Saturday, November 7, 2015

10 local secrets in Phnom Penh

For a month, Phnom Penh was home. And by the time I left, I carried with me its delightful secrets shared to me by its discerning locals.

Uncover the Secrets from the Riverfront
Phnom Penh in Cambodia--with its tree-lined streets, colonial buildings and endless rows of shophouses--sits where the mighty Mekong River and Tonle Sap meet. Near the intersection of the two rivers is a promenade which teemed with locals at sundown. A block down the road are hotels, bars, cultural centers, restaurants and cafes that cater to every whim and budget. The Royal Palace, a national symbol of Cambodia, occupies the epicenter of the Riverfront Area.

With my volunteer cohort during one of our Khmer Language immersion sessions: Elaine (UK), Laura (UK), that's me! (PH), Phil--Elaine's husband (UK), Ratana (Khmer language trainer) and Esther (Uganda). Not in photo are Trevor (UK) and Tess (PH). 

Cheap Thrills for Foodies + Culture Vulture 
My first foray into Cambodian or Khmer gastronomic adventure was unsuccessful. I swung by Cambodia 6 years ago on a backpacking trip. At the time, my knowledge about Khmer food was limited only to crunchy and fried grasshoppers, crickets and tarantulas. It ended there.

With this volunteering journey, I have enough time in my hands to dig deeper into the Khmer culinary traditions (trying). In the process, I picked up other cuisines through my friend Vic. Vic (Iloilo, PH) whom I met through another friend Hendri (Cebu, PH), has been based in Cambodia for about a decade already. An epicure and medical doctor, he does consultancy for the U.N., no less. With that being said, he is the best accomplice to unravel the secrets, dirty or otherwise about Phnom Penh. Hihihi. Seriously, Vic's discerning taste helped me navigate the best places to eat in Phnom Penh (without actually breaking the bank).

Let's get started! (but I will not give you the names right away para intense! :) 
1| best noodles + best view | This restaurant sits at the river bank of Tonle Sap and offers a sweeping view of the river and the island across it. I've eaten here several times and the quality of food and customer service have been consistently good. Highly recommended is the namya noodle--a thin rice noodle soup with shrimp, rich coconut sauce plus herbs and spices.

budget range: US$1.50-4.00 location: Preah Sisowath Quay *landmark is the yellow-painted Tourist Information Center just beside the Chaktomouk Hall (a building shaped like a handheld fan designed by Van Mollyvan).

2| Heaven on a plate! | From the street, this Indonesian restaurant looks rather very ordinary. What sets this apart from the rest is the very reason droves of people come here for--the extraordinary food. Word has it that the owner was the former chef of the Indonesian Ambassador in Cambodia. My all-time favorite is the garlic shrimp! Succulent with the right amount of brine and garlic--truly it's nirvana on a plate!

budget range is US$1.50-3.00. Location: One block from Sisowath Quay, just across the Royal University of Fine Arts. Come before 7pm as it's usually full house from 7pm onwards.

3| Iconic landmark + stunning sunset view | Not to be missed for anyone who visits Phnom Penh. While the food and drinks at this place are a tad too pricey for my volunteer living allowance (the brick oven wood-fired pizza is to die for!), another way to soak up the iconic vibe and to enjoy the view, especially at sundown, is to come during happy hour when the bar list is at 50% off. The third floor area is the best spot to do some el dolce far niente--the art of doing nothing.

Location: Preah Sisowath Quay. A cheaper alternative (for beer + the view, that is)  is just across the street though.

4| Cultural Centers | Giveaway: Sa Bassac, META House, Bophana and Institut Francais to name a few. On my third week in Phnom Penh, I had the good fortune of scoring a hard-to-get ticket for Shakespeare's Hamlet by the original cast from London's Globe Theater. I was with a fun and interesting motley crew of kababayans who are all based in Phnom Penh--Vic, Sister Len (a Maryknoll nun), Romyr (an events-talent manager). Dong (a teacher trainer) and Beth (works for an ad agency).

The possibilities of attending cultural events--from documentaries, theater, painting and photography exhibitions in Phnom Penh--are endless. Who knows in the coming days, I might bumped into Angelina Jolie at Bophana!  

5| Biking in the back road | This island, located in the middle of Mekong River, is barely an 8-minute ferry (US$0.50/way) crossing. Once you set foot on this island, you will instantly notice the stark contrast between the concrete jungle of Phnom Penh to the idyllic and dusty countryside feel of this spartan getaway. Don't forget to stop by one of the silk-weaving centers for your pasalubong.

Silk Island (Koh Dach) do-it-yourself bike tour with Hendri and Vic. 

*tip: Bicycle rental shops in Phonm Penh are located near Orossay Market. Shops open at 7AM. Full day rental begins at US$2.00. Vic, Hendri and I set off at 7AM so we could finish the bike tour just before lunch.

6| Food + Social Enterprise | This restaurant employs former street youth trained in cooking and service skills by Friends-an NGO. The food and service never disappoint. A bit pricey though but the value of your buck will go a long way to keep the vulnerable youths of Cambodia out of the streets and lead better lives.

Advance booking is necessary. Location: Street #13.

