HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Where it All Began

Last weekend I visited Phnom Penh for the first time in well over five years. Cambodia was the first stop on my post-college move to Southeast Asia, where I spent two weeks in a teacher training course before moving on to Vietnam. When I exited the airport in the Cambodian capital in late August 2010, I knew nothing. My knowledge of Vietnam largely consisted of Apocalypse Now and the Top Gear special filmed there, and I was even more ignorant of the country I had just landed in. The Khmer Rouge had done something terrible there a few decades ago - that was the extent of my understanding. Travel was a new concept to me, as I had only left America once (not counting Toronto) and wasn't aware of what went into trying to uncover the ins and outs of a given country. I didn't even know what I would be eating.

I've learned a lot since then. This part of the world is dynamic, diverse, beautiful and hideous. I've learned how to travel, both broadly and deeply, and had utterly incredible experiences, as well as ones that I wouldn't wish on anybody. I've eaten spectacular amounts of amazing food, and a fair bit of pretty weird stuff too. I've scaled an Indonesian volcano and hiked through former opium fields in Myanmar, but my attention had never returned to Vietnam's little neighbor, even though it's just a bus ride away. Granted, this was a forced vacation thanks to visa regulations, but I was excited to see how Phnom Penh had changed in the intervening years.

I got to my hotel in the evening and went straight up to the roof. I couldn't believe how dramatically the skyline had grown - five years ago I don't remember seeing a building taller than about 10 stories, but the city was now littered with high rises, and many more under construction. Cranes swiveled in every direction, signs that something was going right with the economy in this still extremely impoverished nation.

I was recovering from a bout of severe food poisoning, so I decided to avoid any street food. Wandering around the neighborhood I was struck by the number of Western restaurants with expat involvement. I spotted swish places serving Italian, sushi, French, New York-style pizza, Mediterranean and more, along with accompanying wine bars and craft beer outlets. I couldn't recall anything like that from my two weeks there, but then again I hadn't really ventured beyond my school and the area along the Tonle Sap River. My food memories from Phnom Penh consisted of meals in dingy street stalls that left me hurtling towards a bathroom and sorry excuses for foreign cuisine.
shrimp po-boy with an American Pale Ale
The traffic was also hard to ignore, though the volume is still far behind the teeming madness of Saigon. I do recall noticing random government Lexuses (Lexi?) sailing through the poverty years ago, and while there are still children hawking crap at many intersections, the luxury car market has clearly expanded to some kind of middle class. BMWs, Range Rovers and Mercedes slid by, blocking lanes and sidewalks outside of high-end establishments. Even after so many years in this region I'm still stunned by the contrast between a Porsche in the street and a homeless, wretched family on the sidewalk.

The following day I walked over to AEON mall, a Japanese-owned testament to the Cambodian middle class. Crowds of stylish teenagers and families filled the food court and supermarket, a stall advertising a new high-end apartment building lured in prospective buyers with one of those boxes you stand in and try to grab money out of the air. On the top floor an ice skating rink (yes, real ice) and laser tag arena beckoned. Just like everywhere else I've visited in Asia, the aspirations of the people were on full display - often in the form of 60-inch TVs.

That night I went out with a couple of editors from a website I write for and was confronted with something that hasn't changed at all: the nightlife in Phnom Penh remains awfully sleazy. Several streets near the river are packed to the brim with hostess bars, while tuk-tuk drivers offered everything from drugs and guns to women and, sadly, children. Saigon looks downright wholesome in comparison, and it was off-putting.

On my last morning I wandered around the riverfront, snapping a couple of pictures of the Royal Palace along the way. I had avoided the tourist sites all weekend - I had already visited the monuments to Cambodia's genocidal recent history, the Killing Fields and S-21, in 2010, in addition to the major temples. Cambodia is a bit of a black hole in international news. It's rare to hear much about it, with the exception of the occasional UN tribunal for some member of the murderous Khmer Rouge. As a result I'm not really sure what exactly is going on there politically and economically, but Phnom Penh is clearly a city (not sure about the rest of the country) on the move, as evidenced by the thousands of motorbikes for sale on the road to the airport (yes, the Vietnamese land border is so bad I was flying back just to avoid the dickhead immigration officers there). I don't know if I'll go back to Cambodia, but I'm glad I visited again after all this time, and after all that I've seen and done. I will never call myself an expert on Southeast Asia, but I was able to get a much better sense of the place than that bright-eyed 22 year-old who stumbled, jet-lagged, into the heat in 2010.


  1. I enjoyed Cambodia both times I visited. I really did not care all that much for Phnom penh but loved siem reap, Kep and Kampot. My wife however detested Phnom penh. She says she never felt so much like a second class citizen than she did while in that city.

    1. Yea I could see that - I imagine it's quite a different experience for women. I liked certain parts of the city but others were pretty gross. I've heard good things about Kep and Kampot.