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Phnom Penh Now

By: David Stout - Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly Posted: June-17-2011 in
Click for more Photos - Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly
David Stout - Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

Once known as the Pearl of Asia, Phnom Penh is shedding its lascivious 'off the rails' reputation to reclaim the moniker

As the bus crosses the borderlands, I anticipate the Kingdom of Wonder, as it’s so often been branded. I’ve never been to Cambodia and the country’s reputation seems to have spiraled out of control in conversations I’ve heard among people across Southeast Asia.

Stories involving drugs, guns and/or harlotry repulse listeners. Many show little interest in returning to Phnom Penh. Others spin their yarn with rapacious indulgence about their time spent in the capital of a country rebuilding itself in the wake of one of the gravest atrocities of the 20th century.

As I step off the bus, the city feels raw and alive, but also coy and serene. With less than two million residents, the municipality has kept the quaint feel of a town. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards seem immune to the anarchic traffic that plagues cities in neighbouring countries.

“Life’s normal here now,” says barber Penh Chhet who’s been cutting hair for the past four years on Street 30. “It’s more developed and better.”

According to Chhet, the city has changed a lot in the last 10 years he’s been working here. There are new buildings, more cars and the infrastructure has steadily improved. While he admits to being a low man on the totem pole as the city develops, he says he is able to make enough for his family with his vocation.

The seediness vividly described in books like Off the Rails in Phnom Penh seems to be, at least on the surface, cleaned up and no more pervasive than in other regional hubs. The city appears to be on the right track — gone are the days residents fired AK-47s at approaching thunderstorms; the neighbourhoods in Tuol Kork district that were once filled with cheap brothels have been gentrified and filled in with villas; armadas of Lexus SUVs, with their gaudy logos plastered to their side doors, cruise the streets. There are chic boutique hotels, bars that serve up top shelf martinis and lounges where you can order surf and turf specials.

Meanwhile a dozen cranes are scattered across Phnom Penh’s skies in between villas and lotus-shaped stupas, which are only a stone’s throw from shabby concrete Soviet housing units that were built in the 1980s. Pulsating markets overflowing with Buddhist trinkets, scarves and karaoke DVDs salt the capital.

Like most cities with character, the architecture is awe inspiring. There are colossal Buddhist temples and administrative units and villas built by the French. The Royal Palace is quite the sight. If only the tiles, golden stupas and quiet garden paths had a voice. These walls have been home to royal ballets and hosted heads of state. During the Khmer Rouge’s grip on the country, when the capital was evacuated, only Prince Sinhanouk, his wife Monique and their two children lived on the grounds. As if under house arrest, they were given daily provisions of fish and vegetables, did their own daily chores, raised a garden and planted banana trees. Today, the estate once again welcomes tourists and hosts diplomats and leaders during State visits.

The newly refurbished promenade on the Mekong has yet to be overdeveloped like those in Bangkok or Singapore — scents of jasmine and lemongrass can be inhaled at all hours during a tuk tuk ride.

A Rollercoaster
That’s not to say the city doesn’t maintain its fair share of bizarre features. Near Sisowath Quay, barbers use a sterile portrait of B-rate, supporting actor Kevin Connolly, most known for his role in Entourage, to lure customers in for a trim. The brand names of water bottles are utterly inexplicable: Pop Zone, Steve the Quality Flow and Eurotech — the latter sports a Union Jack logo with dolphins swimming over it.

And how many capitals outside of China have streets named after Chairman Mao? Or restaurants owned by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea where you can eat kim chi and dumplings while women play slap bass, sing patriotic songs for the Dear Leader and pluck out Let it Be on a traditional harp?

“The 1990s were kind of a rollercoaster… kidnappings and coups, ups and downs,” says Nick Ray, coordinating author for Lonely Planet’s Cambodia edition. “After the end of the civil war, tourism boomed”.

“I was scared shitless, but on the other hand I was completely exhilarated with everything I saw. I was hooked,” says product manager at Hanuman Tourism, Andy Brouwer, in reference to his first visits to the country in the mid-1990s. After his first trip, Andy began making yearly pilgrimages back to the Kingdom before finally leaving behind his 30-year banking career in England and relocating to Phnom Penh. At this time, he says, things were ‘alive’.

“You have to get an appreciation for what happened to this country in the 1970s, where literally — I know its cliché to say — they had to start from year zero,” says Andy, who has observed the wide range of developments in the country over the last 17 years. “At least cows aren’t getting blown up anymore.”

“You can have all the sophistication you want when you want it, but also you still really know that you’re in Asia. It’s quite raw,” adds Nick. “It’s been zoomed into the 21st century very quickly.” According to the writer, the last decade has seen the streets revamped with investments in flood control and better sewage facilities.

Only a couple of years ago, the tallest structure in town belonged to the Intercontinental Hotel, at 16 floors, which was built in the mid-1990s. Now there is the Canadian Bank Tower, at 24 stories, and condominiums on Diamond Island that are up to 30 floors high and more developments in the pipeline.

