"The Pearl of the Orient"
You've trusted your eyes your whole life, but visit Cambodia and you just may start doubting them. Well that sums up my thoughts in a nutshell when I landed up in Phnom Penh last month. I decided to fly to Cambodia because as a travel agent, I am always running out of new destinations to offer my customers and adding Cambodia to our new brochures is an excellent excuse to fly.
Would you believe Cambodia offers Bangladeshi travelers “Visa on arrival “? But don't you even dare to land up in the country and expect to cross the immigration line. There is no way a Bangladeshi traveler can leave the airport without a bond / guarantee by a local company/Hotel/ citizen . Unless you have a form filled out by your counterparts/hotel representative/relatives or friends in Cambodia who act as your guarantor, you are likely to spend the night in the airport and head on back to Dhaka on the next flight. You can obtain a visa from Delhi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore but the visa procedures are lengthy and some of the financial documents required are absurd. My turning up in Phnom Penh was to sign the agreement with a local company who will act as guarantor. I don't mean to scare away potential visitors, the Cambodians are very friendly people and even the immigration staff, the friendliest I have seen, they smile, grin, wink while you wait. …but you need that signed guarantee letter.
The entrance to the national museum
Landing at Phnom Penh Airport I am greeted by my guarantor at the Visa on Arrival counter. It takes a little longer than the usual to get the processing done but I am escorted to the arrival hall after 30 minutes where two gentlemen are waiting for me. One is my Cambodian driver and the other is a fellow Bangladeshi who heads one of the Bangladeshi pharmaceutical companies doing business in Phnom Penh. My Bangladeshi friend follows me with his car while I am led through the city by the Cambodian driver giving me a narrative in his broken English. He says people in Phnom Penh go to bed early, he isn't kidding, the roads are deserted except for a few cars and motorbikes, I am thinking well it is a week night after all, I wasn't expecting Las Vegas.
I am taken to Holiday Villa Hotel, a Malaysian hotel chain on Monivong street and as I step out of the car, I know I have made a mistake. The lobby setting irritates me and the relaxed staff even more. I am taken to the top floor to a massive room that hasn't seen renovations in a decade and as if this single man needs more space, the connecting door to the second massive deluxe room is wide open. There is no way I can close the door , giving me the opportunity to sleep in both the beds if I want . I decide to order room service and the phone does not work so I go down to the restaurant and the waiter says the chef just left and there is no room service after 1130 pm. loneliness is a starving man sprawled in a two bedroom hotel room flipping channels on the TV.
Next morning at 7 am, a ravenous Bangladeshi hot trots to the breakfast buffet, cutting the queue to hit the hot food section only to be stopped in his tracks when confronted by a huge Malaysian breakfast buffet !!! What else can go wrong in this trip ? No room service , no phone , Internet in the business centre is down and Malay roti and chicken curry for breakfast ? Starving and cursing , I step out by 7: 10 into the busy Monigvong Street with the sun shining brightly, a glorious day to explore the city of Phnom Penh.
The morning rush hour traffic of motorcycles, cycles and Japanese Sedans with horns blaring shows the country's on the road to recovery, the economy is booming once again. Phnom Penh, with its flourishing tourism industry surprisingly does not have a commercial taxi service , I get on a locally made transport that is run by an old Honda 50 cc with an attachment like a horse carriage on its back, sits 6 people easy, a locally made Tuk Tuk and it's a pleasant drive up four blocks on Monivong street. The buildings are mostly all old French architecture with some being pulled down for high rise skyscrapers, the French presence is everywhere, signboards written in Cambodge and French , very interesting. I find the office and head into the meeting with Mahtini, an Indian lady who is in Phnom Penh with her husband who works in an Indian pharmaceutical company. My first request to her is to change my hotel immediately, I beg her to get me out of Holiday Villa. She is surprised, she says to me “Oh so sorry Mr. Farhan, we thought you are a Muslim so we selected a Muslim hotel with halal food and a mosque nearby”. Speechless I ask her to get her staff on the phones to find me a good hotel. We start on our meeting with the Managing Director of the company and he looks content with the huge traffic he gets from Malaysia, China, Thailand and Korea, not to mention the French and the Americans, he is surprised to learn from me that Bangladeshis are adventurous tourists and the growth for outbound tours is steadily rising.
