Ever since the devastating turmoil imposed by the despotic years of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge in the late ’90’s, Cambodia has been struggling under a repressive Communist government to rise again from the ashes. On the outside it appears that the country is achieving this as evidenced by the flocks of tourists visiting the ancient city of Ankor in Siem Reap and the rampant development of slick new condos, hotels, gourmet restaurants, and fancy vehicles in Phnom Penh or PP, the capital of the country. It appears to have all the trappings of a world-class city, but as we know all too well appearances can often be deceiving. You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence of poor services…more trash everywhere…and too many people living in poor housing or practically on the streets because of lack of employment and the rising cost of living. Yes, there is still a long way for this country to go to get back on its feet.
So why have I returned to Phnom Penh and Cambodia for the fourth time? I have finished my shopping…at least most of it…and I have seen most of the country before.
There are two…no three… reasons why I have returned:
- To meet up with a friend I met several years ago in Bangkok who lives and works here.
- To splurge a little by eating out at good NGO (non – government organizations) restaurants with some of the best food in SE Asia.
- To spend my tourist dollars to support the sweet Cambodian people who work so tirelessly in the tourist business.
My friend, Michelle, is a journalist for the Cambodia Daily newspaper and fellow Canadian originally from Quebec. She has lived in Phnom Penh for more than a decade covering a fledgling art scene in hopes it will help give the people a better sense of their historical past, something which has been sorely missing in this country. She loves Cambodia for the people and their perseverance, as I do. She endures the corruption, the dirt, the poverty, and the crime by striving to help all the people she employs and meets here in her daily life. Like many journalists today, she faces cuts in her salary and the possibility that her paper could fold. Yet, she still keeps the interests of her cook, her cleaning lady and her tuk tuk drivers at the top of her list even though she finds it increasingly difficult to pay them. As she puts it, their livelihood depends a great deal on her.
As soon as I arrived she and her driver came to pick me up at my boutique hotel, The Little Garden http://www.littlegarden.asia/and whisked me off to “Romdeng” one of the first restaurants established by a well-known and respected NGO called Friends http://friends-international.org. Do take the time to look up this group of dedicated individuals who have done so much for this country. This is their mandate:
“We are a leading social enterprise saving lives and building futures of the most marginalized children and youth and their families across the world.”
Michelle and I celebrated our reunion with a glass of wine…the first of my splurges… and delicious Khymer food in a lovely garden setting.
To further my pace of self-indulgence on my second night here, I suggested we meet for dinner at another well-known restaurant in PP… FCC or the Foreign Correspondence Club http://fcccambodia.com. FCC had its beginnings in the late ’90’s after the Pol Pot days as a place for foreign correspondents and aid workers to eat, drink, and share stories of the horrors of war. It became a PP icon. Unlike most private correspondent clubs, this one is public and run as a not-for-profit. I first went there over five years ago and was disappointed in the food. It was nothing to rave about and was expensive. Now the food is tasty, nicely presented, and decently priced. We splurged once more and had a cocktail ‘two for one’ special. The ambience and decor at FCC have remained as they always have been since its inception. You can sit on the roof top terrace looking out at the Tonley Sap River with the twinkling lights of the many boats as they sail past.
Although most of my shopping was completed and shipped from Thailand, I was hoping my buyer’s eye could find some hand-made items made out of recycled materials which the Cambodians are masters at creating. I found my store as I was walking along Sisowath Quay on the river front. With the help of an eager young sales clerk who spoke fairly good English, I picked up some small money pouches or pencil cases made of recycled materials by victims of the landmines.
My time in Phnom Penh and Cambodia is almost over, and I’m ready to go. I accomplished everything I had set out to do. Michelle and I had a fantastic time splurging and indulging ourselves…. a rarity for both of us. I enjoyed every meal I had while I was here including the breakfasts at my hotel which were delicious and varied with real coffee. I skipped lunches which I made up for with dinners, wine and cocktails and all met my expectations. With the help of the tuk tuk drivers, I was able to give my feet a well-deserved rest after all the walking I did in Chiang Mai. And, I found some saleable items to take back home which I know will be a hit because they support a very good cause. Tomorrow I will say ‘good-bye’ to Cambodia and sail down the Mekong River for Viet Nam. Another adventure awaits!