Thursday, December 20, 2007

Day 10: Back to Phnom Penh, Yay!

Our Last Breakfast at Reef Resort

We woke that morning, happy in the thought of returning to Phnom Penh that day. Sadly, Sihanoukville was pleasant enough but there wasn't that much going for us, or perhaps we needed to stay longer to discover its hitherto hidden appeal. Before that though, we had another excellent breakfast to partake of, courtesy of Reef Resort.

HM's oats with maple syrup

my breakfast - another bite of that sandwich

Before we left, we asked Matt if he had any recommendation for us vis a vis good food in Phnom Penh. His reply was unexpected - a stall selling pork noodle soup!

From Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh

A friendly neighbourhood tuk tuk driver took us to the bus station downtown, where our Mekong Express bus waited for us. While not as plush as the Thai long-distance buses, this was still pretty comfortable, particularly considering the fact that our tickets only cost US$6 each. Plenty of bang for our buck, I'd say.

check out those seat pads

complimentary water

a hostess with the mostest

complimentary refreshments

The ride was pretty smooth, and they even threw in a mid-morning snack - bread stuffed with something that tasted and felt like fish floss (yummy!) and a faux cream-filled pandan cake (bleah!). Every now and then, the hostess would provide running commentary along the lines of "We are now passing a very famous temple. You cannot see it from here but...". In any case, the journey on Highway 4 wasn't a long one and there was something occasionally to look at.

definitely the average Cambodians' favourite snack, judging from the number of carts on the streets

The highlight of our journey though was the soap opera played out in front of our very eyes. Picture this: seated a couple of rows in front of us: - on the left of the aisle, a Cambodian girl with a Caucasian man seated on her left, next to the window; on the right of the aisle, a Cambodian girl with a Caucasian man seated on her right, next to the other window, a mirror image. The men were obviously much older, in their 50s; the women were at most 20 or 21. The pair on the left spoke once in a while, quietly. The pair on the right barely interacted, but the man looked angry and the girl was distraught. In fact, the girl on the right sobbed for most of the journey, while the other girl comforted her. Were these marriages of convenience, we speculated. Was the crying girl upset at leaving home? Perhaps she had just realised she was getting the thin end of the stick. Was her man furious at her histrionics? We never got to the bottom of the "mystery".

Four hours later, we were back in Phnom Penh and back at the Pavilion. The bus had dropped us off at one of the company's stations. This one, near Psar Thmei, was overrun with tuk tuk drivers hustling for business. Fortunately, the company had a kind of corral to keep us, the passengers, away from the grasping hands of the crowd. I looked around, trying to decide who to give our business to, and in the end went with a driver who carried a sign advertising himself as an English speaking driver. Oh well, that was as good a sign as any (pun intended).

The Pavilion

We checked into the Pavilion, collected our bags from the store room and were pleasantly surprised to be given the very best room in the house, Room No. 7.

our bit of the balcony

the main pool, as viewed from our balcony

writing desk

lookit at the size of that room

so pretty

one half of the bathroom

the other half of the bathroom

so retro, how cool

The room, like the other two rooms upstairs, opened up to the balcony overlooking the pool. The room itself, most likely the master bedroom in earlier times, was incredibly spacious and beautifully furnished. Tres magnifique!

Lunch at a Local Coffee Shop

Now that we were back in Phnom Penh, we couldn't wait to be out on the streets again. Off we went in search of Matt's pork noodle soup.

hey, a kopi tiam

We found the eatery right outside Psar Thmei, as per Matt's instructions, and lo and behold, it was a very familiar setting indeed. While it wasn't exactly crowded, it got a steady stream of customers, locals in search of a bowl of noodles and tourists looking for a place to rest their feet after all that shopping.

kopi oh peng

teh oh peng of a dubious colour

pork noodle (bee hoon) soup

The noodle soup was also very familiar, a bit like the kind of bee hoon soup we find in school canteens here in S'pore, but we could see why Matt thought the pork was excellent by Cambodian standards. It was good quality lean meat, not the cheaper fattier cuts sold by other establishments.

