Cheap beers and tasty food, beautiful beaches and wonderfully resilient people, terrible roads and one very inconvenient bout of food poisoning.
PHNOM PENH PART I
My associate Laverne and I flew into Phnom Penh on December 15 and settled into the Feliz Hostel, not far from the hipster Tonlé Bassac District. Bassac Lane is home to countless tiny restaurants and hole in the wall bars offering $1 beers, two-for-one cocktails and complementary peanuts roasted in salt, sugar, lemongrass and chili during a seemingly never-ending happy hour. Once the sun goes down, Khmer locals fire up their kerbside barbecues and the smell of roasting meats and seafood fills the air as the riverside restaurants fill with hungry travellers. Phnom Penh is a bustling, chaotic city full of cheerful, friendly locals, but to appreciate the horrors that Cambodians have endured head to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Here 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured before being executed during Pol Pot’s reign of terror in the late 1970s. Outside the city are the Killing Fields themselves. You can take a heartbreaking audio tour that details the terror suffered by so many.
As expected, the six hour bus trip was utterly tedious but essential to reach the gateway to the splendour of the Temples of Angkor. Our first stop was the Mad Monkey hostel, which I suspected (correctly as it turned out) Laverne and I were a tad old for. Not being remotely interested in either beer pong or booze cruises we shifted to the Ivy Guesthouse two days later, a creaking old establishment with a whiff of seediness that lead me to suspect we weren’t the first people to sleep in our bed. Possibly that day. But the room was only $8 a night and they had Pol Pot’s cracked toilet seat inexplicably hanging on the wall. The downside of going to Siem Reap for the temples is when you realise you are not in fact a temple person. This is an expensive lesson as a three day temple pass is 62USD. The first day we did the outer circuit, taking in about 12 of the quieter, more rural temples. Two days later we returned for six of the big ones, including Bayon and Angkor Wat. They are spectacular, but if you’re prone to museum fatigue a single day is more than enough. A serious bout of food poisoning that night left me curled on floor of our (thankfully) private bathroom as my body tried to expel my vital organs through whichever orifice was closest. Don’t drink the water kids.
Laverne found the best coffee at Little Red Fox, and in the evenings we wandered up and down Pub Street drinking 50 cent beers before seeking out less touristy venues hidden down alleys and tucked around corners. Miss Wong, an ode to 1920s Shanghai, was was a definite highlight with excellent caprioskas and martinis. Against our better judgment, we let our tuk tuk driver Nuong talk us out of a cooking class with a reputable company, convincing us to go with one of her mates instead. Ergo, we paid a small fortune to stand around for two hours grating vegetables. We had better luck at Phare Circus, an hour of acrobatics and rock music from a troupe of disadvantaged young people turned musicians and highly skilled performers. Oh, and if you want to try a fried tarantula or a scorpion on a stick, head to Pub Street after dark. And before you ask, no I did not. There are some things I am willing to do for the sake of this column, but nibbling on dirty great spiders is not one of them.
Sihanoukville used to be beautiful, but is has been recently overrun by shady mafia figures and unchecked development with zero waste management. Now the seaside town is a mess of cranes, rubble and rubbish. More than 30 casinos have sprung up in recent years, with another 70 in construction, catering almost exclusively to wealthy Chinese gamblers. Unfortunately it’s an essential part of the itinerary as the Serendipity Beach ferry terminal is the way to Cambodia’s tropical islands, however stay as far from the main beach as possible. We found a cosy little place a bit further out at Otres. Wish You Were Here is a rickety wooden structure with a relaxed vibe and the feel of a treehouse in a slow, yet terminal decline; it’s due to close this year. The bars along the beach made for a relaxing pub crawl, but sadly the whole strip, along with the hostels, is due to be razed. Chatting to the WYWH bartender, she explained that the murky colour of the ocean was due to the 27 raw sewage pipes running from the nearest construction site into the water.
