Someone please pay the pied piper in Phnom Penh


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Asia » Cambodia » South » Phnom Penh
January 19th 2013
Published: January 27th 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

HE SAID...
We bounced down on the runway at Phnom Penh Airport at 8.40am, happy to have survived the solid landing. I was a little concerned on our approach, not only for the safety of the insolent child across the aisle who wouldn’t put his seat belt on, but also for our own safety – the speed of the plane on its landing approach was faster than I’ve experienced for a long time.

The customs setup at Phnom Penh Airport was bizarre. No one spoke to us, apart from the passport officer who jokingly thought I was trying to bribe her (I inadvertently placed the $US10 change from our visa payment on her desk as she checked my passport). After making our way through the menagerie of police, customs staff, tourists and locals, we jumped into a taxi and made our way to our hotel. We arrived around 9.45am. We discovered our room wouldn’t be ready for another two hours, so we sat in the lobby and organised our bags. We were exhausted and hadn’t showered for 24 hours…

I suddenly realised I didn’t have my camera. Neither did Ren. We realised we’d left it in the back of the taxi. I went up to reception and explained our situation, and the hotel staff were mortified. They sprang into action. Phone calls were made, discussions abounded and decisions were made. They suggested we jump in a remork (Cambodian tuk tuk, which is a motorbike that tows a covered trailer with seating) and retrace our steps to the airport. They organised a driver and explained our predicament. He raced us out to the airport and waited while we tried to solve the disappearance. We found the taxi company we’d used and explained what had happened. The taxi crew were fantastic. They called in the driver and kept us informed about where he was and how long he’d be. He eventually arrived, incredibly apologetic but without the camera. He explained that it was impossible for us to have left it in his car. After dropping us off at our hotel he’d decided to go home and have a haircut and a nap. He hadn’t had another passenger since. We realised the camera must have dropped from the taxi when we jumped out at the hotel. Without any evidence to do so, I laid retrospective blame on the mad Englishman who was walking so close behind me on the way to the hotel from the taxi that I stopped and stood aside for him to pass. He mumbled to himself angrily as he walked passed me, but then stopped suddenly, turned around and stood directly in front of me and said: “You know, it’s all just bollocks”. He had the appearance and demeanour of a skinhead, but he was too short to be intimidating. I watched him intently as he staggered off down a side street, repeating his insightful “It’s all just bollocks” statement at the top of his voice, but I don’t remember seeing my camera in his hand.

When we got back from the airport, the extremely understanding hotel staff offered us a room until ours became available at 4pm. We were very grateful – we hadn’t washed for 24 hours. I managed to completely short out the power by jamming one of our travel convertors the wrong way into the power socket. Ren used my travel torch to find her way around the bathroom while I waited for the power to come back on (I thought I’d shorted the entire hotel and was too embarrassed to go down to reception and tell them myself). However, the power didn’t come back, so we decided to search the room by torchlight for a switchboard. We eventually found it (just inside the door), flipped the trip switch and the lights and air conditioning kicked back in. The day was fast turning into a comedy of errors.

The hotel staff organised a remork to take us to the nearest Sony dealer to replace the camera, and they also asked the driver to drop us into a police station on the way back to report it missing (which is essential for insurance purposes). The remork driver waited for us at both the Sony dealer and the police station. After being finger printed and writing my own statement, we returned to the hotel to drop the camera off. We then wandered out into the laid back world of Phnom Penh.

After such an eventful day, we relaxed on the Foreign Correspondents Club balcony overlooking the Tonle Sap River. It was a perfect way to spend the early evening. We then wandered around the Royal Palace at night, where mourners were gathering to express their sorrow at the passing of their King. We walked past stalls selling deep fried spiders and grasshoppers. We watched people walking along the Tonle Sap riverbank. We enjoyed street food (deep fried pork buns) and ice cream (four spice, and ginger and sesame seed) before retiring exhausted to our room at 8pm. It had been a long day, and it was well and truly time for bed.

We’d had an opportunity to experience a side of Cambodia that we would not have otherwise seen. It’s not a great idea to lose a camera on your first day in a new country, but it certainly allows you to see another side to a city. The police officer taking my statement informed me that I was very lucky he was on duty that day. Most officers would (apparently) have demanded some form of monetary reward for preparing a Stolen Item Report that they all knew was critical to insurance claims. They would have charged for paper/photocopying costs, their time preparing the report and the ink used to take my thumbprint. I couldn’t help but think he was indirectly asking me for money, especially as he finished each sentence by staring directly into my eyes for long periods of uncomfortable silence. I just kept raising my eyebrows and exclaiming ‘far out’ in agreeable contempt.