In between the early morning meeting, I ask Mahtani to check with the hotel issue. Phnom Penh has a decent share of hotels within the small city limits, good dozen or so properties are operating and new hotels are sprouting up as tourism goes into high gear. After a good one hour search, not a single room comes up available, much to my disappointment. Mahtani and I hit the road after the meeting to inspect the top hotels in the city. Mahtani is an excellent guide and having stayed in Phnom Penh for over two years she has the city map drawn on her palm. She explains to me that Phnom Penh is a small city with a handful of major thoroughfares ; getting lost in this city is a difficult task. We cruise down the open boulevards of the main city and I am in love with the sheer beauty of the palaces, pagodas, monuments and the greenery of this town. Our first stop is the Phnom Penh Hotel, an old and lovely property that has been renovated, five star all the way (checked if they had rooms Nada ). The Royal Raffles is a class affair and the most prestigious in town along with the Intercontinental , the location is great and the property is pristine, no rooms available again. I am like a typical tourist , looking out of the window and documenting everything I see, the pretty streets lined by trees, flourishing construction business , with new investments from Korea, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Phnom Penh is becoming a happening city.
We turn on the road leading to the heavily fortified US Embassy and just opposite the Embassy separated by an immaculate trimmed garden space is the Sunway Hotel, another great looking property, I am thinking with all these hotels in the city, I have to go back to my two bedroom nightmare ? More hotel spotting and this time Saron drives us to the famous riverfront area . The drive takes us through some of the city's prettiest avenues and boulevards, beautiful roundabouts with statues and pristine gardens and playgrounds; we pass by the Royal Palace which is a gorgeous monument from the Khmer dynasty and very close to the waterfront.
Our next stop , The Hotel Cambodiana with its back to the Ton Le Sap River is beautiful, one of the oldest hotels in Cambodia , the Cambodiana has maintained her self well, graceful and elegant are the words that come to mind. No use asking for rooms, already tried ! We drive down to the main waterfront area where some of the best hotels, bars, cafes are located, Sisowath Quay used to be a potholed dusty road only a few years ago says Saron to Mahtani and I but now has been transformed into a world class promenade, with the gentle river on the one side and renovated old buildings turned into restaurants, cafes, bistros and small boutique Inns on the other . A big tourist hangout , here you will see people sitting outside cafes sipping on drinks, enjoying lunch and the breeze from the river, this is where you want to be actually. We decide to stop by the famous landmark in the promenade, the FCC (Foreign Correspondent Club) which opened its doors in 1993 , tastefully decorated in the old French colonial architecture, this plush club which also has the Café Fresco Deli and the Pacharan Spanish tapas bar within the property . We go up to the first floor to have a drink and look out at the great Mekong river, the glass panes gives you one of the best view of the river, pretty damn brilliant if you ask me.
Famished by lunch time, Mahtani asks me if I want rice, curry and daal ? I tell her that is the last thing on my mind, let us find a local Cambodian restaurant and do justice to the local cuisine. Our driver Saron takes us to a touristy spot full of busloads of tourists and we find a lovely restaurant with a humungous buffet spread of Cambodian, Indochine and continental spread. Saron joins us and explains each dish to me; the Cambodian cuisine is quite like Vietnamese, Laotian & Thai but not as hot and spicy as Thai. Lunches usually always has to have a samlar ( a watery soup ) which is eaten with the main course , I fill up a bowl of Samlar Machu Trey (sweet and sour soup with fish), a very refreshing broth with a distinctive flavour of prahok, a pungent fermented fish sauce similar to the Vietnamese Nuac Cham. Saron comes back from the buffet station with a plate of Muang An, a Khmer styled grilled chicken drumsticks, nice juicy wing drumsticks with skin on, crispy on the outside, smothered in a sweet chili sauce. The Cambodian styled fresh spring rolls are delightful, it seems that the rice paper is steamed, it's soft and rubbery with plenty of mint leaves, just the way I like it. Coming to the main course I go for the Khar Si Kreoung, beef curry made with coconut water and tamarind. Succulent soft beef chunks cooked in a thick gravy of coconut water and tamarind (low calories here ) , not bad at all. Mahatani , a vegetarian comes back from a salad bar on the terrace with a Cambodian styled papaya salad with strands of long beans and exotic spices mixed with sugar and lemon juice. It is hot as red chilies had been grounded with the lemon juice in a mortar, but the chili heat makes you want more and more. I heap a plate of filleted catfish rolled like a “nari maki” with some sort of a cream sauce in between and topped with wasabe (definitely not Cambodge) but absolutely gorgeous, flavour of the catfish with the creamy sauce and the kick of the wasabe is amazing.