“We believe there is a future in Phnom Penh,” says Bruce Koenig, marketing executive at the newly opened Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. The US$50 million alabaster-coloured massif is the first five-star hotel to open in the capital in over a decade. While the establishment will provide an additional option for up-market travellers, as Koenig explains, the hotel also has its sights set on the business class and the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions sector.

“Companies are coming back to Phnom Penn,” says Koenig. And according to the young executive, a direct flight from Paris to Phnom Penh on Air France commenced in March after being discontinued for more than 10 years.

While the beaches, temples and atrocities have put Cambodia on the map, the magnetic force of the people is what inspires. They are survivors. And after four years under brutal, forced collectivisation that killed an estimated two million people and nearly two decades of civil war, the fact that Cambodia is still standing, nonetheless progressing, is a testament to the strength and dignity possessed by its people. The cream-coloured frangipani blossoms on the trees at Tuol Sleng and the Choeung EK Genocidal Centre are reminders that after so much atrocity and loss, something beautiful can forge its way to the surface. People survive and rebuild.

“When I was young I was handsome,” laughs 62-year-old Aom So Kai, who grows lemongrass near the eastern banks of the Mekong, a few kilometres out of town. “I was born here so have lived here a long time.”

Once a solider for the Lon Nol regime, Kai says he spent three years, eight months and eight days away in Battambang Province digging ditches at the Khmer Rouge’s forced labour camps. “Every day I thought I was going to die,” he says.

But he returned home and brought his mother back to the land that she raised him on. At 82 years-old, his mother Roet Thai still manages to crack out infectious giggles with betel nut tucked into her cheek while reminiscing about growing up in the area and what it was like to be afraid of tigers that roamed the paddies.

Kai might only have a few teeth left in his smile, but after so much turmoil, he is still able to throw out jokes at will.

As I sit near the banks of the Tonle Sap during the cool, late hours, a packed boat cruises down the centre of the river. Its passengers belt out Sin Sisamouth’s surf rock classic Mou Pei Na via karaoke. With its sentimental lyrics, catchy riffs and duets, it’s a quintessential slice of the laid back, cosmopolitan way of living that was prevalent in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge; a snapshot of a resurfacing lifestyle.

“What day is it?” my travel companion asks as we watch the boat pass. “Sunday,” I respond. “Good for them,” he says.

Places to Eat & Drink

Corner Street 108 and Sisowath Quay
With minimal décor and a central location, this surf and turf hub will leave you more than satisfied. The owner also operates a hotel next door

Sugar Palm Restaurant & Bar
House No. 19, Street 240
Located on one of the trendier streets, Sugar Palm gives Khmer and Pan-Asian staples contemporary flavours

Sisowath Quay at Street 148
With great martinis and excellent seafood and starters, Metro is one of the premiere venues to enjoy up-market drinks and eats in the capital

71 Tonle Sap Road, Chruoy Changva Peninsula
Perhaps one of the better watering holes in all of Southeast Asia. Cheap beer, a house that feels like a New Orlean’s blues hall with a view of the Mekong. Hurry before it falls in…

Khmer Saravan
325 Sisowath Quay
It may be a little low key, but Saravan is a great place to get your taste buds whet with traditional Khmer staples

Foreign Correspondents Club
363 Sisowath Quay
With more tourists than correspondents here, the views of the Mekong and National Museum makes this open air venue a must for a drink. Get here for happy hour

No. 5, Street 282
A sports bar of colossal proportions with gigantic screens and imported billiards tables from Shanghai

Expat Advisory Services
While the site covers cities across the region, it’s based in Phnom Penh so knows the city well. Filled with articles, reviews and general advice, this site is essential if you’re planning a trip to Cambodia

Andy’s Cambodia
Maybe one of the most-read expat blogs in Phnom Penh. Andy is obsessed with all things Cambodian — from the Royal Ballet to the development of the country’s football league. Check it out for the insider’s knowledge on the latest film screenings, book releases, concerts, etc

Pocket Guide Phnom Penh
A small, keep-in-your-pocket guide book that is a great resource for anyone trying to search out the city. Pick it up free of charge at restaurants, bars and shops around town


Top End
Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra
26 Old August Site, Sothearos Blvd., Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Khan
Chamkamorn Tel: +855 23 999200
The 201-room hotel is imbued with architectural nostalgia from colonial Indochina while the establishment's interior decor is sprinkled with Southeast Asian art and chic furnishings. With a handful of luxury restaurants, recreational grounds and business facilities, the city's first five-star hotel to open in more than a decade is all set to host high-end tourists and business travellers

Mid to Top
River 108
#2, Street 108
Just a stone's throw from the capital's main promenade and next to the strip full of high-end eateries, this boutique venue is for travellers looking for a more personal experience. Outfitted with minimalist designer furnishings and a glass atrium, River 108 provides its patrons with a petit sanctuary in the heart of the city

Hometown Hotel
Address: #35, St 172, Sangkat Chey Chum Nas, Khan Daun Penh
Clean, centrally located and reliable. While some backpackers prefer to stay on a shoestring budget, Hometown proves that spending just a few dollars more on a room can go a long way. Situated in downtown Phnom Penh, the hotel is within walking distance of several of the city's famed sites

Republished with the kind permission of The Word HCMC


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