by Monica Nilsson
We had visited Siem Reap like many other tourists, mainly to visit Angkor Wat and wanted to do that while we still were living in SE Asia but had not yet visited Phnom Penh. To be quite honest with you I had no wish to go there for reasons I no longer remember or understand. I had in mind that it should be a large city with no little charm or nothing really of interest except the “Killing Fields” that I did not intend to see anyway. My husband and I have both seen so many war memorials so we decided that it was more than enough and besides we didn’t want to spend half a day outside of town to see sorrow and pain but rather focus this only time on the positive side of Cambodia of today.
The sites we have seen are Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland (horrible), the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam (grotesque pictures) and also the Cu Chi tunnels. I have also seen all the white gravestones in France and also visited a very creepy church outside of Prague called “Bone Church”. I have seen how the Japanese treated the British soldiers (why were they in Singapore in the first place? Hmm, wars you never quite understand) during the occupation of Singapore in 1942 through pictures on Changi War Museum in Singapore (terrible pictures of starving men weighing 45kg) and to finish off the war museums we have also seen the Latvian War Museum in Riga. The Russians for sure have not been nice people either in the past, in war times. My goodness all these totally meaningless horrible wars! So we decided that it should be enough of that kind of exploration or visit on this three day time trip only.
I rather wanted to focus on the more positive side of Phnom Penh and for us it now for ever will remain as a quite cosy, pleasant and nice city.
We arrived to Phnom Penh the day after the yearly Water Festival that what we understood is a quite spectacular event with boats all covered with steel racks decorated with thousands of coloured light bulbs. It must have been a sight to see in darkness. Additional they organise a rowing competition when over one hundred boats participate. This race is called “Bon Om Touk” and lasts for three days in November every year. The very first was 1914 so the tradition is now more than 100 years old. The Water Festival commemorates the end of the rainy season and changes the flow of the Tonle Sap River. The King and Queen attend as well as hundreds of thousands of people.
We missed it and I still don’t know if that was a good or a bad thing. Crowds like that can be difficult to stand and the sight and visibility may have been quite poor anyway, as I can imagine. Maybe it was a pity, I don’t know. I simply have to enjoy the pictures of it to be found on the internet and think that we at least were pretty close to have been there.
I found this nice classic colonial hotel on booking.com called Palace Gate Hotel and it was such a nice place. I can highly recommend this if you go to Phnom Penh. I liked everything about that hotel in fact. It is well located close to the river and opposite the Palace. It was walking distance to everything we had planned to visit, very convenient. The hotel reminds you of a small replica of Raffles Hotel in Singapore and even the welcoming staff outside the hotel are dressed in colonial style like they still are at Raffles. The swimming pool area is a charming and green oasis that you need after a couple of hours of motorbike honking out on the streets. You don’t hear a sound there funny enough even though the street life is right outside. We had a nice 45m2 suite facing the pool area and it may sounds expensive but in fact it is not.
Comparing to what you get on a 4 star hotel for that kind of money (160€) in my home country in Sweden, maybe 18m2 in Stockholm without breakfast. If you are lucky and it is not high season! You might as well enjoy this while you can. We have a few tips from our good friends in Bangkok and we had to visit the FCC – Foreign Correspondence Club. It is a “not to miss” place indeed. http://fcccambodia.com/our-story/ You can sit there and look around you or you can even close your eyes and still imagine how things once were, in and around that building. The second day we took a 2 hour tuk tuk ride with a very nice guy who spoke excellent English. It cost 15USD and was worth the money. He took us over the bridge and across the river to a few temples and we saw the fishing people who live and work on their boats. Such a difference from the luxury hotel right opposite where they harboured. You can also go to Silk Island or Koh Dach from a dock with a small ferry and see silk factories, etc. We chose not to but if I ever come back, I will for sure explore this as well. They have fantastic silk fabric and silk clothing to purchase in Cambodia. There is one very nice shop just across the beautiful yellow Cambodia Post building. It reminds very much of another fantastic Postal Building, namely the one in Saigon which looks almost identical to me. The one in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is much nicer inside though and better restored and preserved.
Not far from the hotel are two large areas where the first one is a huge public area and space where it is very nice to go and see all the young people and children play and kicking with a bamboo ball. At one side of the area loudspeakers were placed on the ground and a group of maybe thirty youngsters danced to the music.
It was so lovely to see the activity in this enormous square. For me places like this – the huge areas – symbolize very much communism since we have seen them both in Moscow and Beijing e.g. but no matter history – it is a gathering place where people meet and are active outdoors instead of sitting indoors with their cell phones or games
I was amazed to find that even here in Phnom Penh the majority of the people we met spoke almost fluent English, which is quite the opposite of the people in Thailand. Still today I find even people working in the tourism industry have very poor knowledge of the English language. Maybe in the future they will have the pressure of trying to learn Mandarin instead of English, who knows.
One thing we did while there was that my husband tried one of many hair saloons just a few minutes from the hotel. 3USD and 30 minutes later he had a great haircut, just as good as the ones in Bangkok for 10 times the money. Amazing.
I got a tip from our Swedish friends to visit the restaurant MALIS, which was a 10 minutes stroll from our hotel. We went there but had to go back and book for the following evening instead. It was fully booked in the garden that we found very much nicer than the indoor air con area. It is a lovely restaurant with great food and good service. I can highly recommend it if you’re going.
By the way… I happen to have a 50USD voucher for this popular and nice restaurant that I gladly sell to anyone for 30USD (win-win) since I probably won’t have time to go back to Phnom Penh before I am moving back home to Sweden in early May. This is a great opportunity for Expat Life readers. The voucher covers both cities have a good selection of cafe’s and restaurants with good food both local but also international cuisine we found in both places.
We understood from our tuk tuk driver that they are not entirely pleased with their government and its PM has held this position since 1998, that’s 20 years. Of course people are still struggling and the minimum daily salary is not enough but luckily the history of its past is a memory long gone for the young people of today and that no one ever will see happen again. You can only hope future will be bright for the people of Cambodia so that the smile will remain and not fade away.
At least I will remember the spirit and joy of the dancing young people in the park that evening a few weeks back and keep my memory bright. Go there. You will not regret it.