Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Phnom Penh

We decided to celebrate our marriage in July 2014 with a honeymoon to Cambodia and Thailand. Antonia had been to both countries before and they are among her favourite travel destinations; it had been a long-held dream to return one day with James. So, ten days after the wedding, we embarked on 32 hours of flights and lay-overs from Winnipeg to our first stop, Phnom Penh. 

After a very busy semester for both of us that culminated in wedding planning and then five fun-filled but rain-filled days outdoors at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, we were determined to relax on our  honeymoon. But when we arrived in Cambodia and realized the short time we had to see the country, we forgot our exhaustion and kicked into full-fledged tourist mode. Our first stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - not very romantic, but a necessary visit when one is in the Cambodian capital, honeymoon or not. The museum was originally a high school but was turned into a prison and torture centre during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

Anyone suspected of being unsympathetic to the regime, including many former torturers themselves as the leaders became more and more paranoid, was imprisoned here after confessing under torture. This amounted to more than 17,000 people over the life of the prison, the vast majority being taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be massacred, and only a few ever making it out alive. Many of the buildings have been left as they were found after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and wandering through the floors of an ordinary high school turned into a torture chamber is incredibly eerie. 

Adding to the unsettling atmosphere are the thousands of photographs of prisoners lining the walls (the administration were meticulous record-keepers).

Some of the most striking exhibits are the photographs taken by the Vietnamese soldiers who first came across the prison during the fall of the Khmer Rouge; 14 prisoners were tortured to death moments before guards fled the prison, and the photographs of their bodies hang in the rooms in which they were found.

After spending a couple of hours at the museum, we stopped for lunch at an Indonesian restaurant called Sumatra and reflected on what we had seen. We were in a somber mood, but the gado-gado (vegetables with tofu in a peanut sauce), stir-fried spinach, and spicy tofu balado were delicious.

After lunch, we walked to the nearby Russian Market, so called because of its popularity with Russian ex-pats in the 1980s, but now mostly frequented by locals. At first, we thought the market was made up only of outdoor stalls around the perimeter of the square city block, but we realized because of the large area of the market that there must be more behind these tiny shops. We saw small openings to narrow passages leading toward the dark innards of the market and ventured inside. 

The market is a great place to catch a glimpse of modern Cambodian life. Traffic is hectic, smells are strong, and the row after row of shop stalls seem chaotic, but we remarked that traveling in Cambodia feels much more laid-back than in other places we have traveled, like China and India. Shopping is not as much of a high-pressure experience, and shopkeepers usually accept a pleasant “no, thank you” in response to their request to browse their goods. We spent a couple of very pleasant hours wandering around and snapping photos. 

We decided to take a tour of Kingdom Breweries, an activity recommended by our guidebook. We took a very scenic tuk-tuk ride across the city along Sisowath Quay and the Tonle Sap riverfront. When we arrived at the brewery, we joined a tour of just two other people, and we were pleasantly surprised to be able to go right onto the factory floor and wander around looking at whatever interested us. It was fascinating to examine the factory assembly line at work, especially the bottling and labelling machines.

Our tour tickets included two free beers each in the fancy bar overlooking the river, which also happened to be completely empty. We tried the pilsner, dark, and gold brews. James preferred the pilsner, but amazingly, Antonia loved the dark- possibly the first one she has ever really enjoyed. It was sweet and had a bit of a chocolate flavour. 

We have been seeking out Kingdom beer in restaurants ever since (no, this blog post was not sponsored by Kingdom Breweries). As we drank, we chatted with our congenial tour guide, who could not understand the concept of -40 degrees Celsius in a Canadian winter (she was perplexed that there could be anything on the other side of zero degrees), nor fathom how we could decline the chance to taste amok fish, Cambodia's national dish, and her favourite food.

When we returned to the hotel, we succumbed to the combination of the beer and the jet lag, and had a short nap before heading out again in the evening. We took a tuk-tuk to the Night Market, which reminded us of the night markets of Seoul without being nearly as crowded. We found a Mexican restaurant nearby for dinner, and then challenged ourselves to negotiate a tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel for $1 (we had paid $2 in the other direction and we were sure we could do better). Our negotiating skills were apparently rusty, though, and we walked most of the way home.

After taking some time the next morning to book a guesthouse in Siem Reap in preparation to leave later that night, we took a short walk from our hotel to the National Museum of Cambodia. 

The museum displays Khmer treasures of historical and artistic importance, but the building itself, and especially its courtyard, are just as beautiful as what is inside. 

We had a lovely time exploring, but we had to delay our departure until a sudden downpour of monsoon strength subsided. 

The break in the weather allowed for a stroll along the riverfront in search of lunch. We settled on a lovely little restaurant called Anjali because the menu boasted amok tofu- we would have the chance to try Cambodia’s national dish, after all! It was delicious- coconutty and creamy, and  it was presented in a beautiful banana leaf bowl. 

Antonia had a vegetarian tom yum soup, which was so spicy that she had a coughing fit after nearly every bite, but so delicious that she didn't mind. We also splurged on spring rolls and smoothies, making this our best meal in Cambodia.

As it had started to rain again, we decided to remain indoors, and headed to Seeing Hands Massage, where blind masseuses work out your knots for only $7 an hour. We had read about exploitation of blind masseuses elsewhere in Cambodia, but our guidebook indicated that this location was trustworthy and helps the masseuses stay self-sufficient. It also indicated that blind masseuses have an enhanced sense of touch, and ours certainly were good at zeroing in on our sore spots, and also at bending and twisting our limbs in ways we never knew possible. Antonia was still sore days later. 

Next, we headed back downtown to visit the Royal Palace, with its gilded temples and diamond-encrusted, crystal Buddhas.

The well-manicured gardens were as impressive as the shining interiors of the temples. 

We then stopped at a nearby park to take in some views of daily Phnom Penh life. 

Every morning at dawn and again at and dusk, Cambodians of all ages and sexes gather at different locations around the city to participate in public aerobic sessions. An instructor will set up a PA or boom box with a microphone and start giving instruction, waiting for people to join in. 

At the park we were lucky enough to see one of these aerobics sessions, as well as kids playing soccer and teenagers playing a mysterious game that had to do with stealing ribbons off of each other’s heads.

To toast our last night in Phnom Penh, we walked to the famed Foreign Correspondents’ Club. It was pretty fancy for us, with cushy furnishings and an open-air view of the river, but hey, happy hour was 2 for 1. James tried a passion fruit mojito and Antonia had the FCC transfusion, a mix of vodka, cranberry juice, ginger ale, and lime. Our dinner of roasted tofu salad and margarita pizza was very good. 

It must have been our honeymoon or something because James, not known for his sweet tooth, suggested dessert, and he even gave into Antonia’s pleas to visit the Cupcake Cafe- a sweet ending to our time in Phnom Penh. 


  1. Thanks Antonia and James for sharing your visit to Phnom Penh with me - - brings back good memories of my own visit there in 2011.

  2. Phnom Penh bah!, not as exotic as Winnipeg!