onto the Mekong. There is the genocide museum, shooting range, paint balling, inline skating, karaoke, Dream Land, four wheeling, bowling and hitting up way more tourist spots that I need to partake in.
Mango, Esquisse, ESQ, Paperdolls, First Floor, Le Temps des Cerises: Bountiful are the small boutiqes full of clothing, decor, and accessories for prices that rival home. First Floor stocks luxury brands along with local favorites such as Eric Raisina, Esquisse, and Jean Benoit Lasselin’s fantastic custom tailored suit line, colorblind. Mango is a much needed mid-range clothing option here to offset the bounty of cheap, trendy goods and worth the $50 for an excellent pair of lounge pants.
VIP Market: A rad little market with a few locations, always has Power Caps available for those midnight popsicle cravings and they’ll hold onto your lease contract for two weeks when you leave it there and forget it. Best selection of snacks that I’ve encountered in a mini mart and the best baguette I’ve had in Phnom Penh.
Beautiful Shoes: You can get basically anything custom made in Phnom Penh. Need a cashmere suit? You got it. A replica of your favorite leather handbag coming apart at the seams? Absolutely doable. My first custom made piece I had made were a pair of camel pony hair booties for $30 at Beautiful Shoes. Definitely worth it when shoes are made to tailor your own feetses.
Orussey Market: The markets here never cease to amaze me. Next door to a girl getting her hair crimped and dyed a strange blondish orange are dried fish crawling with flies and eggs of a mystery pink hue. My favorite is Orussey Market, a clusterfuck of stalls, seemingly without order or reason. Although overwhelming, hot, fragrant in a number of ways, and extremely dirty, you can find anything you could imagine here, which may or may not be comforting. I’ve gone home with bags of vintage, a baby hatchet, a curling iron, a kettle, each time happy. You can polish your bartering skills while taking in some of the culture, be prepared for a sensory overload in this wonderful mess.
None of these things touch on the excitement of getting out of town to Siem Reap (like I did 2 weeks ago) or Vietnam (like this upcoming weekend) or Odoung Mountain for a day trip (like we did 3 weeks ago) or Mondolkiri (like I did when I first arrived), but I can’t help but feel like a stranger in paradise (as Nica from back home pet-named me) each and every day that I get to experience a day here. There are so many unknowns yet to me and I am oh so grateful for it. Never again do I want to live in a city where I feel like I’ve experienced everything. Each day presents some new challenge or excitement and I have so much to learn. Once you’re here I can’t wait to show you each of these little spots when time allows, I can only urge visitors to take off to nearby (or not so nearby) spots like Kep or Koh Rong or even Laos and Bangkok to fill your plate with memories you’ll never forget. I hope to join you on one or two of those excursions, until then, dream of dragon fruit, sweltering, sticky, wonderful days, long talks into the evening with sweating drinks and sweaty calves, the welcomed chill of air conditioner, the constant hum of the city, the grins bared from the beautiful Khmer people, and the thrill of being on the back of a moto.