90. Adventures in Phnom Penh

John and Calvin, his buddy from America, take in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Cambodia’s colorful capital city.

The Botum Dhammayuth pagoda and monastery provides an exotic view for guests at the Palace Gate Hotel. (JGA photo)

Calvin Mann is an original, and a good friend. Our acquaintance goes back to my decade and a half in Bend, Oregon, where this erudite noncomformist — a tall man with the broad shoulders and narrow waist of a swimmer — founded a company that manufactures self-contained sound booths for recording artists. We share a love of culture, food and music, whether it’s Calvin’s original guitar riffs, the countrified melodies of Jeff (the Dude) Bridges and the Abiders at the Tower Theater, or Cambodian vocalists backed by traditional tro (two-stringed fiddle), roneat aek (xylophone) and electric organ in Phnom Penh.

This saga begins there, in Cambodia, land of Angkor Wat and “The Killing Fields.” After a seven-hour bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to renew my business visa, I was left with a long weekend to explore Phnom Penh with my pal.

The swimming pool at the Palace Gate Resort feels as if it’s in another world. (JGA photo)

Having just completed a trade commission visit to Japan and Korea with Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Calvin had chosen to extend his trip to explore new markets in Southeast Asia. He booked a stay at the Palace Gate Hotel and Residence, across a side lane from the Botum Dhammayuth pagoda and monastery. We gazed upon its tiled rooftops from our sixth-floor balcony. We could cross Wat Botum Park to use the large outdoor pool at a sister lodging, the Palace Gate Resort, which my friend made his daily regimen.

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s national capital, a city of about 2.2 million people — diminutive versus the 13 million of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) but the clear metropolis of its own nation. Beyond astonishing classical architecture, a highlight is the broad palm-lined promenade known as Sisowath Quay. Following the Tonle Sap River upstream for 3 kilometers, from its confluence with the mighty Mekong to the city’s night market, it is a point of urban pride, beautifully maintained as a port of departure for nightly dinner cruises.

We were surprised by the American presence in the Phnom Penh. It was evident in the accents of aging Westerners at the open-air Riverside Bistro (where we succumbed to the temptation of burgers and beers) and in the widespread use of U.S. currency. Unlike neighboring Vietnam or Thailand, where transactions are strictly conducted in local currency (dong or baht), Cambodia seems to treat greenbacks as equal partners to riel, exchanged at a rate of 6,000 to the dollar. Both currencies are available from ATM machines.

Srey Ka & K’n’E perform at The Guitar Man in Phnom Penh. (JGA photo)

The sounds

As in Saigon, casual cocktail lounges explode after dark with bar girls engaging foreign male passers-by in seductive conversations. But it didn’t take long to discover that Phnom Penh has a much more satisfying live-music scene than its Vietnamese counterpart. At Oscar’s on the Corner, also known as The Guitar Man, for example, Srey Ka & K’n’E gave the cultural mixing pot several extra stirs in their haunting performance, noted above.

A few blocks west of the river, on obscure Palace Lane, we found a pub known only as Craft, where the Vagabond blues band was on stage. Its point man, Kevin Sysyn, told Calvin and I of his effort to bring nonsecular education to children in remote jungle villages — much to the chagrin of Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries. The pub’s owner, Patrick Donovan (an Irish name if ever there was one), slotted Calvin in for a performance on the following Tuesday. I wish I had been there to hear it.

A hearty and delicious Cambodian chicken curry was rich in coconut milk. (JGA photo)

Calvin and I quickly got in the habit of breakfasting on street food. At the nearest corner to the Palace Gate, one open-air eatery served rice — with fried eggs, barbecued pork and vegetables — to a bustling clientele that invariably included a battalion of police. (The “bodyguard unit” was just down the block.) When we sought a change of pace, we traveled three steps to an adjacent café for a slow-cooked chicken curry, rich in coconut milk.

As coincidence would have it, we had arrived in the city for the not-so-scary Halloween observance of the birthday of the last king. Dignitaries were arriving from far and wide to pay homage to the late Norodom Sihanouk, and a large tent was erected outside the temple complex adjacent to the restaurants to offer prayers and music. We paused to greet a pair of novice monks in their tawny robes, then set out to explore the city by day.

Novice monks attend a birthday celebration for the late Cambodian king, Norodom Sihanouk. (JGA photo)

The current king and head of state, Norodom Sihamoni, is Sihanouk’s son. His father was renowned for his support of traditional Cambodian culture and the arts, and Sihamoni himself was once a classical dance instructor. So we shouldn’t have found it unusual that no matter which direction we turned, we moved to a soundtrack of percussive melodies and evocative rhythms.

