21 November to 6 December 2019
Now, well into our second month in Phnom Penh, we’re feeling like we’re finally settling into a groove. With festival time behind us (for now) and a lease signed on a long-term rental, we’re able to redirect our energy towards other things.
We’re still in limbo until we can move into our new place in January, but it’s nice not to have our days consumed by house hunting and to know that we have a specific amount of time in our current place, which will allow us to unpack a couple of the big suitcases.
When we arrived a month ago, this place was a funky little watering hole on our street called “Lego Bar”. A day or two after we moved in, the place shut down, and looked progressively non-functional in the following weeks.
Then the Lego figurine came down and squatters took over. Then, the work began.
I hadn’t noticed the extent of the work until we moved into the 3-bedroom unit that faces this direction. The building looked like it was a nice villa at one point. I thought maybe a renovation was underway.
Two weeks of the constant sound of jackhammers ensued. At one point I said to Lori, you know, in most countries they’d just take a digger to that and bring the whole thing crashing down in a day.
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A few days later, that’s exactly what happened.
Of course, Noe was absolute mesmerized by the thunderous noise and destruction when we’d pass the lot each day. The rest of the neighborhood seemed to be as well.
Days later, it was a parking lot.
Upper terrace at Backyard Cafe. My office for the day. Gorgeous late November morning. We’ve hit something of a cold spell here in Phnom Penh compelling us to dress the boys in pants and long sleeves, which we haven’t done in almost a year.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Once the temps dipped to highs in the low seventies, I even dusted off the ol’ pantaloons, which I typically reserve for temples and date nights.
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We like this local spot half way between Lori’s work and our apartment. It’s oddly reminiscent of a lot of places we’d visit in Laos, but a rare find in these parts.
I like what we’ve had of Khmer food so far, but it seems to lack the distinctiveness of other cuisines throughout Southeast Asia. No denying that lok lak is a quintessential Khmer dish, but everything else seems like stuff we’ve had elsewhere in the region.
We’re missing the freshness and the flavors of traditional Lao/ Northern Thai food — laab (spicy meet salad), Lao sausage, kao piak (Lao noodle soup), sticky rice, mok pa or mok gai (steamed fish or chicken), jaew (Lao dip), etc., as well as the availability of fresh Vietnamese food everywhere (pho, fresh spring rolls, bo bun, banh mi) that we could get for a buck a dish.
But we are enjoying having access to a variety of international foods that we didn’t have ready access to in Laos, like Mediterranean, African, and a wider diversity of Latin American cuisine.
As we were sitting watching the sun go down, Noe’s eagle eye spotted our apartment in the distance. Lori and I likely wouldn’t have taken notice, but Noe always spots big green. If you can’t find it in the pic above, here’s a closer shot.
Another gorgeous day in Phnom Penh. Since the end of the rains, every day seems to be like this. Following the rainy season in Laos, then three weeks in stormy and overcast Malaysia, the blue skies are even more striking.
Perfect plane spotting weather too.
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We have a clear view facing north of one of the take-off and final approach paths for Phnom Penh International. I pick up Noe after school and we have 30-45 minutes together before mommy and Riley get home. Noe started a game where he’d try to spot as many airplanes as he could. Despite Phnom Penh having a population in the ballpark of two million, the airport sees little traffic in comparison to the likes of Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok. It wasn’t long until Noe tired of the game.
Fortunately, we were able to liven things up a bit with the help of daddy’s handy-dandy Flightradar24 app. Each day, when Noe comes home, we take a look on the radar to see what’s coming and going. I show him a pic of the actual airplane from the app and then he stands in quiet anticipation, eyes locked to the sky waiting to spot it.
You can’t possibly imagine how exciting this is for Noe. Easily keeps him happily entertained for a solid half hour, which is a lot for a 3.5 year old.
One of the big surprises of Phnom Penh has been the craft beer industry. We’re constantly learning of new breweries in town. One evening while in Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market) neighborhood, we stopped by Riel Brewing Co. It’s a low key affair in the ground floor of an old shophouse and took us several minutes to actually find the place.
Another unpretentious, no frills brewpub hidden away on a quiet street with just a smattering of regulars hanging out. It almost felt like we’d walked into some dude’s house who happened to have a few friends over.
There isn’t much to the operation, but they manage to keep production up, it seems, as I constantly see their beers on tap across the city. Pretty good stuff, too.
Wat Phnom (Hill Temple) sits atop Phnom Penh (Penh’s Hill), for which the city is named, and is easily our favorite city landmark so far.
There isn’t much to the temple, but the site is full of history and very picturesque. Plus, it’s one of the few places in town where you can stretch your legs under the cover of towering shade trees.
There’s a small fee to enter the complex (US$1), and a large public playground just outside of the complex that is free of charge.
The U.S. Embassy, of all things, is just across the street as well (if you’re ‘Merican and need any ‘Merican citizenship services like we did when we got Noe’s passport renewed…yep, the kid already filled up his passport, which has caused mommy and daddy all sorts of headaches, but we’ll save that for another post).
