It was with some trepidation that I agreed to uproot my safe, stable and all too easy life in Sydney to move to Phnom Penh. Three years earlier Iâ€™d travelled through Cambodia on an extensive Asian backpacking trip, and although I loved touring the temples of Angkor and sampling spiders in Skuon, Phnom Penh didnâ€™t register as one of my favourite places. In fact, I was more than happy to leave when the time came. However, I had a sneaking suspicion there had to be more to Phnom Penh than initially meets the eye. Plus, the lure of cheap shopping, delicious Asian food, massages on tap and easy access to other Asian destinations for weekend getaways were enough to convince me it could be an ok place to live for a few years.
With our worldly belongings stuffed into three bags between us, we arrived in our new home in ultimate adventurer style â€“ via boat, from Chau Doc in Vietnamâ€™s Mekong Delta. As we neared Phnom Penhâ€™s boat landing, the strip of flags from around the world lining the muddy Tonle Sap River came into full view, instantly evoking memories of our earlier trip to Cambodiaâ€™s capital. On the surface not much appeared to have changed – the roads were still chaotic and baseball capped moto drivers still whizzed around, however, there were a few more cars on the road and less cyclos than before.
After an initial settling in period setting up home, we began to discover more of what Phnom Penh has to offer. One of the most exciting (and important!) things was to get to work exploring the cityâ€™s multitude restaurants and cafes, seemingly springing up constantly and catering to every taste and craving. Tandoori chicken fresh from the tandoor, Sicilian meatballs whipped up by an Italian chef, spicy Thai, authentic Japanese and red wine served streetside at a Parisian style bistro were all discovered in our first few weeks.
Branching out some more, we tried Shanghai style dumplings washed down with Tsingtao beer near Psar Thmei (Central Market), Vietnamese pho for breakfast, Spanish tapas in a "real" tapas bar (well, as real as you can get in Cambodia!), and western style sandwiches, juices and coffees in cafes just as good as those at home.
Of course, the little publicised flavours of Khmer cuisine were also on our radar. The first stop was a ubiquitous "suki soup" restaurant. These are found all over the city, and although not strictly Khmer, suki soup is a Cambodian favourite and offers a very local experience. Similar to hotpots found in other Asian cuisines, suki soup features a menu of meats, vegetables and noodles that you boil yourself at your table, making a crazy soup-like concoction that may include bits of beef, jellyfish, liver and prawns all at once – if youâ€™re not quite sure what youâ€™re doing, that is. It has the potential to be a bit gross, but cooking and eating each thing individually seems to be the way to go.
A similar theme is the do-it-yourself barbeque or "volcano" at your table – a bit tastier and easier to master! Other Khmer restaurants we found featured everyoneâ€™s favourite Cambodian dishes – fish amok and beef luk lak, and tasty salads featuring banana flower, shredded papaya or mango. The abundance of fantastic local foods and cuisine from almost every corner of the globe was enough to make us start appreciating a new side of Phnom Penh – beyond the backpacker guesthouse scene and riverfront tourist strip.
In addition to Phnom Penhâ€™s amazing restaurants, there were other appealing aspects of the city that we soon began to uncover. A standout is that old clichÃ© – the people. Not only are the locals friendly, inquisitive, accommodating and polite, they generally manage to be one of the most smiley people in the world, which is amazing considering Cambodiaâ€™s recent tragic history of war, genocide and the resulting extreme poverty. We learned that Khmer people love to laugh and joke around, and that events such as workplace Friday night drinks have a much more festive feel than those at home – more like friends having a real party than colleagues having an obligatory drink and chat.
By attending a work function, it became apparent that when it comes to parties, Khmer girls definitely love to frock up and go all out with the hair and make-up (think bouffants, corkscrew curls, painted eyebrows!). The guys arenâ€™t shy about hitting the dance floor either. They donâ€™t need to consume 10 litres of beer before doing so – a refreshing change! The local guys are also very friendly, an understatement, really. Even a short walk down the street will result in cries of "Hello beautiful lady", "You are very beautifulâ€™, "Can I talk to you?" and even the occasional "I love you," which never fails to make me laugh.
Many people in Phnom Penh have also displayed acts of extreme honesty and generosity since our arrival, from handing back handbags absentmindedly left on chairs, to picking up and returning a dropped wallet. The odd moto driver has even given a free ride or voluntarily returned some of our fare when weâ€™ve paid them a bit too much, something weâ€™ve never come across in any other country and particularly not one as poor as Cambodia.
One day, while attempting to buy a few limes and some coriander at Psar Chas (the Old Market), I misunderstood the price quoted, having just started Khmer lessons. Upon handing over 2000 riel (50 cents) to the seller, she looked absolutely horrified and almost flung the money back at me. The price was not 2000 riel, but 200 (i.e. 5 cents, not 50 cents)!
One of our best Phnom Penh days so far has been a cycling trip to Mekong Island with a group of Khmer work friends. The island is reached via the Japanese bridge over the Tonle Sap River followed by a car ferry over the Mekong to the island. Although not too far from the city, Mekong Island provides a taste of Cambodiaâ€™s countryside, with wooden houses on stilts, lush green rice paddies and even the odd ox and cart meandering along the road, usually being steered by a toothless 85-year-old or a very small child. Around every bend we were greeted by what sounded like a thousand hellos by curious kids.
Finally, at the end of the road was our reward – a feast of whole barbeque chickens and the worldâ€™s biggest plate of papaya served in a straw hut on the banks of the Mekong. It was then time to turn around and do the cycling journey all over again, this time taking a short cut through rice paddies only to fall off our bikes into the mud! We were also caught in a huge downpour and cycled the rest of the way back not only mud coated, but soaking wet as well. Even so, it was a successful foray out of the city, and well worth the sore muscles we all had for the next week or so.
What is it about Phnom Penh that now seems so much more appealing than it used to? The city may be changing, but maybe my perspective is too. The once pesky street kids now seem adorable, the persistent moto drivers – now charming and funny, the dirty streets – now a source of exploration and discovery. I canâ€™t reiterate enough. Phnom Penh is not without its faults, however, I now know my new home is more than just ok.
This realisation didnâ€™t happen instantly, though. After a recent night out with a friend from home and a first time visitor to Cambodia, we asked, "So, what do you think of Phnom Penh?" His reply (surveying the dark, abandoned, rubbish strewn streets we ventured home on at around 3:00 a.m. in a tuk tuk), "It looks worse than the dodgiest streets you ever see in Bangkok." A few more weeks in Cambodiaâ€™s capital would surely change his mind!