Still recovering from the four hour time difference between Phnom Penh and Hobart, we both woke at 4.30am and worked on our travel notes. We drifted back to sleep and woke again at 6.30am. After showering, we headed down for breakfast in the hotel lobby. I opted for the muesli with fresh fruit, yoghurt and honey, while Ren went for the banana pancake. We both had a coffee shake. With the exception of the papaya in my muesli, it was a fantastic breakfast and a great start to the day.

We jumped into a remork and headed to Wat Phnom, which appears to be the only (or at least highest) hill in Phnom Penh. As we climbed the stairs to the main temple, we had to navigate the many bird sellers with small birds in cages. You are meant to buy one and release it for good luck. Unfortunately, the luck appears to be very short-term (if it is tied to the symbolic freedom of the bird), as they are homing birds and return to the seller once you have entered the temple. Very entrepreneurial! Inside the temple, local Cambodians were praying and offering alms to Buddha. Praying at this temple is apparently good for family and business success, and a few students were apparently praying for success in exams. We wandered around the temple grounds, marvelling at the inconsistent architecture and being mesmerised by a game of foot badminton between four old men in a gazebo.

We jumped back in the remork and headed to the Central Market. We wandered around for about half an hour, but the place was fairly kitsch and lacking in atmosphere, so we jumped back into the remork and headed to the Russian Market. The difference between the two markets was incredible. We loved this market. At one stage I was confronted with a headless and skinned frog jumping on the floor in front of me. The shop owner asked a local girl to pick it up and throw it back in a huge bowl of similar headless frogs. As she picked it up the frog started writhing, so she screamed and threw it in the direction of the shop owner. Luckily, the frog landed in the bowl, and as it landed the shop owner belted it with a meat cleaver. Even after that, the poor headless frog was still trying to escape, so another blow from the meat cleaver and his escape plans were over. I couldn’t help but feel relieved for him.

We jumped back into the remork and meandered through the mesmerising back streets of Phnom Penh. After stopping by a mini mart to stock up on water, we arrived back at the hotel at 11.30am. After freshening up we headed out to lunch at Friends (a great restaurant with a very relaxed atmosphere). I started with an Angkor beer and Ren opted for a strawberry and green pepper margarita. We then shared a Cambodian chicken curry and grilled pork fillets on salad. We finished with chocolate and banana spring rolls and Khmer iced coffees. It was a great meal, but nowhere near as interesting as the conversation emanating from the table beside us. A woman from a very prominent and well known aid organisation was having a meeting with two German investors, and we gained an insight into the ruthlessly pragmatic world of foreign aid. I should note here that we weren’t in any way eavesdropping. They were just talking very loudly.

We headed back to hotel, caught up on our travel notes and then headed to Royal Palace in the heat of the afternoon sun. The Palace gardens were closed to the public due to the death of King, but the Silver Pagoda was still open, so we wandered lazily through the surrounding gardens (which were surprisingly empty for a Sunday afternoon considering the tourist numbers elsewhere in Phnom Penh). As we left we stumbled upon thousands of Buddhist monks marching side-by-side towards the Tonle Sap River frontage of the Royal Palace. It was an amazing sight, so we decided to walk alongside. We suddenly realised we were trapped at the river frontage, so we had to break through the line of marching monks to get home. We ended up being whistled at by police and gestured to move off the Palace lawns. The afternoon heat was taking its toll so we walked home and showered.

We headed out to Touk Restaurant for a meal at 7pm, which was just over the road from the Foreign Correspondents Club where we’d relaxed the afternoon before. A jug of beer was the best option for me, while Ren opted for a spicy martini. The meals were fantastic. I had the fried seafood with Kampot pepper, while Ren had the fish amok. We walked along the Tonle Sap River to the Blue Pumpkin for ice cream, then meandered back to the hotel at 9.30pm. On the way back we stopped and watched a full-on game of street soccer. A bunch of young guys were playing their hearts out in the dim lights of the promenade, oblivious to the bustle of the Phnom Penh waterfront that surrounded them. Long hot days and warm lazy evenings – what a fantastic way to holiday.



