Phnom-enal Crisis

27 12 2008

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We showed up in Phnom Penh with little idea of what we were going to do in town. After doing all of the temple touring in Siem Reap, we were all toured out. We would have probably spent a lot of time lazing about in our room at the Grandview Guesthouse if it weren’t for the fact that it was more like a closet than a room. The place had only room for one big bed and a 3’x6′ walking space, so it induced more feelings of claustrophobia than comfort. I couldn’t even get a picture to capture the size of the place. Of course at $4 a night we hardly had room to complain (or move).

Phnom Penh Skyline - A bit cramped

Phnom Penh Skyline - A bit cramped

Without having the option to stay in, we decided to base our tourism on a book I picked up called Stay Another Day, a guidebook of NGO run restaurants and shops in Cambodia. On the top of my list was Camory, a unique cookie boutique run by former street kids. All of their cookies are made with native ingredients which produces some interesting flavors like palm sugar cookies and sesame coconut. We chatted with our waiter about his life living in a village with his family and coming to Phnom Penh alone with the hopes of making money to send home. He found Camory and had been there for six months. After only three months of sampling the product he said that he went from being a little guy to being healthy and filled out. Considering the ingredients in the cookies are not refined, they probably provide more nutrition than most Cambodian kids get.

Jen Enjoying Camory Cookies

Jen Enjoying Camory Cookies

We also had an awesome German dinner at the swank Art Cafe & Gallery. Of course our camera died so we were unable to capture the beautiful interior in which we had the place all to ourselves while being serenaded by a three piece orchestra. Not wanting to go back to our closet after such a lovely night, we decided to stop in Murphy’s Lakeside Irish Pub right outside of our guesthouse. What started as a whim inspired by Gage’s desire for a Guinness ended in a fun night with new friends. The owner, Vibol, sat with us and talked about how he had turned his moderatly successful guesthouse into this now popular pub. Having never been to Ireland himself, he spents months researching and even put himself through a few hangovers in search of the perfect Irish Coffee recipe. I can assure you his hangovers were not in vain.

Irish Coffee at Murphys Lakeside

Irish Coffee at Murphy's Lakeside

Vibol also told us about how his father died when he was only a teenager and he struggled to learn how to manage the family farm, drawing laughter from his neighbors as he would trip and fall behind his plow. He eventually came to Phnom Penh in hopes of earning more money and landed a job with a taxi company where he won the appreciation of his western boss by becoming their best dispatcher. He left the company on good terms after a couple years and started a visa assistance and tourism company with only a desk and a sign. Within months he was raking in the money, which he eventually invested into the guesthouse that became Murphy’s Irish Pub. His stint with the taxi company also brought him his best friend, Wesley, an artist from Belgium and another really fun, cool guy who we talked with for hours. Vibol and Wesley’s magnanimous and sincere personalities left us little doubt of their continued success in life.

Our new friends from Murphys Lakeside

Our new friends from Murphy's Lakeside

It was interesting to watch Wesley, a resident of Phnom Penh for about three years now, deal with the various kids who came through peddling books. Gage and I have had some difficulty with these kids in the few days we had spent there. One kid seemed to be in a drugged out haze and as he sat down at our table and said “Buy booook,” repeatedly, never looking at us once. When I said to another kid, “Sorry, but I don’t want a book,” he replied “You sorry. Tonight I not eat.” These same kids would try to screw with Wesley and he would screw with them right back, as though was on to them. It seemed that these kids had been on the street and dealing with tourists long enough to know how to mess with a westerner’s mind. I still don’t know how we should have handled it, but we denied all selling attempts and tried to be polite even when they were not. Luckily there are organizations like Friends International that provide services to the street kids of Cambodia including occupational training. We had an awesome meal at one of the Friends restaurants, Romdeng where some talented kids whipped up creative dishes like crispy noodle salad with sweet potato springs rolls and caramelized banana crepes with coconut gelato in a truly 5 star atmosphere.

Cambodia is not an easy place to visit. Unless you are painfully ignorant, it takes an emotional toll on you. Very young children walk the street, begging for money and food. We have had beggars come up to us during dinner and stare at what we are eating. Some of the beggars are nice, some are mean, all of them are persistent. This is only complicated by the fact that we know

Child Beggar in Angkor

Child Beggar in Angkor

Cambodia’s government is inept and does virtually nothing for it’s people. This is not America where a person can apply for welfare, go to a shelter, or visit a soup kitchen. When someone in Cambodia has no money they rely on kindness, from neighbors or strangers. While the NGO’s out here help some, they cannot help everyone. There is no efficient way to spread information about opportunities for help. Whereas most people learn valuable lessons on health, environment, and problem solving in school, the older population of Cambodia is generally uneducated and because of that, they do not see why education is important for their own kids. While we see plenty of kids in school uniforms, we also see many more walking the street at all times of day. I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I do know that solving problems starts with awareness. Hopefully knowing will mean that a visit to Cambodia should not be taken lightly.

For more pictures from Phnom Penh, click here.

Suggestions:

  • Most backpackers head to the Boeung Kak Lake district. First of all, the lake is horribly polluted and second of all this is where the most aggressive moto drivers and hawkers reside. It does, however, have inexpensive food and drinks all around.
  • If you choose to stay in the Lake area, definitely visit Murphy’s Lakeside on Street 93 for a wonderful Irish coffee (just make sure Vibol makes it). Also, the Indian Curry Pot a couple doors down and across the street makes an incredible and inexpensive Indian breakfast that I’m still dreaming about.
  • We spent three days at the Okay Guesthouse (Street 258) south of the Palace and found it to be easy walking distance to many of the sights and good restaurants. Clean rooms, hot water, and cheap. Just don’t eat at their restaurant.
  • If you want to do some ethical eating while enjoying traditional Khmer food (which is yum-a-licious) visit the Eggplant House on Street 258. A portion of their proceeds go to feed the local orphans.
  • The cookies at Camory are crispy and delicious, but if you’re a soft cookie fan, the best can be found at Java Cafe & Gallery on Sihanouk near the Independence Monument. They have wifi too, but you have to buy a card for $5 for 5 hours or $10 for 10 hours.
  • Come to Phnom Penh with an empty suitcase, a list of people to shop for, and visit Smateria, Friends@240 and Rajana for some truly unique (and ethical) handicrafts. We could have happily blown our budget at any one of these stores.
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