Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Colorful Cambodia

This is the view from our hotel, the Frangipani Living Arts and Spa Hotel. 
Last weekend I spent three days with a few friends in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It was a good experience for me to again be in a place in which I was unfamiliar with the language, the culture, and the food. Phnom Penh is an "edgier" place for tourists compared to the popular destination Siem Reap, where one goes to see the temple Angkor Wat, a wonder of the world. It is small for a city, with few high rise buildings and poor road construction - though apparently it has developed in leaps and bounds in the past year. 

I'm still struggling to try to describe what the city is like or how my experience was. Phnom Penh contains so many contradictions and divides, partially due to its historical legacy as a neglected French colony, and then the destruction and violence that occurred during the civil war and the Khymer Rouge a few decades ago.   

For one, there are at the same time many and few western influences in the city. On the one hand, an interesting dual currency system exists - the US dollar is officially accepted, and businesses, from the nicest hotels to the street side vendors, all deal in USD. The Cambodian Riel (4000 to $1), also is used, though mostly for small amounts. Another example of western influence is in the cuisine. Many restaurants serve French foods, such as crepes, cheeses, and salads. 

At our first dinner in the city I ordered a ham and cheese crepe at a place called Cafe on the Corner by the riverside.

Delicious nicoise salad from a cafe called the Blue Pumpkin.
However, we found that very few people speak English besides those that work in the tourist industry, and even then vocabulary is limited. Additionally, certain large global chains such as Starbucks and McDonalds have yet to enter the Cambodian market. This may be a good thing, since it allows local businesses to flourish, but it surprised me how limited the reach of globalization has been in Phnom Penh so far. 

A large and obvious class division also exists in Phnom Penh. Living standards for the majority of people we saw and met did not seem to be very high, and there are a lot of sanitation and infrastructure issues with the city. Roads often are clogged, dusty, and full of potholes, and roadsides are littered with trash. Safety becomes an issue late at night in certain areas, and we had to keep an eye out for purse snatchers. However, certain neighborhoods have gorgeous and modern multi-storied houses, gated off from the streets, and luxurious hotels and bars cater to the local elite and expats. 

This above photo is taken from the Foreign Correspondents Club, a fancy bar and restaurant by the riverside frequented by tourists and expats. In my experience, I also saw a sharp divide between expats and locals. It seemed that businesses cater to either one or the other, and I don't recall seeing much interaction between Cambodians and tourists except for those that worked in the tourism industry. 

We really wanted to experience how Cambodians live in Phnom Penh, but it was difficult. We don't speak the language and look very different. One night, when we insisted that our driver take us to a dinner place where locals eat, he took us to a nice restaurant that served local food, but there were no Cambodians eating inside. 

One of the central aisles in the electronics section of the Central Market. 
Markets, like the Central Market above, also seem to have differentiated clientele. The Central Market and the Russian Market both are touristy, selling souvenirs, silks, and clothing. Vendors will engage with you in English, and offer high prices that you then must bargain down. I found that I could usually bargain down the price to about 2/3 of the original offer and the seller would still be very willing to sell. 

We also went to a market near the old Olympic Stadium. This marketplace is geared towards locals, and sells a variety of household items, food, and beauty products. The tuk tuk driver did not know how to get to this market from the hotel, and likewise it was difficult to find a driver at the market who knew how to get back to our hotel. Vendors were uninterested in hawking their wares to us or bargaining. I didn't pay too much attention to prices but I'd bet that goods are cheaper. 

Sunset from the rooftop bar of our hotel.
These are just some of my initial thoughts on Phnom Penh. It is a vibrant and difficult-to-explain place, but I have lots more photos and experiences that I'll be sharing soon. 

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