Cambodia’s Phnom Penh and Siem Reap

Phnom Penh, I remember, it’s just you and I.
 Streets of Phnom Penh

I remember this city as one where I’d spent, hours, on foot, wandering more so than I would in a city, navigating a strange land where I knew I had no way of getting out by train or bus. If I wanted out, I had to search for a ride back home, and even then, as I found out, the streets weren’t numbered in consecutive order. Its jumbled, hastily built streets and buildings were a maze to me for as long as I was there.

 left, school children buying sweets
right, monk awaiting alms

This recent trip (so recent that I still bear the tanned marks of my flip flops on my feet: an unfortunately white V-shaped mark on an otherwise severely browned foot) was to Cambodia, stopping by Phnom Penh before taking a bus into Siem Reap for my ultimate goal: Angkor Wat.

I have been on a (pesce)-vegetarian fast of sorts these last few weeks, hence my food trek through this region have been slightly less than fulfilling. Instead of unveiling tempting morsels and heavenly slivers hidden deep within its streets, I am ashamed to say I have fulfilled neither. However, I hope your appetite for imagery be whet, as I found more than I bargained for. The stellar ruins of Angkor have left something singing in my soul that promises me that this nomadic wanderlust of mine is truly the right one for the future.

 Pub Street, Siem Reap

Cambodian noodles favour the thick, white rice variety of which I’m not a particular fan of. However, they do a mean rendition of the same dish with instant noodle maggi mee, at prices of around US$1.75 along roadside stalls. Currency in Siem Reap is almost always USD, and change you receive is in the country’s riel. On more than one occasion I’ve been bowled over by the affordability of it – a meal of fried noodles and mango lassi can cost US$3, and I’m hopping happy afterwards – only to realise that the costs are comparable to eating back home in a local kopi tiam (coffee shop). Sometimes, giving up the roadside experience for a cafe can be well-rewarded, as cafe prices for dishes start around US$2 as well. Travellers to the aptly named Pub street, however, can rejoice as mugs of beer from several prominent restaurants start at US$0.50. Yes, that is fifty cents, US.

It was in Siem Reap that I tried the traditional Khmer curry (seafood) with rice. The taste is nostalgically reminiscent of a dish I’ve had in Singapore many times, a dish spiced with turmeric and boosted with coconut milk. Cambodian cuisine is less distinctive than its Vietnamese and Thailand neighbours, and seems to borrow discreetly from such countries as well. Memorably, vegetables and noodles are cooked in an oyster / soy sauce mixture heightened – perhaps a tad too distinctively? – with ketchup. Not unwelcomed, of course, but hardly an explosion of flavours on the palate as compared to, say, pad thai or pho.

An unfortunate habit of mine, as I loathe to admit, is that I sometimes get so lost in wandering around streets and corners and looking curiously into cafe windows, that I forget about taking pictures. These street scenes may be all that I have of my wanders in Cambodia, but Angkor is an entirely different universe all its own to uncover.

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