Did you ever have that feeling as a traveler where you step out of an airport into a place you’ve never been and you just know that you are about to embark on a special journey? That feeling that there is no other place on Earth you’d rather be?
That’s the feeling that greeted me as I stepped out of the Phnom Penh International Airport into the 32 degree celsius Cambodian heat and that feeling followed me around like playful blue butterflies from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and eventually to Bangkok, Thailand.
Rewinding my life back to when I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s, if you ever used the word Cambodia, you invariably were using it in the context of being poor and destitute. I don’t remember having any reference for that. It was just something a kid picks up. However, today I know that my early years coincided with the height of the Khmer Rouge regime and I am sure my 5 or 6-year old brain caught bits of commentary from 60 Minutes or Dan Rather or some other news program my grandmother would watch.
If I had never grown up with the desire to travel and get a job which would strategically set me up in the heart of Europe to do that, I might still have a very 5-year old concept of who and what Cambodia is. The beauty of traveling is purging oneself of all stereotypes and misconceptions. Rather than living with a 5-year old impression of Cambodia, I rode in the back of the taxi to the hotel looking out the window with a 5-year old’s sense of wonder.
During my 7-night stay in Cambodia, I split time between it’s two primary cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. These two cities are almost night and day to each other. Siem Reap is a city with more glitz and fun as it sits at the gateway of the awesome temple complex Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, is the more serious and somber of the two, yet it is a thriving workaday metropolis compared to the touristy Siem Reap. Phnom Penh has had to rise out of the Khmer Rouge tragedy that inflicted the city and the country from 1975-1979. Without the benefit of a major tourist attraction like Angkor Wat to help it thru the rebuild, it has instead accepted the responsibility of being the beacon for memorializing that tragic era.
In retrospect, this makes Phnom Penh the ideal starting point for a visit to Cambodia. In order to fully appreciate the act of drinking a beer or visiting a temple, one should first come face to face (or face to skull as you will see later) with the pain that the people of Cambodia have had to endure and recover from to bring the country back to a point where I can enjoy that beer or that temple to the fullest degree.
One of the first things you will find absolutely wonderful about Cambodia is the common mode of transportation. The Tuk Tuk. These cheap and handy small motorbike carriage-like vehicles zip you here and there, over potholes and around cars like ants. So much of the enjoyment of the trip was simply sitting in the back of one of these contraptions. And for couples, I can imagine cozying in the back of one of these would add a healthy dose of romance to the journey. Bottom line is that traveling by any other means would be suboptimal, so make sure to take a copious number of Tuk Tuk rides.
Tip: There are two ways to hail Tuk Tuks. One is just to wave them down or approach them on the street and at the end of the ride, give them cash. But this also means you may need to do some haggling. The second and preferred method is to use the Grab App. The Grab App is the Über of Cambodia. All transactions can then be handled by the app itself and the credit card you have linked to the app. Then there is never any need to haggle or pay the driver. Even the tip can be paid with the app. It is completely no hassle. Just make sure you have a credit card already linked to the app before you hail your first Tuk Tuk, otherwise you will still need to pay cash at the end.
There are two main Khmer Rouge sites that all visitors will be encouraged to visit. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (also known as the Killing Fields Museum) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It is almost pre-requisite to visit these two sites. In order to not overload myself with two melancholy sites back-to-back (which is typically how the guided tours will do it), I decided to split them up over two mornings and do them completely self-guided. The afternoons and evenings could then be reserved for the more lighthearted activity of drinking loads of beer.
My first real Tuk Tuk ride was to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. It is a good 30 minute ride from the city center and gives you the first glimpse of real life Cambodia. There are of course characteristics that could put off some people, like trash along the road, unsanitary street food vendors, huge potholes, and mangy, emaciated dogs roaming the streets. But if you take off the filters that living in a place like the USA or Belgium can place over your eyes, you see a people happily living their lives the only way they know how. There is a rural charm mingled with the decayed and shabby houses. It seems every household runs some kind of business in order survive, and almost every store has a series of shelves out front containing recycled bottles with a certain yellow liquid. No not beer, although they do sell a lot of that. This is actually gasoline. Cambodia may be the last country you’d ever find yourself stranded without a gasoline source nearby.
The route that I was bouncing along comfortably in a Tuk Tuk would have been a road to Hell in 1975 for tens of thousands of residents of Phnom Penh who were forcibly removed from their homes by the Khmer Rouge and marched into the countryside to be enslaved in agricultural communes, brainwashed into soldiering, or simply murdered just because they were intellectual and potentially a threat to the strict Communist regime.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
Choeung Ek is one of many sites that were known as Killing Fields, mass graves where people who were being purged by the Khmer Rouge were tortured and murdered, including babies who were bashed against the trees and thrown into the grave pits with their dead parents. The number of victims at this site is estimated around 9000. Today it is a Buddhist temple and memorial where many of the victims bones can be found in various display cases around the site, including most dramatically, the collection of skulls in the temple. If doing this site self-guided, it is recommended to splurge for the audio-guide.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng also known as Security Prison 21 (or S-21) was a torture and execution center for the Khmer Rouge regime. Today it is museum which chronicles the history of the regime and also quite graphically depicts life (or death) within the prison. Some rooms still contain the beds with shackles that some victims were forced to endure. Even blood stains on the tiled floors are still visible. Throughout the museum are the portrait photos that each victim was forced to take upon entry.
