“What’s your favorite country?” Every long-term traveler dreads the question. How could one possibly pick definitively? Yet I must admit, whenever someone asks, Cambodia does bubble to the front of my brain. So I’ve been disheartened that lately I’ve been hearing the opposite when both online peers and real life friends make the journey there. My Brooklyn friends reported Phnom Penh was their least favorite destination on their Southeast Asian honeymoon. A colleague at a travel conference confided that she and her husband couldn’t wait to for their ten days in the country to be up. Fellow bloggers expressed mixed emotions and downright disappointment and straight up dislike.
Thus far, I’d made two trips to Cambodia and fallen deeply in love both times — I even briefly considered applying for a graphic design position that popped up in Siem Reap a few years ago. Had the country changed so much since my last visit? When I realized that my dear friend and constant-traveler-for-work Wes was actually going to be home in his base of Phnom Penh for my final week in Southeast Asia, I immediately invited myself over to find out.
I’m not here to tell you how to run your life but if you aren’t bringing mango sticky rice onboard as one of your carry-ons you are doing Southeast Asia air travel wrong. Don’t blow this, people.
We had pretty grand plans — a biking trip through the outskirts of the city, a weekend in the riverside town of Kampot, and absolute oodles of really Cool Travel Stuff™. In reality we never left Phnom Penh and spent like, 80% of our waking hours drooling in front of our computer screens. But even still, when the time came a week later to start my journey back to the US, I wasn’t quite ready to go.
I was just as enamored as always.
Wes’s apartment categorically did not suck.
It made me more determined than ever to share all the moments that have made Cambodia — and on this trip specifically, Phnom Penh — so magical for me. Running along the riverfront at sunrise. Stocking up on cheap bootleg DVDs and pricey imported snacks for an impromptu movie night. Watching old people Zumba in the park. Painfully trendy restaurants. Bring-your-own-bottle-of-wine $5 sunset cruises. Colorful yoga studios. Laughing the night away at an expat stand up comedy show. Sharing a wink with a tuk tuk driver who gets your joke.
Damn, I love this city.
I love the charming Street 240, filled with cute cafes and elegant spas and boutiques that make me temporarily suspend my impatience for shopping.
Some notable favorites include The Shop, which served up passionfruit iced tea and delicious sandwiches; Bliss Spa, where I splurged on a three hour package for less than $50, and Le Lezard Bleu, a gorgeous gallery where I bought myself a rare souvenir.
I love expat adventures like my afternoon out to Yoga Phnom Penh, a gorgeous studio tucked on a residential street in the south of the city. After class, I walked to the modern Grab n’ Go cafe for wifi and a sandwich, and fantasized about it being a regular part of my routine.
All over Phnom Penh, tuk tuk drivers are seemingly crouching around every corning, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to whisk you out of the mid-day heat. Wes lives on the third floor of an apartment with an open staircase down the back, and without fail I could hear desperate cries of “Lady! Lady!” by the time I hit the second landing. The vast majority of the time, we broke their hearts with a simple one word explanation: “Walking!”
When I exited the yoga studio this day, the driver seemed overjoyed at his luck, being the only one vying for my business. I gave him a sympathetic smile and shook my head. He looked momentarily surprised, and then a look of understanding came over his face as he raised his eyebrows at me. “Walking,” he nodded, with a self satisfied tone that said, “I’m onto what you white people are into!”
We shared a laugh as I strolled off down the side street.
I love the raw, unpolished activities on offer, like the sunset river cruises offered all over the city. Sounds glamorous, and it can be. Or, it can be a $5, plastic-folding-chair on the roof variety, in which you are strongly encouraged to bring as much booze as you can carry.
What you might want to add to your packing list, however, is a bottle opener — we found this out the hard way and ended up removing our corks with the pocket knife of a helpful member of the crew. In a classic incident of Southeast Asia overlap, my girl Janine, one of the Koh Tao besties, was passing through Phnom Penh while I was there as well. It made for a crackin’ night on the roof of the river barge.
I love the restaurant and bar scene. Sure, you can — and should — eat several of your meals from a plastic stool on the side of the road. But if you can spare the riel, (just kidding everyone uses dollars, hey there George Washingtons the middle of Southeast Asia) there is an amazingly diverse and impressive roster of cuisines and cocktails from around the world.
Some favorites from this round? The cocktails and rooftop views from Le Moon (those afraid of heights should be able to handle this one — Phnom Penh is a phenomenally squat city), the haute Khmer cuisine at Malis (make a reservation), and most of all, the hidden collection of micro-bars and and restaurants tucked into Bassac Lane, off Street 240 ½ .
One night, we tucked into dinner off the superb and selective Meat and Drink menu, while on another we sipped daquiries at the book-lined Library. Other members of the mini empire include bar.sito, Public House, Seibur, Cicada — each one about the size of a New York City hotelroom. That is to say, microscopic.
And most bizarre honorable mention goes to Doors, a tapas restaurant and live music venue where our cocktails came garnished with an eggshell and a slice of wonderbread dabbed in boisenberry. Yup.
I love the offbeat evening entertainment options. The Flicks, which I fell hard for on my second trip to Phnom Penh, has expanded to include two more theaters, one of which we strolled to on a sticky evening to soak up the air conditioning and a documentary.
Another night we went for some laugh therapy, and caught a stand up comedy show in the backbacker hotspot of Street 278. The expat-oriented jokes had us in stitches and we kept the giggles going after with a round of laughing gas balloons (or three) across the street at the rooftop Top Banana bar.
I love the riverfront, where life bustles at every hour of the day. Restaurants on the Mekong range from Mexican to Indian to Thai, and we indulged in them all, each accompanied by a heavy side dish of people watching. I often went for a post-dinner foot massage at one of the cheap spas lining Sisowath Quay, a routine that became so regular in the short course of a week that I started to greet my masseuse by name.
One night, as I blissfully floated towards the cashier to pay, she cracked open an Angkor beer and invited me to join her. I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with the Khmer employee of a large NGO about what made travelers love Cambodia so much — I’d told him it was the people, so sincere and unjaded compared to their more economically developed neighbors. He’d agreed. “It is from the heart, here,” he concurred.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t discount the negative experiences that others have had here. I can understand the root of them, I think — I’m not blind to the dark side of Cambodia or the difficulties of traveling there. But man, I love that Cambodia makes me feel things. Some of them are warm and fuzzy and sepia-toned. And some of them hurt my head and some of them hurt my stomach and some of them hurt my heart — it’s true. But what a gift to be in a place that makes me feel so undeniably alive.
Thanks for having me, Phnom Penh.*
* And, you know Wes as well, though he refused to pose for a single photo with me.