SHE SAID...
Phnom Penh is absolutely as charming as I thought it would be, and my first impressions were very very favourable indeed. Phnom Penh is right on the intersection of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. The city is lively, the food delicious and the people genuinely friendly. We have three days here before we go travelling, and then we spend a few days back here at the end of the trip too.

For these three days in Phnom Penh we are staying at Nawin Guesthouse on 178 Street which is literally opposite the National Museum and close to the river-side action. 178 Street is brimming with art shops and restaurants, but there are enough local places to make the street feel less touristy than it really is. The numbered streets in Phnom Penh felt slightly weird at the beginning, but the streets have a Khmer name too, so finding our way around has been relatively easy.

Even though I was well aware of the French colonization of Vietnam, I’m ashamed to admit that I had little idea of their colonization of Cambodia. The French legacy lives on in a few obvious examples of French-inspired architecture around town, bakeries full of fabulous bread and pastries, and many French Restaurants.

Like many Asian cities, it’s hard to do justice to descriptions of this city when there is just so much going on (which isn’t ideal when you're trying to write a blog). It deals a full assault on all the senses like any good Asian city should – the traffic noise, crowded pavements (when there are pavements), scooters, motos (motorcycle taxies with a death wish), remorks, beautiful Khmer temple architecture, dodgy 80s apartment buildings with equally dodgy electrical wiring, laughing locals and smells of cooking intermingled with smells of drains and something dead (I suspect this was actually durian fruit and not a dead rat – but I can’t tell the difference). Even though it is full on, compared to other Asian metropolises it is actually quite laid back. It’s like a mini Hanoi, but far more easily navigated on foot. It's not so hot given it's the coolest month of the year; however, it's also the dry season and there is red dust everywhere! The absence of any shiny skyscrapers is very notable; however, construction seems to be engulfing the city with earnest. We probably should have packed industrial strength ear muffs and dust masks.

The food here is fantastic. Cambodian cuisine is often described as a mixture of Thai and Vietnamese – and at first it does give that impression, but there are a few distinct tastes that have started to come through. It’s less spicy than I expected, but that’s easily fixed by asking for extra chilli on the side. There is a delicious combination of lime and pepper in most dishes. I was surprised by the number of international and fusion restaurants here. We have a list of Khmer restaurants to try but the obvious local food seems to be at the markets and on the streets, and not in cafes or restaurants. So as usual we scouted out the street food as one of our first missions. The restaurants on the waterfront seem to be geared to tourists, but there are still some good local flavours amongst it all!

Before I talk about the sightseeing we did, I want to mention the abject poverty that is highly visible in some sections of the community here. We knew that Cambodia was one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, but knowing something and preparing yourself for it are two very different things. When we arrived, we both felt a bit unprepared to deal with the poverty and destitution of the street kids. When planning this trip we spent a long time researching NGOs we could make a donation to – we really wanted to help long term goals like the building of schools and helping to educate more girls. However, none of this made me feel any better about what I was witnessing.

In a way we contribute to the ongoing poverty here – this is sweat shop country. Most of the brand clothing or mass produced clothing and shoes we buy are made by armies of sickeningly underpaid Cambodians. Paying a fair wage would mean companies making less profit or us paying a bigger price tag. If they were paid a fair wage, I don’t mean that they would be buying posh cars and living it up – I mean they would be able to eat better and live in slightly less squalid housing.

And then underlying this (and I think because of this) is the fact that Cambodia is considered an easy opportunity for foreign paedophiles who descend here knowing that it is a poor and vulnerable community – the perfect playground for predators. I have previously voiced my concerns over the unregulated sex industry in Thailand (when we briefly travelled through Phuket). However, that pales in comparison when you read about the level of paedophilia and child sex trafficking here. Foreign men with enough money seem to have plenty of scope to prey on Cambodian children. The children of poor families in Cambodia are for the most part defenceless against sexual abuse and the child slavery trade. The orphans are even more defenceless. It is exploitation of a desperate plight at its very worst.

The literature talks about post-war countries losing their moral compass, but I’m sorry I don’t buy that. I can understand how perspectives on life, happiness and death may change with war – but there is just no excuse for the rape of a child, or the facilitation of it. And the revolting men who travel here to take advantage of poor and struggling families – I have no words to describe my loathing and repulsion of these sub-humans.

