Tuesday, December 9, 2008

learning to like cambodia

Our flight from Suvarnabhumi to Phnom Penh went off without a hitch. There were no signs of the prior weeks' shutdown by thousands of anti-government protesters. Suvarnabhumi is a stunning test piece of modern architecture and we killed time by admiring the acres of elegantly curving glass and metal.

We arrived in Phnom Penh and took a tuk-tuk to our guesthouse, run by a Paul, an Aussie expat of Cambodian heritage. Our
original plan was to rent dirt bikes and ride to Siem Reap, but we decided we needed a break from riding after our India adventures. We opted for the more conventional route of an express bus and purchased tickets for the following day. Paul set us up at his friends' guesthouse for one night, as the one we had booked wasn't available until the date we'd scheduled. Compared to the other Asia cities we've visited, Phnom Penh is tiny, the city limits being easily walkable. We set out in search of dinner, not thrilled with Paul's recommendation about a place called, “The Titanic”. He scoffed at us when we said that we would rather eat at the stalls and couldn't imagine it being any more than "dirty" than those we found in the tiny dusty Indian villages.

We didn't see any stalls and ended up at a restaurant supposedly serving Khmer food. We ordered loc lac (a beef dish) and green chicken curry. Both were disappointing – largely devoid of spices – and my loc lac was hideously sweet. I left most of it. On the way back to the hotel we found the night market and street stalls. Unlike Thailand they variety of food was small – mostly BBQ meats (heavy on the organ meats), fried noodles, and fried fish. I found a sandwich cart serving something like a Cambodian version of banh mi and had to investigate. I could have done without the sugary spread and fermented fish paste, but otherwise it was pretty good. The baguette was fresh and I didn't mind the processed meat of unknown origin. Past the BBQ stalls we found something even better – the shaved ice lady. I had green jelly with sticky rice topped with sweetened condensed milk.

The next day we boarded the bus to Siem Reap. The entertainment alternated between dubbed Jackie Chan movies and Cambodian karaoke. ~2 hours into the trip the bus stopped at a large restaurant and we got our usual sandwiches (minus fish paste). The countryside was fairly flat with
large areas devoted to rice and lotus cultivation. An occasional cow or water buffalo appeared on the roadside. Many of the houses were built on stilts, for flooding I suspect. I was surprised by the number of political parties advertised, no less than five. Every town showed allegiance to at least one. The Cambodian People's Party appeared to be the most popular, or at least the one with the most signs.

We arrived in Siem Reap where our guest house had arranged a pick up. I had read that prior to 2000 Siem Reap was a sleepy agricultural town and largely a dirt bag backpacker's destination. With the international airport, air conditioned shopping malls and upscale hotels, it's difficult to believe. In contrast to our Phnom Penh location we easily found convenience and grocery stores stocking (for a hefty markup) the amenities we found in Bangkok. I had researched the food scene on the bu
s trip so we made our way to the Psar Chaa market area. There were the usual BBQ stalls and a series of identically menued and priced fried noodle places. I was able to get mine without sugar, but even with a ton of pepper sauce and the soy sauce I stashed in my bag from Thailand (in anticipation of finding only sweet sauces in Cambodia), my rice noodles were bland. Fortunately, we found a shaved ice stall to make up for it. There are enough historical sites between Phnom Penh and here to kill a solid two days (on our pace), but I'm starting to feel like I scheduled too much time in Cambodia. Hopefully, Angkor Wat will make up for it.

No comments: