Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Day 5: Onward to Phnom Penh

Leaving Shinta Mani

It was our last morning at Shinta Mani. We would eventually return to Siem Reap before flying home, but we had made plans to stay elsewhere. While waiting for our transport, we tucked into a hearty breakfast at the hotel. The buffet offered the usual suspects - eggs, ham and bacon, yogurt, fruit and pastries as well as local staples like fried rice.

After breakfast, we had a momentous decision to make. Shinta Mani offered various ways for us rich tourists to contribute directly to the welfare and wellbeing of the ordinary Cambodian. For a relatively small sum of money, we could sponsor a student at Shinta Mani's school of hospitality for a year, half a year or even three months. We could pay for a well to be dugged, or buy a pair of piglets, for a poor farming family. The well would ensure a clean supply of water for the family. The piglets would bear offspring that could be sold for much-needed supplementary income. Sponsoring a student was out of the question. Let's be frank, "thank you" letters and regular updates on progress were all well and good, but we couldn't see ourselves keeping in touch with our beneficiary. It seemed churlish to sponsor someone and then reject the contact, so we decided to go with the other option and of course pigs are way cuter than wells. For US$70, some family became the proud owners of a pair of piglets, yay!

proud parents by now?

At 8.30 a.m. Soryar appeared with a young man in tow. His name was Maraka and he was to be our driver for the day. I asked Soryar if it would be possible for us to stop at various points of interest on the way, to take photographs and so on. There was in fact one major temple complex on route, a short detour from the highway running between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Soryar assured us that Maraka spoke good English and that we would have no problem working this out with him. Maraka would, in fact, also be helping us arrange for a friend to drive us from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in the south. I asked Soryar if we could detour to Kep and Kampot, two small towns on the south coast enroute. Soryar seemed unsure - he said something about the condition of the roads being questionable, nothing like Highway 6, the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, he said. No worries, Maraka would settle everything.

Before he left, Soryar expressed his utmost gratitude for our custom and offered his blessings for our wellbeing and that of our families. He then presented HM and I with a gift each. We would find out later, when we got round to opening the boxes, that the scarfs he had presented us with were emblazoned with details of his various businesses, including advertisements for the family guesthouse, the Golden Mango Inn. We had to give it to him - the man's forte was PR.

To Phnom Penh, from Siem Reap

Our drive to Phnom Penh started with a visit to another makeshift "gas station" to top up the gas tank. Maraka asked me for an advance from the US$55 fee Soryar had negotiated for him, to pay for the gas. For a split second, I hesitated but then I remembered how Narin had said that gas was really expensive for the average Cambodian.

hill myna at the petrol kiosk

While waiting for the tank to be filled, I tried engaging Maraka in a discussion about a possible detour to that temple complex. Maraka's response was most discouraging. All he could say was that it was a long way from the highway. I countered by showing him the map, how it was but a short distance from Kompong Thom, a major town we would be passing through. He refused to budge. Oddly enough, at no point did he ask for more money. I considered offering him more but somehow I didn't think the money was the point.

Indeed, Maraka drove like a bat out of hell. We weren't wasting any time on this drive, no sirree, not if he could help it. With that, the whole point of engaging our own driver went out the window. We could have taken one of the buses for only US$9 but then we would not have been able to stop to do any sightseeing. I figured this way we could have it both ways - a faster drive and the flexibility to stop as and when we pleased. I figured wrong. Maraka drove with a vengeance, sounding his horn at all and sundry and overtook others at will. We didn't dare interrupt him, fearing dire consequences if we did. We watched, resigned, as the scenery whizzed past.

It wasn't that there was anything terribly wrong with Maraka. We hired him to drive and he drove. He just wasn't about to explain to us why the hay stacks in this part of Cambodia seemed different from those around Siem Reap. We were just beginning to realise that the level of service offered by Soryar and Narin was not typical of other drivers - the effort to go out of their way to show us what was typically Cambodian, the witty comments delivered drily. They were both driver and guide. When we saw people transporting car batteries on the back of their motorcycles, for example, Narin explained to us that the majority of Cambodian households, located as they were outside cities, did not have electricity, but, like most of the world, Cambodians were addicted to the tele. People would hook their TV sets up to car batteries which, for a few bucks, could be charged to last for a month. He added that Cambodians would rather part with hard-earned dollars than miss their favourite soap operas. To be fair, Narin and Soryar, though much older than Maraka, seemed much better educated. I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that they were graduates. Maraka on the other hand seemed to be pretty much a working class lad.

In the end, we drove across the Japanese Friendship Bridge, into Phnom Penh, in four hours flat, a record of sorts I am sure.

The Pavilion, Phnom Penh

Getting to Phnom Penh was one thing, locating our hotel was another. First, Maraka thought it was the Paragon Hotel we were looking for. Fortunately, the Paragon on Sisowath Quay was not far from where the Pavilion was supposed to be. I told him that the Pavilion was behind Wat Botum aka Botum Pagoda, according to the printout taken from the hotel's website. We circled around the area several times but to no avail. Maraka parked the car along the road, coincidentally opposite the Singapore Embassy, and sat there, stumped. Meanwhile, all I could think of was that a toilet would be nice! Finally, he took my printout from me, took one look at it and went, "Oh, I know where it is." Right.

We drove back to Wat Botum and Maraka stopped the car at a nondescript wooden door opposite it, one flanked by two guards. Next to the door, a small discreet sign said, "The Pavilion". We had finally found the place, phew. Before leaving, Maraka promised to be back in three days with our driver for the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville run. I wasn't so sure this was a good idea, but what other option did we have...

The Pavilion was a French colonial style villa turned hotel. We hadn't been been able to secure a room in the main building (where there was free wireless access) for the first part of our stay, but our room in the newly built annex came with a private pool, a nice bit of "compensation" I must say.

our room, from the outside

the hall outside our room

our bed in Room 11

good solid facilities though not luxurious

at least it had a TV

our first glimpse of our private pool

so Miami!

It wasn't five-star luxury but it was most aesthetically pleasing in a shabby chic sort of way, as HM put it. We looked forward to adding this little hotel to our list of favourites, all small but unique hotels.

The Shop

Walking out of the Pavilion in search of a late lunch, we first went one way along Ph 19, to look for a pho shop near the Independence Monument. Unfortunately the shop appeared to have been replaced by some other eatery since the current edition of Lonely Planet was published.

In the glare of the afternoon sun, I almost succumbed and suggested walking into the nearest airconditioned cafe. It was HM who pointed out that the said eatery was devoid of customers, not exactly a sign of good food. We walked back the other way along Ph 19, till we got to the famed Ph 240, an avenue lined with trees and the trendiest boutiques, spas and cafes this side of the Tonle Sap river. That's where we found The Shop, Phnom Penh's to-go cafe for expatriates hankering after the good life.

one of our favourite eateries in Phnom Penh

a quiet afternoon inside

check out that ceiling!

We wasted no time in ordering a huge lunch.

lychee and mint cooler (right) and pear and honey smoothie (centre), in chic glasses

pumpkin and goat's cheese salad, with sundried tomatoes

roast lamb and pesto sandwich

coarse country pate

walnut (foreground) and lemon and chocolate tartlets

cafe au lait

The food ranged from good to excellent. The salad could have used a stronger flavoured green like rocket, in contrast to the intense flavours of goat's cheese and sundried tomatoes, but we conceded that rocket may be a little hard to find in Cambodia. Other than that, everything was top notch, particularly the breads and pastries. The pear and honey smoothie came highly recommended and indeed it was sensational. The best part was the bill only came up to US$14.25.

Satiated, we headed back to the Pavilion for a little downtime by the pool. Cool!

A Walk Around Sisowath Quay

In the evening, we went out for a walk, to explore the surrounding area. The sun was already starting to set, so there were few photo opportunities. I was content to just soak in the sights on this first night; there would be time and opportunity for pics later on.

what building is this?!

We walked all the way past the Royal Palace and up Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh's riverfront boulevard. Unfortunately much of the riverfront was behind hoardings, undergoing some kind of redevelopment, so we focused our attention on the strip of hotels, guesthouses, bars, restaurants and travel agencies that formed the nucleus of Phnom Penh's tourist district.

Camory cookie boutique

In between the usual suspects were smaller establishments such as a Singaporean-owned cookie boutique, Camory. The latter packaged Cambodian cookies for a tourist/expatriate clientele. From the Japan Credit Bureau sticker on the door, I'd say it was popular with the Japanese. Predictably, HM was enamoured by the cookie flavours (JCB sign = HM likes!) and we left with half a dozen "num khmer" cookies (honey flavoured?) and cinnamon cookies, for US$2.

Dinner at Khmer Borane

The onslaught of traffic noise, vehicle exhaust, and tuk tuk drivers, restaurant touts and child vendors all hawking their services and wares concurrently, wore our nerves down after a while. We decided to step into a restaurant, not because we were hungry (we were in fact still stuffed from the afternoon's feasting at The Shop), but because we needed a break from the continual buzz outside.

Khmer Borane was a Lonely Planet recommendation. When we sat down, there was only one other patron inside, a fellow traveller, not an encouraging sign. Perhaps we were early for dinner...

lok lak or grilled beef salad

fish amok

The food was a let down, quite insipid really. The beef was chewy and the amok was so so. And the bill came up to US$10.50, for the food and two drinks (coke light and jasmine tea). A blotch on LP's track record!

After that uninspiring dinner, we retreated to the sheltered confines of the Pavilion and the comfort of our four-poster bed. Guiltily, we had to concur with the memsahibs (or the French equivalent thereof) that a villa was necessary for one's sanity. (I found out later that the villa had in fact been built by King Sihanouk's ageing mother so that it would be easy for her to go to Botum Pagoda just across the road. The excesses of royalty, tsk.)

inside the main building

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