After a hearty meal, Mahtani says that its time for some siesta! Apparently the locals start work by 8 am and then take a two-three hour break for lunch, returning back to work till evening, wow! I thought only the Spanish did that? Mahtani says bye to me, walks across the street to her house and Saron takes over as my guide for the rest of the day. How about shopping he says, “Phnom very good for good shopping Mr. Farhan”. He is taking me to the “Russian Market”, we arrive at this closed market, a huge cluster of open stalls covered in tin and plastic and my heart stops, oh no Phnom Penh's “Chatuchak”!, Phnom Penh's own “Bongobazar”! The last I stepped into Bangobazaar and Chatuchack was in 1993 and haven't gone back since. Saron proudly shows me the local products and handicrafts as we lose ourselves in a maze of bustling shops selling cheap curios. With a strained smile and the occasional nodding of my head I touch, browse, haggle with the sales ladies, all the while wondering how much oxygen is left for me to get out of this hellhole. I know my wife and my mother would like this place but I need an escape exit and tell Saron to take me to another market. “Oh Mr. Farhan, you want air condition right, no problem, come on lets go”.
Our next shop is a tourist handicraft shop, fully air conditioned and I know I am going to be persuaded by beautiful hostesses to spend all my money here in this one shop. I am prepared and relieved by the cool air and refreshing green tea as I am led like a lamb to the slaughter to the jewellery section. Jade and precious stones are abundant in Cambodia and good quality too, their silks are also very good, I do not find the art works as exciting as I did in Vietnam, you can only appreciate Buddhist art for so long. Cambodian wood crafting is very good , the works are intricately designed. The hostesses bow and smile graciously as I hand over the plastic and pay for the shopping but I am happy that I am getting quality stuff that won't be turning into rags after the first wash.
Saron is on full swing “tour guide” mode as he plans on taking me to Central Market, this old building looking very much like our New Market. I step into the landmark building as it is Cambodia's oldest market, only to find the same artifacts as in the Russian Market only slightly pricier. Saron insists I go to the Olympic Market, a fairly modern structure and a great place for whole sale shopping, We drive around the place but I refuse to get out of the air conditioned comfort of the car. We skip the war museum much to the disappointment of my guide. Saron tells me “Mr. Farhan there are many, many heads in the museum “ I nod and smile thinking I should have seen the skeletons of Pol Pot's genocide before lunch. As we drive back to the hotel he starts a conversation about how much I will love Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, the other two major cities in Cambodia. I tell him that I will not be visiting these two cities this time.
Saron's eyes pop out , thinking I must be a moron not to visit the most famous landmark in Cambodia? The ruins of Angkhor Wat in Siem Reap is why millions of tourists keep flocking into Cambodia, and now with its inclusion in the new 7 wonders of the world, Siem Reap has double the hotels that Phnom Penh has. Sihanoukville is the seaside resort town in Cambodia and though commercial tourism is just on the rise, it is still a great new virgin territory for sun and sand lovers. Pity I do not have the time to go to either town on this trip I promise Saron that he will take me and my group the next time I come with a posse.
The independence monument
Having said that I tread lightly on the subject of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime and the impact it has had on the people of Cambodia. Saron laughs and says “impact? Pol Pot Kill half my country Mr. Farhan !”. He says that he was a student back then when Pol Pots Army were advancing towards the capital, Saron's father was a motor garage owner. When the troops took over the city, the people actually admired Pol Pot's ideologies, but then things began to turn as families were forced to give up their businesses and go back to the village and work the land, Pol Pot's ideals revolved around an agriculture revolution which never really worked, harsh austerity measures & impoverished hardship turning the population into slaves . Saron was forced out of school like all other children and were sent back to their provinces to farm, he was lucky he did not lose half his family, almost all Cambodians people have lost family and relatives during the Khmer regime . Pol Pot almost wiped out a third of his country's population during his tenure and no one was spared, the intelligentsia, the middle class, the upper class, the peasants, it was perhaps the worst kind of genocide ever seen in history. What is ironical , is that the current Hun Sen led Government still has three senior Pol Pot lieutenants in its Cabinet. Wonder how they cross the streets everyday ?
What can you say after that but remain silent. Saron looks at me and says “Don't worry Mr. Farhan Cambodia good now, you see this car I have three now, 2 vans and one car, business is good, so you send people from Brangrdresh to me”. You have to salute these people, the sheer resilience and spirit to live after so many years of atrocities, violence and misery. I learn a valuable history lesson sitting in a car, coming straight from the mouth of the people who lived through it. Phnom Penh was a short trip for me but it opened up the gateway to visit this country. As I sit in the transit lounge in Phnom Penh Airport I am impressed by the this quaint little airport, neat and clean and very pretty, just like the country. Wait Cambodia, the Bangladeshis are coming to town soon!!
The writer is a Travel Writer and Managing Director of Travel House Limited
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