Koh Rong Samloem – Saracen Bay Well thank heavens we got here. Coming from Sihanoukville it’s a welcome shock to the system when you arrive at a rickety pier on a pristine beachfront dotted with thatch bungalows. There’s not a lot to do but eat, drink, swim and paddle board, which is exactly what Laverne and I were after. It was Christmas Day after all. Behind the dive shop just past the north pier we found a track leading to Sunset Beach on the other side of the island. Kitted out with a backpack, shoes and water we trekked through the jungle to an even more isolated stretch of sand and at Robinson’s Bungalows enjoyed one of the creamiest coconut veg curries I’ve ever tasted.
Koh Rong – Coconut Beach
We took a ferry to the main beach at Koh Rong which, like many other parts of Cambodia, seems to be suffering under the strain of over-development. We stopped to climb the towering steps up an alley at the end of the jetty to reach the lofty Sky Bar. After a couple of beers overlooking the ocean we found a local fisherman to take us around to the more secluded Coconut Beach in his long boat, a beautiful journey that takes less than an hour. Our simple bungalow sat on a white stretch of sand and a pristine ocean. One night we joined a tour on a night boat to swim with the phosphorescence. While it’s a tad unnerving throwing yourself over the side of a longboat in the pitch black (and really hoping it will still be there when you surface), but once you’re under the cool water with glowing plankton streaming about you it’s incredible. The boat was still there when we surfaced, so celebrated our good fortune with some local lok lak (rare chunks of beef seasoned and seared and served with rice) at Coconut Bungalows, perched on a hill at the end of the beach, catching sea breezes while perusing the restaurant’s selection of books, games and surprisingly good wine.
Like everywhere in Cambodia, Kampot takes some getting to. Lulled into a false sense of security by the relaxed pace of the islands I had developed a fantasy, somewhat foolishly, that I’d step straight from the ferry on to a waiting bus at Sihanoukville, be whisked the 100km to Kampot with grace and efficiency and be poolside with a frothy by lunchtime. Silly me. What actually happened was an 90 minute wait for a minivan, which already had four hundred angry people in it, which then drove us to the bus ‘depot’. This was in fact a dirt driveway down an alley and in front of a rubbish-strewn laundry where we then waited for a different minivan that was only ‘ten minutes away’ for two hours. What followed was the most wretched, regrettable bus ride I have ever had the misfortune to be on. For the record, in the most blatant case of false advertising I have ever come across the company calls itself Kampot Express Limousine Bus. Fortunately, Kampot is awesome. It’s cleaner and less crowded than the bigger cities, with a sort of faded, French colonial charm to it. Laverne and I stayed at a hip little place called Karma Traders, had the best Indian I think I’ve ever had at Simon’s, and spent two days wandering around quaint, crumbling streets feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
Kampot is famous for its pepper trade, which is only now recovering after nearly being lost during the Khmer Rouge regime. Prior, no French restaurant worth its (ahem) salt went without Kampot pepper. Unfortunately Pol Pot’s policy was ‘rice not spice’ and all of the pepper crops were destroyed. Today they are only producing ten percent of what they did. One of the best finds however was a pop-up bar named The Looking Glass hidden out the back of a t-shirt shop. We had only stopped to browse the singlets but were invited by the lady behind the counter to return after 5pm. Behind what I had assumed was a staff-room door was a sexy little beer garden with awesome staff who treated us to cocktails and a super-tasty dinner of sticky Southern fried chicken and collard greens on a bed of waffles. (Okay, so the waffles were an odd combo, but the chicken and veg were spot on.)
PHNOM PENN PART II
We returned to Cambodia’s capital just in time for New Years Eve, bar hopping until we found ourselves back at the Mini Banana. We’d had a margarita here the day we arrived, expertly crafted by a shy, sweet lady whose youthful appearance belied her incredible skills. A few too many later and far too late for dinner, we got stuck in a tuk tuk jam so bad we had to get out and walk back to our hotel, making it to the rooftop just as the skies exploded in showers of fireworks and cheers and singing filled the air.
HOT TIP: if you happen to find yourself down an alley in the Golden St area with what looks like a vintage Coke machine at the end, press the button on the side. Hidden behind it is the sneakiest, most secret speakeasy in Cambodia.