7| A hole-in-the wall Anthony Bourdain will soon be raving about! | Do not be fooled by its unassuming interior of tiled walls and basic seating. This eatery offers authentic and delectable Thai food and arguably has the cheapest price in town! Its owner-chef was a chef at the Royal Palace in Thailand. The first crunch I had on the papaya salad I ordered brought back good memories at Khao San Road when I was still young and impressionable! Eating at Yosaya was a life-changing experience. Seriously, the food, by golly, is one of the best in town! Another personal favorite is the stir-fried crispy pork! Then there's pad Thai! I chug them down with lonkan juice. Whilst writing this, I couldn't restrain myself from salivating! Hurry before Anthony Bourdain beats you to it!

location: Street 105 corner Street 278 *landmark: just behind Preah Yukunthor High School which is in the corner of Preah Sihanouk and Monivong Blvds. Full house all the time at lunchtime.

8| Good juju at breakfast--eggs Florentine, spinach and bagel | Every time I am in Phnom Penh, my first meal of the day is always here. At the outset, it's eggs Florentine with spinach, bagel, hollandaise sauce and some greens got me hooked! This grub contains some superpowers to vanquish those inner demons. You know Popeye + spinach. hihihi

location: Sihanouk Boulevard. Near the Independence Monument.

9| Back street barbeque | BBQ Pork Ribs. Another hole-in-the-wall which might piqued the interest of Anthony Bourdain. The pork rib meat is tender and well-seasoned. The seating is by the roadside. You will know that you have stumbled upon a treasure trove of good local street food when you see a sidewalk eatery bursting at the seams at dinnertime.

Location: A few blocks from Bophana Center.

10| Chug the bugs! (without the risk of diarrhea or hepa) | Crickets & Grasshoppers. Locals eat them for snacks. It is sold at the local market everywhere in Cambodia. If you fancy, there is even tarantula. Just for bragging rights that you have eaten them without the fear of getting sick, you can head out to AEON Mall food court at the first floor and sample fried cricket and grasshoppers.

What are your favorite local cheap thrills in Phnom Penh?

Phnom Penh Weather
Either you get heat stroke or drenched. Save yourself the hassle by tucking a folding umbrella inside your bag. In June, the heat bit you in the morning toward lunch while quick but heavy downpours in late afternoons cooled down the air and cleansed the vehicle fumes in the city. The predictable weather pattern went on for several weeks. The Country Office staff said we arrived in the hot-rainy season (from May to October, the peak being July to September where it can rain everyday).

Thursday, November 5, 2015

South to South Volunteering: departures and arrivals

Life takes another turn. This time, a thousand miles away from home.

They call it Angkor Wat without the crowd--Banteay Chhmar temple in Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia.

My international volunteering journey kick-started inside a coffee shop in seaside Dumaguete City in Southern Philippines where one afternoon amid the roaring sounds of cars and motorcycles I clicked the send button of my application. In the weeks that followed, I had my first interview--first in a series of phone/Skype interviews. If everything went smoothly as planned, in just a matter of three weeks, I should be somewhere in Indochina lugging around my big backpack.

Once I got the notice that I was accepted, a series of send-off/get-together with my boss, students, colleagues, friends and family were in order. It was fun. I had a drink too many for the first time in a long time! Fun indeed. Though at some point it felt like an elegy. I, for one, avoid drama like the plague!

After a battery of medical laboratory tests in my home city followed by vaccinations (one in Cebu due to unavailability of the vaccine), series of orientations and then the face-to-face Skills in Development Training, medical briefing and pre-departure briefing in Manila, I was all set to fly to Cambodia!

That humid evening middle of June found me in NAIA.

NAIA Terminal 1 was a pleasant surprise! After getting the flak for several years as the World's Worst Airport, it has redeemed itself (though the laglag-bala is pulling it down this time). The high ceiling, mood lighting, polished marble floors in the departure hall, sleek check-in counters and carpeted floor from the immigration counters until the pre-departure areas--it has all the feel of a first-rate boutique hotel. Changi Airport, even.

The check-in staff at Malaysia Airlines asked for my return ticket. I then explained to her the arrangement for international volunteers then showed her my folder containing documents from different government agencies in the Philippines and Cambodia plus the documents from the NGO I work for. She then asked me to pay for the departure tax across her counter. When I came back, in a jiffy, she handed me my boarding passes (one for the Manila-Kuala Lumpur leg and another for KL to Phnom Penh) and tagged my luggage as check-through. I was secretly wishing for an upgrade. No luck this time, though.

It was seamless at the immigration counter. The young immigration officer just asked about the length of my stay in Cambodia and when she saw my Japan Visa, she asked me about my stay in Japan and that was it.

Many in the flight appeared to be kababayan Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). Probably working as household staff in Malaysia for the first time. I could make out sobbing sounds in front and at the back of my row. Many of them with swollen eyes. Some were trying to say their cracking goodbyes as the plane taxied the runway. It was heartbreaking. Then, as if on cue, entered the irritated flight attendant marching in the aisle to remind everyone to switch off their phones.

As the plane took off, classical music was piped-in inside the cabin, which, in a way helped ease out my nerve for flying with the airline which just months ago had a series of air mishaps. The flight attendants soon handed out dinners and choices of orange juice, tea, water or red wine! Of course, I picked red wine. Red wine at cattle class was unheard of before!  

The plane landed in Kuala Lumpur in the small hours. I spent my 6-hour layover time sleeping in one of the benches and by sunrise I got some coffee and sandwich while waiting for the boarding gate to open.

By 8am, I was up in the air again. An hour later, I could see endless fields of green with snaking rivers around them. And before I knew it, I was already inside Phnom Penh International Airport arrival hall. The visa officer that morning seemed grumpy. After I got my visa, I proceeded to the immigration counter where the smiling immigration officer stamped my passport and greeted me welcome to Cambodia!

(next post: In-Country Orientation, Language Training and meeting an interesting group of Pinoys in Phnom Penh, Cambodia)