The City of Four Faces

We started our Cambodian leg of the tour in the capital and the most populous city in Cambodia, Phnom Penh. First order of business after passing through immigration is ATM, SIM card, and taxi to the hotel. With 13 flights under our belt already, we’ve become quite good at this part of traveling. No trip is complete however, without a few hiccups.

First hiccup: the ATMs kept offering us USD. We don’t want USD, we want Cambodian riel. It seemed odd, but at the third ATM we finally managed to pull out riel. Second hiccup: the SIM card prices were listed in USD only. Again, weird, but we asked if they accepted riel, and they did. Third hiccup: we managed to book a Grab car, but he messaged us asking if we can walk outside of the airport. It’s 93 degrees outside, we can’t even see the exit of the airport in eyesight, so….no, we can’t walk outside of the airport. Fourth hiccup: we grab a taxi via the taxi line, but the driver quotes us $15 USD. Way overpriced but we are also out of options, so we take it. We’re a little stressed at this point, a little confused, but it all fades from sight as we arrive at our hotel and see a beautiful, cold pool! Nothing can be an issue now, because we have a pool!

We saw a few sites in the daytime, but most of our activity happened in the evening when it was much cooler. We strolled the waterfront, checked out some cool parks, and visited a night market.

Our hotel is located right near the Royal Palace so naturally, we make that our first daytime tourist stop. The palace is the official residence of the king of Cambodia and thus much of it is closed off to the public. We slathered on sunscreen, packed our parasols (thanks mom and dad) and walked to the palace to see what we could. We’ve noticed a trend…royal palaces are beautiful! This one had expert landscaping and stunning Khmer architecture. Anything super famous in the palace can’t be photographed, like the Emerald Buddha and the Throne Room, so imagine a fancy Buddha room and a giant gold room with a small gold chair in the middle. Ta-da! It’s like you were there with us!

Throne Hall

Another tourist stop on the itinerary, albeit a sad one: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. If you ever find yourself in Cambodia, I highly recommend visiting sites related to the Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge. As difficult as these visits may be, the sites are such an integral part of Cambodian history. It’s imperative to be aware and understand this portion of history (not that long ago), especially as it pertains to Cambodia and its people.

Tuol Sleng was a former secondary school that became a brutal prison under the Khmer Rouge. You can read about it on your own time, but in a nutshell, horrific things happened here. We got an audio tour (shoutout to the Magenheimers!) and quietly explored old cells and interrogation rooms. The museum is tastefully curated, especially given the content, and the audio tour is a must. The whole experience was quite heavy, but in the end, we were glad we took the time to do it. In lieu of prison photos, here is a pretty picture of the Independence Monument:

On a happier note, the next activity was a food tour! Shoutout to my cousin Beilee who recommended a great company, we also booked an evening Siem Reap tour with them (next post). For a few hours in the morning, we learned about Cambodian cuisine and ate crazy delicious food.

A popular Cambodian breakfast is rice with bbq meat, so this dish kickstarted our morning. Rice is a staple in the Cambodian diet and is also highly respected. The verb “to eat” in Khmer actually loosely translates to “eat rice.” The people are fully aware of how rice is planted and harvested (aka human labor) and their respect is reflected in their attitude toward the grain: if you scoop yourself rice, you are expected to finish it, it should not be wasted. Of course, after learning this fun fact, our guide proceeded to tell us: “Don’t finish your plate. We have a lot of food to go.” Needless to say, we felt awkward leaving food on the plate, but our guide explained at our next stop that it’s okay because the vendors are paid a little extra for our visit. Meaning, we order three plates but he pays for four or five.

After BBQ and rice, we jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed towards a small market. We stopped for some fried banana (nothing fancy, literally a fried banana) and these delicious cupcakes (pictured above). As I mentioned earlier, rice and the byproducts of rice should not be wasted, so one treat you can make with leftover sticky rice are steamed cupcakes! It’s a tedious and arduous process to make these cakes, but the result is mouthwateringly delicious. They are warm, soft, and the coconut milk poured on top firms up a little like icing. We grabbed an extra bag for our tuk-tuk driver and headed inside the market to visit The Coffee Guy.

Coffee Guy has been making coffee for 30+ years (our guide said this about every vendor we visited, but I still believe him). We sat at the counter with our iced coffees and listened to our guide as he educated us on Cambodian life and history:

  • Cambodians use USD and riel, although USD is not an official currency. He prefers to use riel because he wants to have faith in his country’s currency.
  • If you come from a good family, you will more than likely head off to a “good” (foreign) school. He’s met Cambodian children and Cambodians his own age (late 20s) who ask him to speak English because they don’t know Khmer. He’s insulted by this and wishes young Cambodians took more pride in their history and culture.
  • The French have stolen a lot from Cambodian culture and claimed it as their own. Specifically, the consumption of snails and frogs. I never realized this was something that deserved bragging rights, but he seemed pretty passionate about it.

He kept the conversation going as we migrated to the Noodle Ladies. Similar to Vietnam, vendors in Cambodia find something they cook well and stick with it. Noodle Ladies cook up a mean noodle soup dish known as num banh chok. It’s noodles with fish gravy and fresh vegetables like cucumbers, water lily stems, banana blossom, and fresh herbs. Cambodians are expert foragers and obscure plants and vegetables are common in dishes. Our guide kept asking the women in Khmer what some vegetables were called, but most of the time we got laughs as an answer because there is no English name. I loved this dish and not just because of the noodles. The gravy was almost curry-like, very flavorful without being pungent.

num banh chok

After noodles, we woke up our tuk-tuk driver and drove to another market for more snacks. We picked up some fresh squeezed orange juice (from green oranges) and once inside the market, ate something very sweet. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what it was but it had something to do with coconut shavings, palm sugar, and brown sugar. It was way too sweet for my taste, but the rest of our group enjoyed it.

Our next three stops were also vendors who sold one thing and sold it well. First, we have Jook Lady. Jook Lady sells a superb congee topped with chicken, mushrooms, congealed pig’s blood, and intestines if you want them. The base is similar to a chicken stock so the porridge is intensely flavorful without being too salty. This woman maintained a huge smile on her face the whole time we were there. It was a smile of pride: her daughters are grown and married, and one lives in Australia! She enjoyed bragging about these facts and were kind to us even though we weren’t from Australia.

Fun fact: congealed pig’s blood tastes like tofu. Seriously!

Next, we have Beef Noodle Family. This family has Chinese roots so their specialty dish (bet you can’t guess what it is) is similar to a Chinese beef stir fry. I mention the whole family because the teenage daughters were eating breakfast next to us in their PJs, watching TV. The family lives upstairs, so the restaurant technically doubles as a family room. Finally, we have Stew Beef Ladies. This place was great and it reminded us of Vietnam: big, open restaurant with no menu. You sit, you get served. The stew beef (I’m not typing this wrong, our guide actually kept calling it stew beef) was incredibly tender. The stew was rich, hearty, and very comforting.

Finally, as if we couldn’t fit any more food into our bellies, we finished off with some Cambodian fruit and a small dessert. I don’t remember all the fruit we ate, but our favorite was a small fruit called mangosteen. It’s like a mix between lychees and peaches. Our dessert was a coconut rice cake, or khmer num krok. They are served literally right of the pan so they are incredibly hot, and you dip them into some cool coconut milk. Absolutely divine.

Between lounging by the pool and eating ourselves silly, Phnom Penh was great to us. Shoutout to the tuk-tuk driver who camped outside our hotel for 5 days before he finally got us to employ him (he drove us to the airport).

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