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Phnom Penh Perspective:

A Week on the Wagon: a week of things to do in Phnom Penh that don't involve alcohol

by Bronwyn Sloan

August 2004

Phnom Penh people are always complaining there is little to do in the capital that doesn't involve alcohol. There is some truth to this--social life does revolve around the many bars in the capital, and Phnom Penh still retains the ghost of those heady days when the country was still enmeshed in civil war and bars were rife with gun-toting cowboys.

Despite the best efforts of Phnom Penh's finest to close every bar in town (Martini, River House, Chez Johnnie, Angkor International to name a few. Who gave the boys in blue caffeine?) there are still some they have so far missed, and these remain the social gathering places of much of the expatriate population here.

But everyone needs a break from that lifestyle sometimes. For some reason, this year, people stayed relatively sane during the normal troppo season of April-May and decided to go mad in July-August this year. In order to avoid joining them, I went on the wagon for a week and was pleasantly surprised at just how much there is to do without alcohol here. Mind you, it is a lonely pursuit.

Day 1

Today the most pressing need is distance. Top priority is to get out of this place, with its bars full of friends having a good time. For less than USD10 a day to rent a bike, or up to you to hire a motorbike taxi and driver, its time to hit the province and leave the city behind.

Just 40 kilometers out of town is the ancient capital of Oudong. National Route 5 will take you right past it, or turn off the main road at Psar Prek Pneuv north of town and follow the laterite back roads through rice paddies and sugar palm plantations. At each turn ask directions--a point of the finger from a passerby is all you need. The roads are very good, and the scenery is beautiful.

At the base of Oudong mountain, more than a dozen small restaurants serve rice and basic dishes such as whole roast chicken as well as cold drinks and the usual array of snacks. In sugar palm season, hawkers are busy peeling the brown outer skins off the sweet palm fruit and selling them for a few hundred riel each. Oudong is on the edge of Cambodia's sugar palm capital of Kampong Speu province, and Cambodian tourists buy the fruit from here by the boot load when they come for picnics on the weekend.

Oudong suffered badly during the war. Murals in a temple at the base of the mountain show the suffering the Khmer Rouge wrought, and there is a killing field here, but somehow in the daylight this is a tranquil place. At night, locals say there are ghosts.

The giant statue of Buddha at the top of the stairs leading up the mountain and on the left must have once been one of the great religious statues of Southeast Asia. It copped a direct hit from a US air raid before 1975 and was further abused by victorious Khmer Rouge troops after 1975. The straffe marks on the walls from automatic gunfire also bear witness to the heat of the battles held here, but there is still a peculiar beauty about this place, and it is still obviously a very religious site.

The building on the hill opposite the statue is a Cham mosque.

Turning right along a well marked path, the stupas of kings line the ridge of the naga's back (Oudong is shaped like the mythical dragon, the naga, according to the locals) and at the far end of the mountain, a huge ceremonial stupa looks out onto the plains of Kandal to the mountains of Kampong Chhnang. This stupa was inaugurated by King Norodom Sihanouk himself, and is the new home to an ancient Buddha relic the king brought personally from Sri Lanka.

Children sell flowers, incense and cool drinks at the top of the mountain. There is a breeze here even when the rest of the countryside down below shimmers in heat, and there is always a patch of shade somewhere amongst the trees and temples.

Driving back, the little village of Prek Kdam (Crab Creek) on National Route 5 is home to silversmiths. On the other side of the river, a village of coppersmiths works away. They have been plying their trades here since the kings of the ancient capital used to come to the river to bathe and the people used to offer them gifts of figurines shaped like animals and fruit created by craftsmen from these same villages. A sacred turtle is rumored to live in the Tonle Sap river here, but when local women arrive selling trays full of roasted turtles, doubts as to his ultimate fate have to be raised.

Day 2

A dogged determination to combine tee-totaling with health (the two are not necessarily co-dependent) leads us to--swimming. It used to be hard to find a pool in Phnom Penh that was affordable and hygienic. Now prices seem to have dropped, and despite the mindless destruction of the Royal Phnom Penh during the anti-Thai riots and the abrupt end that brought to one of the most favorite pools for expats in the city, there are still many choices.

Le Royal is a little oasis set away from the road and surrounded by gardens. At night, there are often scheduled events such as movies by the pool, and there is also a children's pool. On weekends it is very busy, but during the week it is almost deserted and they do special deals on booklets of tickets for more than one visit, as well as short-term memberships.

Mi Casa, Imperial Garden (this is a saltwater pool) and Clark Hatch at the Intercontinental are also popular choices. Sure, there are bars nearby all of these places, but there is nothing like feeling like you are doing something healthy to stave off the urge to visit them. Northbridge, way out of town, is a great day trip--especially with children. Northbridge Communities is the residential area that has been set up around Northbridge International School, and the advantage of the distance is the amount of space, with landscaped gardens and plenty of room.

At the end of this, grab a bite to eat at Chi Cha. For USD2 you can have all the chapatis you can eat, plus a choice of curry, vegetables, salad, rice and dahl. The management is Muslim, the food is Halal and they don't serve alcohol, so if you don't bring your own, you won't be tempted.

Day 3

One of Talkin' To A Stranger Bar's enormous lemon sodas just after 5pm followed by the full treatment at In Style on Street 222.

In Style now has a health food restaurant downstairs and a landscaped garden and jacuzzi on the roof. It caters for men and women and has some amazing package deals. Didn't you always want to be fully wrapped in seaweed and mud and left to steam the last of the alcohol soaked impurities out of your frazzled body? No? How about an hour or so of Thai massage or a professional foot massage? There must be something here for you.

In Style has put particular effort into becoming a place couples can come and relax together. Guys, your friends don't have to find out, and it is a well-known fact that facials are becoming more and more popular with men as well as women.

Many people also swear there is something strangely relaxing about having algae smeared all over your face by an attractive beauty therapist. Why not be really brave and ask them to attack you with hot wax? This place is totally self-contained now, and the aim is to provide a place where people can get away from the bustle outside and spend most of the day sipping fruit drinks, relaxing in the jacuzzi and choosing self-indulgent and luxurious beauty treatments from the extensive menu. Well-trained staff, relaxing atmosphere, nice place.

Day 4

Shopping. Hmm... this column is starting to sound like women have an easier time of giving up the booze than men. Oh well...

Shopping for what? There is no limit. Plants are relaxing things and green is good for you, so start there. Across the Japanese bridge are a whole bunch of nurseries selling everything from orchids to trees really cheaply. They sell basic pots, soil and everything else you need and will transport purchases to your house free of charge. If they don't have it, there are more nurseries on the road to the airport and on the road to Takmau, south of town. Bob's Garden Center is also a good source of pre-potted plants as well as good healthy food if you can't be bothered leaving town.

Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market) still has a range of genuine design labels in clothes including Gap and other big names thanks to the garment industry here. The Multi-Fiber agreement ends in December, however, and although the government is doing all it can to keep garment factories here despite losing the favorable quota system that goes with MFA, it might be an idea to stock up now just in case. At the very least, these things could get more expensive. The ascension of Cambodia to the WTO may also play some havoc with the incredible range of CDs, VCDs and DVDs currently available here for a song.

The Sorya Center, on Street 63 next to Psar Thmei is the biggest shopping center in town. This place has every sort of Asian kitsch imaginable. Didn't you always want a poster of Chairman Mao? There is a branch of Nobu in here as well, which is a Japanese store selling Chinese items that takes the supplying of useless ornaments and weird stuff to new levels. Sorya is also one of the best places in the city for shoes.

Day 5

Time to get out again. There are a bunch of boats on the river that cater to tourists. For less than USD10 an hour, these trundle up and down the river showing a new side of Phnom Penh and beyond. If that is beyond your budget, across the Japanese bridge heading for Kampong Cham are numerous ferry ports. These ferries cost as little as 500 riel (12 cents) and stop off on the other side of the Mekong and at various islands. Take a bicycle on board and cycle around some of the rural areas for a while before hopping back on board. It is sort of like a budget magical mystery tour.

Ferries also leave from Chroy Chang Var, which is the peninsular across the river from Phnom Penh, and again for 500 riel you can hop a local ferry from Phnom Penh across to Chroy Chang Var and wander between the Cham Muslim area at the top of the peninsular and the Buddhist-Khmer area at the far end. The sunrise at the far end of the peninsular is beautiful.

Day 6

After getting as far as the other side of the bridge yesterday, the open road beckoned. Drive past the entrance to Chroy Chang Var, past the restaurant strip of Prek Leap, and soon bamboo restaurants on stilts slung with scores of hammocks come into sight. This is Bakheng, famous for its corn.

Legend has it that before the Japanese rebuilt the bridge, the people on this side of the bridge had no reliable way of transporting their corn crop to the capital. Eventually one bright spark hit on the idea of setting up shop and cooking it beside the fields it came from.

Fresh, boiled corn straight from the field gained a bit of a cult following, and after the bridge was rebuilt, the city slickers discovered how nice it could feel to just lie in a hammock, swinging in a cool river breeze, and pig out on fresh, sweet corn. Soon everyone in the area had set up a hammock restaurant, and today it is a great place to get away from the city but still only be ten minutes away. This place is very popular with students and other big groups of Cambodians who want a social experience but don't have a lot of cash. Consequently it is a good place to meet and hang out with the locals, or you can take one of the winding bamboo bridges across to the hammocks far from the road and sit in seclusion. It makes for a very nice afternoon out.

Day 7

If sleep eludes you, get up at dawn and witness the bizarre sight of hundreds of Cambodians exercising. The area at the river near Naga Casino is the most packed with people gyrating in unison in some sort of Chinese stretching act.

Then go back to bed, and when you wake up, realize that you can stop this thing now and get a drink! A week in Phnom Penh without drinking? I didn't say you would want to, but it is possible.

Specific comments regarding this column should be directed to Bronwyn Sloan

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