Phnom Penh Part 2: Keeping It Riel

While my tour consisted entirely of soaking up Phom Penh’s bar “culture,” I say in my defense, as a coworker put it, that alcohol is key to the Khmer experience.

So on another sunny day, we find ourselves at yet another beer garden, this time filled with waitresses clad in slutty Santa’s Little Helper costumes, to have a hopping birthday to me. By eating deep-fried frogs, that is.

I was cheered up not only by the Christmas crumpets, but by the rowdiness of a group of Cambodians who were having a party in the VIP room. They all stumbled out in 70s or 80s attire — the people’s general fashion sense, I found, was quite nostalgic, as if they’re stuck in a bygone era. At least someone was having a good time.

Beer snacks
Frog sauce
Deep-fried frog, which tasted like chicken.
Sweet and Sour Squid

Here, I begin to notice that Cambodians like putting chunks of ice in their lager, which tastes weak enough already, but I suspect the habit is just their resourceful way of keeping the beer cold in the searing heat and subtly watering down the drinks so that customers will keep on buying. Waitresses will efficiently watch your drink and plunk a chip of ice in it exactly as the previous ice chip melts completely.

Olga had also insisted we swing by The Latin Quarter, a very pretty Latin American restaurant and bar, whose star feature is its sexy-as-hell, Javier Bardem-esque bartender, Diego. He did end up chatting me up as we left the bar — in which I resisted the urge to take him right there on the mahogany counter — and promised to come back, which I sadly never did.

While we only ever sampled the bartender and the beers, an Australian diner sitting at the next table went out of his way to say he wasn’t entirely happy with the food. I would love to try their Chilean, Spanish and French fare for myself someday, especially if Diego allows.

Something to come back for, maybe.

The highlight of my entire trip, oddly enough, was sunbathing at Intercontinental Hotel’s beautiful pool with Justin, who is a member of their fitness club. The hotel — not much larger than your average university building — also has a lovely pastry shop at the basement, which serves French and German pastries (what is a Stollen?), and we munched on delicious Sausage Rolls (US$3.50).

Indonesians would be heartbroken.

A telling remnant of Cambodia’s colonial past is the ubiquity of baguettes. Their convenience stores (not 7-Eleven, but 7-Elephants) usually have baskets and baskets of the bread, while mobile food kiosks are also stacked with baguettes as if it were the nation’s rice. (I suspect the failure of their agricultural utopia plan has something to do with this too). Still, the whole city seems to eschew Western establishments — save for one KFC — and any branded labels you would find such as Adidas and Mango sell fake merchandise, according to my friend.

That evening, we also visited some gay bars, Rainbow (which was dead) and Blue Chilli (which was raging). It’s nice to see a space for the LGBT community in Cambodia, even if they are mostly preyed upon by old expats in too-tight muscle tees. Blue Chilli had a big production going, with lady boys dancing atop the bar counter while lip-syncing to songs by divas. There was a line of them that came out in progressively bad 80s prom dresses.

Flat crotch. AMAZING how they keep the junk in their trunk under control.

We also had to return to Pontoon and Heart of Darkness, with me fully conscious this time, at a party district along Street 51. I suppose it was mildly depressing to spend Christmas Eve and the early part of Christmas Day in a sea of Caucasians on the prowl for tiny Cambodian gays or hookers in booty shorts having to gyrate their lady parts to attract attention. There could be worse ways to spend the holiday, though, such as attending the city’s many genocide-documentary screenings.

Alexis, a friend of Olga’s and Justin’s who is an English teacher and part-time singer.

In the sunshine, though, Phnom Penh is mostly flat, with just one fully constructed skyscraper (the Bank of Canadia tower) sticking out like a sore erection in concrete. Justin pointed out a few half-finished buildings to me, most of which were South Korean investments that never really took off.

Home of the nation’s extremely reclusive monarchy. Apparently their pictures cannot be published in print, but gossip about them abounds. One of the more memorable ones are that one of the princes is light on his loafers and the other is that one of them married a French shopgirl who now owns her own boutique and commissary.
You’ll see a lot of architecture like this.

But the city offers plenty of cheer, thanks to loose regulations on ganchaa and top-grade weed, which can be sprinkled on anything from your banana shake to your french fries. Just ask the waiter to make it “extra happy”, followed by a saucy wink.

Happy green tea shake
Happy fried noodles
Happy pizzas!

On my final day before jetting off to much chillier Hong Kong on Christmas Day, Justin and I thought to visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum. You know, for some holiday cheer. But the tuktuk driver who offered to show us around charged more than we could afford and we instead walked down Riverside and chased pigeons at the park in front of the Royal Palace.

webcam to gif
gif animator

Mr B gave me a last-minute tour of the area before I set off for the airport, passing by Grandmother Penh’s monument and other sights. Funny enough we passed by what Justin called the “Axis of Communism” — Russian Boulevard intersected by Mao Zedong Street and Kim Jong-il Street. It was a lovely send-off, particularly when the sun turned golden and made Mekong sparkle. I hugged Justin goodbye and thanked Mr B, and took my leave of grandma with the intention of returning someday.

Previous: Paint the Town Rouge


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