From what I’ve read, some progress is being made towards catching or at least discouraging paedophiles from travelling here. However, the Asian countries involved haven’t highlighted this as an important issue. I suppose given the countries these men come from, their governments wouldn’t wish to lose face over their nationals. There are a few NGOs dedicated to this cause and my biggest tip for travellers to Cambodia would be to check out Childsafe International’s website, and look out for the hotels and transport services displaying their logo. Give them your business – they have made a commitment towards helping with the issue and have had child-protection training.

A very poignant factor about the population here is that the majority of people are in their 20s and younger – a sad consequence of the war. The statistics are inconsistent, but I think the general figure seems to be that only about 3% of Cambodians are over 65, and 50% are under 18. It’s quite staggering really.

So anyway, back to what we did on our first few days here. We landed at 8:45am, and while negotiating Phnom Penh Airport was relatively easy, the whole place had the vibe of a bus station rather than an airport (apart from the machine guns of course!). Our visa was $20 each and needed one passport photo, and in true Asian style, you submit your passport at one counter and then have to go to another counter to pay. At immigration I just couldn't figure out what the guy was asking me to do with the finger print scanner, and after many muddled attempts I realised there was a full pictorial guide right on top of the machine. Idiot abroad alert

We got a voucher from the official airport taxi booth on the way out, and were bundled into a taxi before we could even figure out the system. The driver tried to convince us that the hotel we wanted had closed down, but we agreed that he would take us to the address anyway. By this point my bullshit radar was on high alert. So I asked Andrew for his camera and took a photo of the driver's ID displayed in the back. But instant karma got me for being negative. The driver took us to our hotel and it seems that they had recently moved from street frontage to a side lane – hence his confusion. However somewhere between taking a photo of his ID and getting to our hotel, I lost Andrew's camera! Cue an intense sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

The consensus was that it was left on the taxi seat, so the hotel staff at Nawin Guesthouse suggested we catch a remork back to the airport to see if we could find the taxi (about a 60 minute return journey which cost $10 ). It seemed like we were looking for a needle in a hay stack, but our room wasn't ready anyway, so off we went. We could have tracked him down by phone if we had his driver ID, and the irony that his ID details were on the camera we were looking for wasn't lost on me.

When we got there, the taxi drivers were immediately on the case and started calling around to see who it was; they finally tracked the driver down and even though he said it wasn't in his taxi, he drove all the way back to the airport to show us the empty back seat. The jury is out on whether we believe him, as there was a chance that it could have fallen out of the taxi when we got out. Andrew also has a theory about a drug addled English guy who may have stolen it from the outer pocket of the backpack.

Either way, we were very impressed with the way the taxi drivers all pitched in to help. The ones who could speak English surrounded us and yelled instructions to the ones making the calls. This demonstrated the helpfulness of the Cambodian people which we encountered over and over again.

So we caught the remork back to the hotel and sat down in a nearby cafe with cold watermelon and lemon fruit shakes to take a deep breath. I hate losing things, but losing Andrew's much loved camera was sitting very heavily on my conscience. On the bright side, the spontaneous remork ride had been very entertaining – it was early on a Saturday morning and the traffic consisted of mostly scooters and motorbikes packed full of people were on their way to work and shopping. It's not uncommon to see families of four or five crowded onto one bike, and my favourite sights were a toddler being fed a bottle of milk while on the move on a motorbike; and a little child reading a book while standing between his father's legs on a scooter.

The traffic here works pretty much like Vietnam – there are no discernible road rules, but everyone is extremely courteous on the road, and we are yet to see a single case of road rage. Crossing the road is also similar, in that you confidently step onto the road when you see a gap and steady walk across lanes of traffic; and as if my magic the traffic slows down and goes around you. The only road users who don't play by these rules are the big trucks...so it's best to avoid them!

Our hotel was on the basic side, but the staff were lovely and it was clean and comfortable. It's also in an excellent location near the Royal Palace and the waterfront area. It is directly across from the building site of the crematorium for the King's funeral (who died in November last year). The locals seem very intrigued by the building and the fence line was crowded with onlookers at any time of night or day.

Within minutes of checking into our room, there was a 'snap' and the lights went out. Andrew had blown a fuse while trying to figure out which adapter to use! I had already disrobed and was nearly in the shower, so I quickly dressed in case the whole hotel had been plunged into darkness and we had to wait outside...very luckily, we spotted a fuse box in our room! Phew, that could have been very embarrassing!

