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Phnom Penh Picnic

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-01-2006 in
Bronwyn Sloan

As the afternoon draws on, just before the traffic on the Japanese Bridge reaches its crazy peak, the sun starts to throw long shadows from a grove of sugar palms and boys begin to bring their cattle back from an afternoon grazing to wash and drink at the edge of the wetlands.

This might sound like a scene from a remote provincial village, but Bak Keng is just 10 kilometers from the capital, over the bridge on National Road 6 and past the restaurant strip at Prek Leap. It is easy to fly right past it and on towards Siem Reap. Only a glimpse of some hammocks and wooden ramps built over the small Boeung Samrong lake signal when to stop.

"We don't get many foreigners here," says Vy, a waitress at Boeung Samrong restaurant. "Mainly it is local couples looking for a quiet spot to eat together, or students wanting to take a break from the city but without a lot of money to spend at expensive restaurants."

Legend has it that Bak Keng sprang up before the Japanese Bridge was rebuilt, when ferries were the only way across the river. The soil in this part of Kandal province is rich, and corn grows in abundance. Unable to get their crops to the market in Phnom Penh quickly, a few enterprising locals set up by the side of the road and began cooking where they harvested. The news of the fresh, sweet corn businesses soon reached across the river, and Phnom Penh began coming to them.

The hammock restaurants are not suitable for small children - there are only a few slats of wood across the sides of the platforms between toddlers and a steep drop into shallow water - but for older children it can provide a restful experience of a tiny slice of the real Cambodia.

For 5,000 riel ($1.25), a steaming plate of "pout ling", or corn off the cob fried with vegetables and small dried prawns is an excellent snack. Boiled "pout" fresh from a simmering vat of water seasoned with sugar and salt is a favorite with locals. Customers can sit on the woven mats on platforms built out over the river or swing in the hammocks that ring each table.

There are other delicacies to be had. Spicy Bok Le Hong (the Cambodian version of Thailand's Som Tam, or papaya salad) is also recommended, or Yee Hour (toasted dried squid) might suit the more adventurous. And the chickens pecking at the entrance to the restaurant are not just for display - for a more substantial meal, the staff is happy to grab a cleaver and prepare a roast bird as fresh as they come. Vegetarians and the squeamish may want to look away for this one!

Beer, coconuts and a range of soft drinks are available in copious quantities from 2,000 riel (50 cents) or slightly more for beer, and the road outside is barely audible while you watch life going by across the water.

Besides what the restaurant has to offer from its own menu, sellers do regular rounds of the guests hawking everything from green mangoes to pomegranates, and Cambodian music hums, usually in the background, but sometimes more loudly if enthusiastic students splurge on karaoke.

But the great attractions of Bak Keng go beyond the food. Perched five meters above the lake on a platform built on wooden stilts, the scenery makes you feel like you are a million miles from the capital. University students keen to practice their English sometimes ask foreigners they can sit with them, making it a great place to meet friendly locals in an informal setting.

As the sun sets, it bathes the sugar palms and the water in a pink light, and the locals begin to relax and play football as their cattle wander around the lakeside. The traffic outside goes crazy as people return to Phnom Penh before dark or head to the more expensive restaurants of Prek Leap, making it even more tempting to stay in the serenity of the hammock restaurants.

"We close at 8 or 9 at night - whenever the last people feel like leaving," says Vy. It's as close to province time as you will get, this close to the capital.

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