In 1979, Cambodia was liberated from the Khmer Rouge by Vietnam. 40 years later, I found myself reaping the benefits of the reconstruction that followed thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of the Cambodian people and in part due to the investment and aid from foreign countries.
These thoughts and more sobered my mind with appreciation as I sat at a cafe in the sweltering heat looking at the condensation forming on the outside of a gloriously chilled mug of the golden nectar called Cambodia beer.
Brewtiful Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is by no means a great beer city, but it does have what you would expect for any large city – at least one brewery and some eclectic taprooms and craft beer bars sprinkled around. There is definitely enough there to please a beer tourist like me. In the 32-degree heat, it wasn’t the craft beer that I found memorable. With this kind of weather, simply chugging the commercial pilsners was the most enjoyable beer experience.
On this map, I have highlighted the places that I have mentioned in this post including a couple of beer bars that I did not visit.
Another thing I love about Cambodia is the naming of their national beers. The Netherlands has Heineken. Denmark has Carlsberg. Cambodia has Cambodia and Angkor. That is like Belgium’s national beers being called Belgium and Grand Place. How cool would that be? Having the names of the country and number one tourist destination as the two main beers makes for more impactful beer pictures, don’t you think?
Who would have thought that Southeast Asia’s largest craft brewery would be in Cambodia? Founded in 2009, Kingdom brews its own beer but also handles contract brewing for breweries from Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. A visit to the taproom and brewery is probably the top beer pilgrimage in Phnom Penh.
Craft Beer Garden by Cerevisia
Cerevisia (Latin for beer) started up in 2013. There are a couple taprooms in the city center. The Craft Beer Garden site has a cozy open terrace sandwiched between two buildings. There, however, is where the compliments end. I am generally very positive on this blog, but the beers lacked any kind of excitement and were situated well into bland territory, However, I strongly encourage anyone reading this to go and make your own judgment. Perhaps I was just having a bad day….. well, no. Actually I was having an amazing day, something I seemed to experience a lot on that trip. Blue butterflies.
Sundown Social Club
Not a brewery or a craft beer bar, the Sundown Social Club is simply a really cool place to have a beer and have a great view overlooking the Russian Market. The beers on tap were not run-of-the-mill, so definitely something for the Untappd crowd to enjoy.
Riel is a micro craft brewery also started up in 2013. Unlike Cerevisia, you can taste the effort that the brewers are making to create rich tasting beers. Riel also doubles as a comedy club.
Embargo Craft Beer Bar
Ok we have a winner. This was hands down my favorite watering hole in Phnom Penh. The combination of the Bohemian hideaway effect with a great selection of craft beers (on tap and in the fridge), the coziness of its interior and its selection of board and card games really makes it a place to spend the better part of your evening. If you have the most amazing game partner in the world, then this will be a place to create a wonderful memory.
Edible Phnom Penh
The final thing that I will mention in this post about Cambodia (and Asia) in general that I came to love on this trip is the food. When you visit Asia as a westerner, if you come with your standard pizza and burger comfort zone, you are going to run screaming back to the airport as soon as possible. I have found it easier just to let others decide what I should eat and then let go of all expectations. It also doesn’t hurt to splurge a little on a nicer restaurant for dinner while going local for your lunches. Both have their benefits and when combined in the right portions, Asia can turn the most hardened steak-eater into a foodie overnight.
Here are a few of my favorite foodie moments in Phnom Penh.
I could have eaten 1000 of these.
Romdeng is an excellent restaurant and unfortunately I didn’t manage to take any pictures of the “normal” food. But you cannot experience Cambodian food culture without trying the grilled tarantulas. Let’s be fair, I struggled to eat just one (the one on the bottom of the image) and had to do it with a fork and knife because the hairy legs were freaking me out. But I managed to force every bite down with a lot of facial gesturing. The inside guts have a pasty texture. The taste is surprisingly similar to a shrimp croquette.
Visiting the Central Market gives you an ideal opportunity to really see what the locals eat. One of the foods that I came to find quite delicious during my trip was frog legs. Westerners normally think of them as a French delicacy, but in Cambodia (and other parts of Asia) they are common. Like I said, check your pizza and burger mentality at the door.
I loved my visit to Phnom Penh. One of the best feelings as a traveler is embracing and feeling embraced by a new culture and having one’s stereotypes stripped away like an old coat of paint. I do think when you travel here, it is important to have a strategy. Doing Siem Reap before Phnom Penh would be a colossal mistake. In a place like Cambodia, it is important to put one’s mind into the right zone for enjoying the rest of the country. One will be able to appreciate more richly the tourism-laced environment of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat when one already has come face to face with the sacrifices that the previous generations had to make before the luxuries of today could even exist.
It is with that thought that the blue butterflies carried me onwards to Siem Reap.