That afternoon we asked the hotel staff for directions to the nearest camera shop and police station (to report the lost camera for insurance). As luck would have it, our Intrepid Travel group leader Thyda was at the hotel a day early and stepped in to help. So once again we were bundled into a remork, and this time taken to a camera shop near the central market. However, they didn't have the exact model of Sony camera we wanted, so we were directed to a nearby shopping mall – Soorya Shopping Centre. Even though we were only a block away from the central market which is on most tourist lists, we were the only non-locals here. We eventually found the camera Andrew wanted, and completed our first shopping transaction in Cambodia, albeit an unexpected purchase.

While we had been shopping, our remork driver had received a call from Thyda with directions to a police station which dealt with tourists – the Office of International Relations. To say the police station was basic would be kind. It was in a dingy shop front with two mismatching desks, a phone from the eighties, a few boxes of files, a few plastic chairs and two very relaxed policemen. There wasn't a computer in sight! We waited for about an hour while another tourist (his form indicated he was a Boxer) reported the loss of all his documents, including his passport and wallet. The poor guy looked distraught, but in true Boxer form, he expressed his concern through anger. Then it was Andrew's turn to make a statement, and forms had to be filled out by hand in triplicate, and then translated into English. Then ledgers had to be signed and Andrew's finger prints taken. It was actually a rather painless (but definitely not quick!) process, and the only moment of slight awkwardness was when I saw the main policemen lean into Andrew and have a whispered conversation. I heard the words ‘lucky’, ‘money’ and ‘expensive’. I immediately had images of the statement being held to ransom, but luckily Andrew is brilliant in these kinds of situations and we managed to leave with no embarrassment on either side. It was a very interesting experience of Cambodian bureaucracy indeed!

Seeing as we'd had already had a full-on day, we decided to keep the rest of the day relatively low key and go for a walk to get to know our surrounds. The only items on the agenda were finding a bar for an afternoon drink and visiting the Royal Palace Lawns and Wat Ounalom, both of which were only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel.

The Royal Palace Lawns were full or mourners who had come from all over the country to pay their respects to the King. Oddly there was somewhat of a carnival atmosphere with incense and flower sellers, food carts, children playing and families sitting together eating and praying. We bought a deep fried pork bun from a street cart which was extremely tasty, and immediately had us wanting more.

Wat Ounalom is the centre of Cambodian Buddhism, but it is more of a museum to how Buddhism outlasted Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The building itself has been restored from its war battering, and there is a statue of a monk who was murdered by Pol Pot, and there’s also a marble Buddha statue that has been painstakingly pieced back together after being shattered by the Khmer Rouge. There’s supposed to be a stupa here that contains an eyebrow hair from Buddha, but we couldn't figure out which one it was. There were many novice monks socialising behind the temple, which made us realise that all the traditional buildings lining the temple walls were monk residences.

Even though there are reports of Sisowath Quay being seedy at night, we really liked it along the waterfront. It’s far more relaxed in the evenings, and great for a stroll with plenty of cafes and bars, with the river traffic in the background.

It was a Saturday and there were many group fitness classes being conducted along the promenade. Men and women in their 50s and 60s were shaking their stuff to loud techno music. It was fascinating to watch thirty or so people standing in neat rows dancing to upbeat music with absolutely no self-consciousness. The music ranged from club style dance music to traditional Khmer music with the related traditional dance steps. There didn't seem to be much instruction, so I suspect they come here often! They were on the strip of grass across from Blue Pumpkin Ice Creamery so we watched while I enjoyed my very delicious ginger and black sesame ice cream. Since then I have also tried the four spice, durian, lychee and jackfruit flavours and so far the ginger and black sesame is by far my favourite.

The Foreign Correspondent’s Club (called the FCC or just the ‘F’) is around the corner from our hotel and is a brilliant example of an old school colonial drinking hole. It’s now a posh hotel and restaurant as well; but happy hour here (5-7pm) is probably not that different to how it was when it was packed with multi-pocketed khaki-outfitted international reporters when the war was drawing to an end. I loved this place. The drinks were great and the setting above the riverfront is unbeatable. With its heavy wooden furniture and colonial style overhead fans, the place looks like it would have attracted Hemingway or have been a setting for a Hercule Poirot mystery. However, it’s only about 20 years old. We settled in with Angkor beers for Andrew and lychee martinis for me. The food was also lovely – we had the salt and pepper squid with wasabi mayonnaise, and the steamed pork dumplings. We made plans to come back, as I intend on making my way through their cocktail list.