Now, how in the world the U.S. landed that prime piece of real estate in Cambodia of all places, is beyond me.
The complex dates to the 14th century, but aspects of the temple have been rebuilt several times since then, most recently in the 1920s.
This is Noe in temples. It may just be one of his favorite things that we do. He’ll happily sit quietly taking it all in and rarely wants to leave when it’s time to go. Sometimes, like today, he’ll hang out with mommy or daddy, but often he likes to sit alone in a quiet space.
That’s right! It’s matching bro shirt day!
We thought it might be fun to take a tuk-tuk across the Japanese bridge to the other side of Phnom Penh to see what we can see — maybe grab a drink and some dinner at a local joint along the Tonle Sap river and get a different perspective on things.
More often than not, we’re pleased with the outcome of our urban adventures. Heading across the river to Chrouy Changva was a rare exception…
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Though a very short distance as the crow flies, it was a very long (not to mention, expensive) tuk tuk ride from our place near Independence Monument to this spot on the opposite bank, largely due to traffic bottlenecks near Wat Phnom and around the bridge.
We had the driver drop us at a point near the bridge and planned to walk south towards the landmark Sokha Hotel on the tip of the peninsula.
Riverside (Old Town) Phnom Penh, as viewed from Chrouy Changva.
So we walked, and walked, and walked. For all the lights and activity that we observed from various perches downtown, we were stunned to find how little there was along the quay.
It seems that a short while ago, there were at least a dozen local restaurants and bars lining the river. On this evening, however, not one of them was functional. Every single restaurant and bar we passed appeared to be under major renovation or construction. Absolutely nothing was functional along the entire 1.5 km stretch we walked.
It was easily the most disappointing outing we’ve had so far in Phnom Penh.
To add insult to injury, a freak storm suddenly rolled in and the skies opened up, trapping us at the nearest non-functional eatery. Judging by the stocked fridges and food displays, it was apparent the place had been serving food until very recently. We asked if we could get a drink and have a seat. They declined.
By this time, it was pouring, so we opted for a Grab car rather than a tuk tuk. As there are far fewer of these in town (especially on this side of the river), we waited a while.
Due to traffic and weather, it took 40 minutes to cover the 3 km back over the bridge to Riverside.
On the way, we rode alongside this coconut van, which was torture for Noe. He loves sipping his fresh coconuts.
So much for our little adventure across the Tonle Sap. Not sure we’ll be making it back there any time soon.
Hauling rebar in Phnom Penh.
In other news, Lori was suddenly knocked on her butt by some sort of nasty flu thing, the likes of which she hadn’t experienced before.
By the end of the week, Noe wasn’t feeling well. Then, Lori. So, the unenviable job of caring for two sickos and a baby fell on you-know-who. Noe’s status quickly improved, but Lori’s got worse.
Out of nowhere, Lori was hit by the worst headache she’s ever had. A massive constant pounding headache that started in the evening and only got worse with time.
By morning, it had become unbearable. We wondered if it might be something like meningitis, or even dengue. I took the kids to school and Lori got herself to an international clinic.
I wanted her to go to the boys’ clinic, Raffles Clinic, which was just a few blocks away and is associated with International SOS and the Thai-staffed Royal Phnom Penh Hospital. We really liked the docs there and knew our insurance was accepted.
But Lori wanted to go to another international clinic in BKK1 (which I won’t name but starts with a “K” and rhymes with “schema”) because they had an inpatient care unit, which she could be transferred to immediately if needed.
After dropping off the boys, I arrived at the clinic fully expecting that Lori was well on her way to getting her painful and debilitating condition (now in it’s 16th hour) addressed by a medical professional (other than herself), only to find her sitting in pain in the lobby.
Apparently, there was an issue with the insurance and they refused to see her until it was resolved. Speaking directly to a rep from our insurance on the phone, they clearly stated in no uncertain terms that this clinic that starts with a “K” and rhymes with “schema” does indeed accept our insurance.
But the idiot billing manager at the clinic adamantly denied any such agreement. After much unnecessary coaxing, we got her to speak to the rep directly. And would you know it, our insurance was accepted at the clinic.
Another ten minutes passed before finally seeing a medical professional, who had to have been the least professional health provider either of us have encountered. The two of us have been seen by doctors, PAs, nurses, medical assistants, you name it, across numerous countries in Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe (not to mention the U.S.), but this lady was in another class.
For one, she looked like she was 15. Her English was fine, but her demeanor was far from professional. After Lori giving a detailed account of what she’d been dealing with for the better part of a day and the excruciating pain she’d been in, a run down of all her symptoms, a clear timeline of events, and how her symptoms were different than anything she had ever experienced, the doctor pauses thoughtfully, then asks, “So, what kind of symptoms are you experiencing?” After listing, yet again, all of the symptoms, the doctor concludes (without touching Lori or running a single test), “I think it is dehydration headache. You should drink water and rest.”
Lori has had her fair share of dehydration headaches living in the tropics, and this most certainly was in another category. By this point, she was beginning to have severe pain in her back, and chills throughout her body, but only a mild fever.
