5 Mistakes Tourists Make in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Mistake #1

  • Don’t (just) eat fish amok, eat Cambodian soups. Soups (“samlor”) are central to Cambodian food. The lemongrass and galangal of samlor machou kroueng, the unripe tropical fruits in samlor karko, and the tamarind sour, Vietnamese-inspired samlor machou yuon should not be missed by any traveler. Sadly, most tourists skip the soups and tend to eat Chinese- or Thai-style stirfries and curries and thus overlook the dishes that tie together a brilliant Cambodian meal. Fish amok, while delicious, is not as fundamental to familiarising yourself with Khmer cuisine. It is still worth the effort to chase a good amok (I recommend Sweet Café on St.294); as is trying some multitude variations on fish preparation: steamed or deep-fried whole, fermented, dried, or barbecued.

Phnom Penh Mistake #2

  • Don’t drink Anchor, drink Angkor. Actually, have one of each. You’ve made it to Cambodia’s beguiling capital city and you deserve it. Apart from the occasional palm or rice wine enthusiast, the locals love their beer and there are about 10 different local brews with which they get their booze on. The two most popular beers, Anchor (pronounced to rhyme with “ranch err”) and Angkor (coincidentally, rhymes with “anchor”) are both watery pilseners and so I’d urge the beer aficionado to try one of the local stouts – the mass-market ABC Stout, the hard-to-find-but-worth-the-effort Angkor Extra Stout, or the fiendishly alcoholic and elephantine Extra Klang. Cambodians have a predilection for drinking their beer with ice, possibly to show their pride at having a clean and safe ice supply, possibly because many of the beers are only distinguishable from water by their colour. It is certainly acceptable to ask for no ice.

Phnom Penh Mistake #3

  • Don’t stay at The Lake, stay anywhere else in Phnom Penh. The Lake backpacker area in the northern part of Phnom Penh manages to exude an odour worse than your average backpacker and if the city council’s plans don’t fall apart then it will soon be bulldozed into Boueng Kak (along with the plots of thousands of Phnom Penh’s citizens who hold land title but that is another corruption-filled tale). Smaller almost-boutique hotels are opening up around Phnom Penh at great speed; and cater to a range of budgets. My picks in no particular order: Amanjaya (classy and pricy), The Pavilion (new, has a pool), any of the three Bodhi Trees (cheapish) or The Billabong (has a pool/billabong). One to watch is Manor House, who will soon be moving from their current venue into the ex-Japanese ambassador’s residence.

Phnom Penh Mistake #4

  • Don’t visit the Killing Fields, visit Khmer architecture. Disillusioned poststructuralists looking to snort some lines of Modernism to set your senses in order, look no further than Phnom Penh. The New Khmer Architecture built from 1953 through to 1970 offers crystalline insight into the growing boldness, dynamism and confidence of the modern Cambodian culture that was subsequently obliterated by the Khmer Rouge. The Central Market, National Stadium, Royal University, Chaktomuk Theatre offer elegant examples, as well as many villas you’ll catch a glimpse of behind the 9 foot high fences. Many architectural masterpieces are now succumbing to the new pressures of high-rise development and the dubious tastes of Phnom Penh’s nouveau riche. Khmer Architecture Tours (www.ka-tours.org) organizes tours guided by budding (and sometimes established) Cambodian architects and also has self-guided tour map on their website.

Phnom Penh Mistake #5

  • As for The Killing Fields, its concession was sold to a Japanese company and apart from the government officials receiving the perquisite bribes for its sale, no Cambodian is benefiting. The government continues to refuse to cremate the remains of the formerly interred Khmer Rouge victims in an acceptable Buddhist ceremony – the bones are currently on display for your tourism pleasure. Certainly visit Tuol Sleng, one of the Khmer Rouge’s Phnom Penh jails and torture site, as a shattering reminder of the indiscriminate horror perpetrated upon and by the Cambodian people. If after that, you’re keen to visit an exhumed mass grave, visit Phnom Oudong, the erstwhile capital of Cambodia. There is a small memorial to the graves there as well as an excellent view from the hilltop stupas. The weekend market at the base of the hill also sells a few esoteric Cambodian street foods.

Phnom Penh Mistake #6

  • Don’t expect motorcycle taxis to know where you are going despite their assurances to the contrary, expect bedlam. Informal motorcycle taxi drivers (“motodops”) are the easiest way from A to B around Phnom Penh but it is incredibly rare for them to either be able to read a map or be acquainted with even the most popular tourist sites in Phnom Penh. The motodops who haunt the end of my street are all from surrounding provinces and work as in Phnom Penh between harvesting and planting rice. None of them can read and for a few of them, it is their first time in Phnom Penh as well. Bring a map from one of the free local guides (or your guidebook) with you to plot your journey and tap the driver on the shoulder then point which direction to go. If you get completely lost, there is a good chance that your motodop will know the name of the pagoda (wat) nearest your hotel, so it is worth memorizing the wat’s name.
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