We were starting to fade and needed to buy water and snacks before we headed to the hotel, but mini marts are a bit thin on the ground, so we gave up and bought water and beers at the hotel. However, Andrew did manage to find another street cart with steamed pork buns to sustain him on the walk back to the hotel. I had planned to write up the blog that night, but I was so tired I could barely stay awake through my shower. I think I may have fallen asleep mid-sentence to Andrew about setting the alarm.

As it turned out, we didn't need the alarm – our body clocks were still on Australian time and I was up at 4:30am! For breakfast that morning we decided to eat at the hotel. My banana pancake was delicious, and so was Andrew's muesli with tropical fruit – but it also included Andrew's least favourite fruit in the whole world – papaya! As I mentioned in our earlier post, we are taking malaria tablets, so breakfast is going to have to be a substantial meal on this trip.

On our second day we booked a half day remork tour to take us to Wat Phnom and the two main markets in town. Wat Phnom is a temple built on a hill which the city is named after, and according to legend, a 14th century woman named Penh found sacred Buddhist objects in the nearby river and placed them here on the small hill. The temple was full of mothers and teenage children because it is thought that students are favoured by this temple. There was a side shrine with a Buddha that was lit with sparkling neon signs and packed full of worshippers. We strolled around the temple grounds and came across the most amazing game of what we’ll call shuttlecock soccer – the skill needed to connect their heels with that shuttlecock was amazing to watch.

Not far from our hotel is Psar Thmei (Central Market) which at its centre has a gorgeous orange and white art deco building with a pyramid dome in the middle and tunnel like side arms that spread out like tentacles. However, the market itself is not unlike any large Asian market really. The stalls outside the central area are full of dimly lit clothes shops. However, under the central dome it has a very brightly lit arcade of gem sellers, wrist watch counters, gold and silver merchants and perfume shops. It’s quite surreal stumbling upon so much shininess after the gloomy interior of the side arms.

Further south across town is the busy Psar Tuol Tong Pong (Russian Market), and it was shoulder to shoulder when we walked in. However, the bustle of the locals and the gorgeous little produce stalls drew us in. The stalls aren’t organised by type so there were underwear shops in-between butcher stalls; fruit stalls next to machinery parts; pottery next to herb stalls; and curtain fabrics next to vegetables. My favourite part of the market was the food area, where women squatted over small charcoal fires grilling chicken, or stood over big vats of broth for noodle dishes. If it hadn't been so early we would have loved to have lunched here. The wet section of the market was full of live fish trying to escape shallow containers, chickens cut open to show their innards, and pigs’ heads being shaved with bic razors.

I was very grateful I missed the headless frog saga that unfolded in front of Andrew’s feet. I was also grateful that we were there in the morning, as I’m sure the fish would smell quite different after a hot afternoon. We bought some mangosteens which I remembered from my childhood, and Andrew had never tried them. I’m happy to report that it tasted better than I remembered, and Andrew was a big fan. The half-day remork tour ended with a drive past both the Independence Monuments – one for the French and one for the Vietnamese occupation.

On the recommendation of the Lonely Planet Guide, we caught a remork to Romdeng Restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, it was closed on Sundays, so we went to their sister restaurant Friends. Friends and Romdeng operate under the same NGO umbrella. Former street children are taught hospitality skills and cook both Khmer and Western-style food. They also make the most delicious margaritas in town! These social enterprise restaurants have a mission of getting young people off the streets and empowering them through education, vocational training and ultimately employment. The restaurant's kitchens, front of house and admin sections are all completely staffed by former street kids. We had an amazing dish of grilled Khmer pork with fermented bean sprout salad, and a Cambodian chicken curry. I also had a fabulously refreshing strawberry and green pepper margarita. But the star of the show was the dessert of banana and chocolate spring rolls.

After that very satisfying meal, we walked to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. This complex reflects a rich and prosperous time in Cambodian history when the Khmer Kingdom was very strong and powerful. The Royal Palace is right on the waterfront and is very similar to the setting and architecture of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It’s set in a vast compound, with numerous shrines and pavilions with ornate Khmer roofs and masses of gilded walls that make wearing sunglasses mandatory. The actual palace was closed as the Royal Family was in mourning for the King. However, all the other parts of the complex were open.