Lori pushes back a bit at the doctors hasty diagnosis. The doctor doubles down on her diagnosis, recommending that Lori go home and take some Vitamin B.
At that point, I’ve had enough. I knew well what level of care to expect from a local clinic, but didn’t expect such a gross lack of basic knowledge and professionalism at an expensive international clinic in BKK1. I’m concerned we’ve wasted way too much time at this clinic and whatever is ravaging Lori needs to be addressed ASAP.
After another long and totally unnecessary delay at the clinic, we head over to Raffles. Lori is seen immediately, the physician is extremely professional, recognizes the urgency of the situation, asks targeted and probing questions, and runs the tests we expected. While we wait for the results of the tests, the doc gets Lori to the recovery unit with some pain meds (Ibuprofen had been useless up to this point) and water.
All the tests come back negative with the exception of influenza, which is positive. We’re told that false positives are common outside of the flu season, but that her symptoms do point to some sort of flu, as nearly everything else serious had been virtually ruled out.
Lori’s started on a round of Tamiflu, and, combined with the pain reliever, she gets the first relief she’s had in almost a day. More than anything, the pain meds allow her to rest.
By that evening, her condition has dramatically improved, and her headache has resolved. Another 24 hours passes on the meds, and Lori’s feeling much better.
The boys we’re obviously very happy to see mommy up and about — in between bouts of playing with their Chinese knock-off Duplos, of course.
Much later in the week (after Lori finished up her round of meds, of course), we found ourselves out and about once again on a date night. We could get used to this. What will we do once we don’t have the transitions/limbo/kids/new-place-to-explore excuse anymore? We’ll just have to make up some new ones, I guess…
If you like local craft beer, you’ll definitely want to check out the Box Office. While not everything was available when we were there, they’ve got enough taps to ensure that a fair number of local brew is ready for your sipping enjoyment at any given time.
Looking for Riel Beer? They might just have more on tap than the actual brewery!
A short jaunt to the other side of the Royal Palace brings us to Sara Ethiopian, our first Ethiopian food in years.
No mead on the menu that I could see, but our Angkors were cold and refreshing, far superior to second-rate Anchor (pronounced “ANN-chor” here in Cambodia). Don’t get the two confused!
As for the food, it was delicious! Everything we hoped it would be and more (and NO next-day stomach funkies to boot!). Highly recommended.
You may have noticed (or, if you’re a dude like me, probably not) that Lori no longer wears a purse or handbag when we’re out and about. Before arriving in Phnom Penh, we’d heard all sorts of stories of how prevalent bag snatching is in the capital.
We read this sort of stuff all the time everywhere we go and rarely have any issues, so it wasn’t really a thing in the forefront of my mind, outside of festival time, that is.
But it was in the front of Lori’s mind. A few date night’s ago we were getting ready to leave and Lori said she wanted to leave her purse (which isn’t really a purse but more like a CD-size zip-pouch with a strap that she wears across her body). I said I’d rather her bring her money and phone as a backup, which sounded reasonable to me at the time. Since she was wearing a skirt, that meant her bag. Suffice it to say, I was highly skeptical of the boogie man stories. I’m not one for fear mongering.
At one point during the night, we’re walking down a well-trafficked street when we pause to look at the odd Christmas display at one of the oversized high-so coffee shops. My back was to Lori when I suddenly heard her scream.
My first thought was that she’d gotten hit by a motorbike, which was further reinforced when I saw motorbike out of the corner of my eye zipping away.
“What happened!?” I yelled. “Are you alright???”
She told me two guys on a motorbike had grabbed her bag and tried to zip off with it, but she managed to grab it and yank it back from them.
Immediately, an old Khmer woman comes over and berates her in Khmer, presumably along the lines of “You need to be careful, foreign lady!” or, “That’s what you get for wearing a bag out in public in Phnom Penh, you should know better!” At least, that’s our interpretation based solely on her gestures and the circumstances.
Apparently, this sort of thing happens all the time, to both locals and foreigners, pretty much anyone with a removable bag. The worst is when they try and grab the bag off of you when you’re riding a bike. That’s when the real injuries happen. The perpetrators are never armed and don’t necessarily target their victims. Most of the snatching are crimes of opportunity by highly-experienced criminals.
After that night, Lori quit wearing her purse, so we rely solely on my pockets (yay, me). When we’re out and about with the boys, we have a backpack with waist and chest buckles, so that’s generally not an issue.
Fun times in Southeast Asia.
Speaking of fun times…
We’ve been curious about this place, so thought we’d have a look. One of the real estate agents pointed out Sun & Moon Hotel as a good place to take the kids to go swimming on the weekends. The hotel has a very distinctive look from the outside and we knew it had a sky bar.
Cloud 9 Skybar didn’t offer anything out of the ordinary from most other sky bars in the city in terms of drinks and food, but the ambience certainly had a unique flair to it. If you’ve ever dreamed of grabbing a cocktail under a sky full of neon and pastel-colored bubbly things, Cloud 9 is your place.
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