Psar Thmei and its Surrounds

After lunch, we decided to take a walk round the area. Outside, the sun was blazing which was good for some things!

yup, that's what cars are for...

...and motorbikes

Inside Psar Thmei, business was at a lull, possibly because of the heat.

may as well take a nap

We eventually ended up at Phnom Penh's newest shopping centre, Soryar.

Soryar Shopping Centre

Third world shopping centres can be so depressing. Often dimly lit and stuffed full of third rate goods, pirated or otherwise, with items priced out of reach of all but the most affluent locals, they are ironically looked on, by the rest of the populace, with awe. While tourists prefer the rustic charm and traditional feel of local markets, the locals themselves welcome the arrival of fast food chains (or local lookalikes), the proliferation of mobile phone shops and the luxury of shopping in airconditioned comfort, all of which spell modernity.

the view from the top

On the top floor of the building, outside a (to us) dingy roller skating rink, we discovered a balcony overlooking the city. We were amazed - how did Phnom Penh manage to look so picturesque despite the dirt and grime? As they say, nice from far, perhaps far from nice...

Downstairs there was a big supermarket. Here was an example of modernity put to good use - local produce all nicely packaged in clingfilm and styrofoam boxes. We finally bought some Kampot black pepper to bring home with us, and some fruit for tea.

let's up our fruit intake

Before Dinner

We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying our room, sitting out on our balcony occasionally. Before dinner, we took a walk out to the riverfront, in search of bus tickets for our return journey to Siem Reap. There were several agents for Mekong Express so we chose one and made our enquiries. Tickets were US$9 each and, the agent said, the bus would even pick us up from the hotel. Where were we staying, she asked. At the Pavilion, we replied. She looked at us blankly. We tried in vain to describe the location of the hotel, until I remembered that print out I had shown to our driver, Makara, when we first arrived in Phnom Penh. I whipped it out and showed it to her. She took one look at it and went, "Oh, now I know where it is". Instant deja vu - this was my opportunity to find out what was in that print out. "Oh, the elephants outside..." According to the agent, that's what the write up in khmer said, that the hotel was the compound with the elephant sculptures outside which was of course exactly as it was. For some reason, the English write-up made no mention of the pachyderms and I had assumed that the two write-ups would be the same, albeit in a different language. Now that the mystery had been solved, the bad news was we would NOT be getting picked up by the bus. Too obscure a hotel, I gathered from the agent. In any case, the bus station was at the other end of Sisowath Quay, not too far away, so I wasn't too perturbed.

Dinner at Romdeng

It was a nice balmy evening for a walk. From Sisowath Quay, we strolled all the way to Street 278 on the other side of the Independence Monument. Like Street 240, Street 278 was peppered with restaurants and boutiques, although perhaps not quite as upmarket as those on 240. Our target was another of Mith Samlanh's restaurant ventures, Romdeng.

Romdeng from the outside

While most people opted for a table outside on the verandah, we were happy to be seated inside where we could admire the interiors of this painstakingly refurbished old house.

inside Romdeng

inside Romdeng

inside Romdeng

The decor was traditional Khmer, albeit fused with Western sensibilities, as befitting a restaurant serving "a taste of Cambodia's provinces". There was in fact spiders on the menu but we weren't feeling that adventurous!

watermelon and lime juice

iced tea with lemon and mint

two-coloured pomelo salad with shrimp

Battambang baby pork rib soup with preserved vegetables

fish amoc

homemade honey rice wine

rice flour turmeric crepes with palm sugar and coconut gelato

Overall, we were really happy with Romdeng's food, a rich yet subtle blend of flavours. I dare say it was the best Khmer food we had the whole trip, and for an affordable US$22.50 too. It was a fitting end to our first day back in Phnom Penh.

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