The Silver Pagoda is covered in thousands of silver tiles (however, they are covered with carpet so we missed seeing the intricate craftsmanship they are famed for), the staircases are of Italian marble, and inside the pagoda there is an Emerald Buddha statue made of crystals that sits on a gilded pedestal, and gold Buddhas encrusted with diamonds. So basically a lot of bling.

That evening was the start of our Best of Cambodia Intrepid Travel trip. We had our introductory group meeting with our group leader Thyda and met the rest of the group – Nigel and his daughter Alex (New Zealand), Alex's friend Hannah (Australia), Ella and Prudence (Australia), Laurie (Canada), Roger and Liz (UK) and of course we already knew Kim and Lee who made up the group of 12 of us. As per usual after these meetings, we went out for a group dinner.

Touk Restaurant was just up the road, and quite full and noisy. I tried fish amok for the very first time and fell completely in love with it! Fish amok is fish seasoned with lemongrass paste, coconut and chilli, then wrapped and steamed in banana leaf. Generally rice seems to be the main staple here, and fish seems to be favoured over meat. Coriander, mint, lemongrass, lime and pepper are common in most dishes, and there's fish sauce in everything! Andrew's grilled seafood in a green pepper sauce was also outstanding. However, my spiced pineapple martini wasn't so delicious; but weirdly though, after about three sips, it grew on me (or I lost my taste buds!). After dinner Andrew and I went for our nightly stroll along Sisowath Quay and I had my fix of Blue Pumpkin ice cream...we were in bed by 10pm. I even managed to stay up long enough to write a bit of the blog.

Well that was our first two days in Phnom Penh, and it went very quickly. We have another day and a bit here before we start travelling around Cambodia. Sorry about the ultra-long blog – I just had so many initial thoughts I wanted to share in this post. We won't have as much time to write when we start travelling, so they will get shorter.

See you around Phnom Penh people!

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27th January 2013

Phnom Penh
Wow--just reading about the city is fantastic--it sounds so lively and interesting. Awful feeling to lose your camera--has happened to me also--the poverty and paedophilia leaves you feeling so helpless and damned angry--take good care Mum/Aileen
30th January 2013

Re:Phnom Penh
Hi Aileen, we were very lucky that we were able to get the exact model of camera here; and we are hoping our travel insurance will take care of the rest :)
27th January 2013

Sorry to hear about your camera
Too bad about your cam. But I'm sure you'd enjoy the rest of your holiday. All the best to you. And hey, how did that blue pumpkin and green pepper margarita go? I should try that next time!
30th January 2013

Re: Sorry to hear about your camera
Hi Lili, we had a few hours of angst over the camera, but once we managed to replace it we stopped worrying about it! The margarita with the green pepper was awesome, I would definitely have it again. The ice creams at Blue Pumpkin was great, but some of the sorbets were not as punchy as they could have been :)
28th January 2013

Nice Places
I eyes was on awe stage in every pictures of your blog, pictures say a thousand words that the story itself. I wish i had the chance to visit those places. unlike a gadget specialist we don't have the opportunity to travel in different places. The "pork buns in street cart" looks yummy and much more like a siopao here in the Philippines. gadgets are innovation but beautiful places like those are prosperity and adventure! --------------------- Apple M9804lla Ipod Mini
30th January 2013

Re: Nice Places
Hi Zeyajoy, thanks for your comment. The pork buns were very delicious and I would highly recommend a visit to Cambodia :)
30th January 2013

My greatest fears
Losing a camera, being accosted by headless frogs and sighting stalls selling deep fried spiders! Hopefully your next blog will be filled with more more pleasant stories for both blogger and this slightly queasy reader ;-)
31st January 2013

Re: My greatest fears
Hi Shane, unfortunately our next blog will feature a few more unsavoury stories - we visited the killing fields... :(
2nd February 2013

Bribing customs officials is frowned upon
We wish we had stayed at the FCC. It was booked full while we were there so we stayed at the rat infested Rory's Irish Pub. We'll tell you that story over a few beers when we meet you. Have you noticed that each town thinks their market is the best market you will ever see? We loved the french influence. You can always count on them for great breads and pastries. Yum. We understand the pain of having a camera issue while traveling. Sorry for your loss. Thanks for all the detail. Loved it.
2nd February 2013

Re: Bribing customs officials is frowned upon
Thanks Merry. We love the FCC! There was one in Siem Reap too, but the one in PP cannot be beaten. I'm so in love with the baguettes here, I will miss them very much when we go home.

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