Not only was it the former king’s birthday; it was also Calvin’s. As a performing artist, he is always in the mood for a little lighthearted mischief-making.

The music led us down the broad boulevard that fronted the Silver Pagoda and Royal Palace. Opposite the century-old Chanchhaya (“Moonlight”) Pavilion, we encountered dozens of university students in their graduation gowns, taking selfies and other photos. Immediately, Calvin put his soft-shoe on public display. My friend somehow convinced me to join him in a chorus line with two graduate couples — just a step to the left, perhaps, and a jump to the right.

John and Calvin celebrate these university students’ graduation just outside Cambodia’s Royal Palace.

The sights

Cambodia is the home of the Khmer people, whose once-powerful empire extended across the entire Mekong Delta from the 9th to 15th centuries. Its primary capital was at Angkor, the renowned ancient temple complex near the modern city of Siem Reap. Through four centuries of warfare with Thailand, the capital moved several times until it finally landed in Phnom Penh following the French colonization of Cambodia.

The Royal Palace was built in 1866. Contained within a defensive wall, its 43-acre grounds feature traditional Khmer architecture with towering spires, chedis (or stupas), a throne hall, royal residence and murals. In late 2022, however, it was closed for maintenance, and to protect the royal family from the Covid pandemic.

Built in the early 20th century, the Chanchhây (Moonlight) Pavilion is home to the royal dance troupe. (JGA photo)

Adjoining the palace on ít south side is the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo), the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Its national treasures include a small green crystal Buddha image, made in the 17th century, and a life-sized statue of the future Buddha, Maitreya, commissioned by King Sisowath in 1906. It weighs 90 kg (200 pounds) and is set with precisely 9,584 diamonds. At least, that’s what the literature says. We didn’t count.

Indeed, we weren’t able to visit. But our Cambodian friend Malin joined us at the nearby National Museum of Cambodia. Built in the 1920s with a design inspired by Khmer temple architecture, renovated in 1968, it has a collection of more than 14,000 items, including bronzes and ceramics. We were most impressed by the extensive exhibit of early Hindu and Buddhist stone sculptures, many of them dating from the halcyon era of Angkor Wat.

Built in the 1920s, the National Museum of Cambodia was déigned in the likeness of Khmer temples. (JGA photo)

Far too much Cambodian heritage was destroyed during the tyrannous 1975-78 reign of Pol Pot. As leader of the communist Khmer Rouge movement, he perpetrated a ruthless civil war during which more than 1.7 million people (about one-quarter of the population) đied. Today this is mourned as the Cambodian Genocide.

The Toul Sieng Genocide Museum, in a former prison, and the Killing Fields mass gravesite, at the nearby village of Choeung Elk, are popular tourist destinations today. We wanted to keep things joyful on Calvin’s birthday weekend. They’ll still be there on my next visit.

Unlike victims of the Cambodian Genocide, John (at the National Museum) hasn’t really lót hí head. (Calvin Mann photo)

The scents

With celebration in mind, we found our way one night to a restaurant called the Oyster House, where we supped on plump river prawns and Angkor beer. The following evening we found the Kathmandu restaurant, where we followed a meal of tandoori chicken, fish tikka and navaratam korma with Chilean red wine and Calvin’ favorite post-meal treat: good cigars.

The bright-yellow Central Market (Phsa Thum Thmey) didn’t hold a lot of interest, except for its 1930s Art Deco architecture. Four arms, with arched roofs, extend from a central dome that rises 26 meters (85 feet) above the surrounding cityscape. But the myriad vendors’ stalls hold little of interest (food, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs) that isn’t available elsewhere.

Phnom Penh’s Central Market was built in Art Deco style in the 1930s. (JGA photo)

I had arrived in Cambodia on a Thursday afternoon. I left by bus the following Monday morning, a US $24 fare to Ho Chi Minh City. (Calvin was continuing to Siem Reap.) The return trip took only about six hours, despite a delay at the border immigration station that was just long enough for an aging Jehovah’s Witness missionary to warn me of the spiritual evils promoted by Satan himself. We are all doomed, she said. I politely declined her conversational overtures.

No matter where you are in the world, this is how a weekend trip should be: Relaxed and fun, with no particular pressure to see and do new things. Two old friends reconnected, got to know each other even better, ate food never before tasted or shockingly familiar, and crossed paths with new friends. I’m ready to go again tomorrow.

A vendor shoulders his stock of household items down a busy Phnom Penh street. (JGA photo)
John and Calvin ẹnoy the good life at one of Cambodia’s fine Indian rétaurants.

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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