A Travellerspoint blog

Bank Holiday Monday in Phnom Penh

Living it up

semi-overcast 33 °C

Staying in Phnom Penh on bank holiday Monday meant that the city was not exactly heaving with people. Still, after a reasonable amount of sightseeing on the two previous days, a day spent by the pool with a spot of yoga in the evening sounded just what I needed.

In exchange for taking a fellow volunteer to the kickboxing yesterday (half Ozzy half Danish guy), we got an insider tip about a hotel pool / bar / spa area opened to public, as long as you spend more than 5 USD. With a whole day in front of us, Nicola and I agreed that this should be doable.
A little oasis of calm in the middle of Phnom Penh

A little oasis of calm in the middle of Phnom Penh


The entry into the hotel looks so unremarkable, that if we didn't get shouted at by a couple of tuk tuk drivers, we would have missed it. Once in, it was a complete transformation in scenery from the dust covered, littered side street to an oasis of calm with decent size swimming pool, sun loungers all around and of course, a bar.

Not deterred by the sun loungers being reserved for hotel guests, I asked the owner if we can take over one of the dedicated chill areas. You don't ask, you don't get. And so we got it. With a little caveat that if someone from the hotel guests comes, we might need to vacate. To be honest, if someone from the hotel actually comes to us and asks, they are more than welcome to it. But noone came and so we could enjoy few hours by the pool with assortment of coctails and the possibility of various massages and beauty treatment.
Chilling area by the pool

Chilling area by the pool


Although the temptation was there, the instinct to do nothing at all was stronger and so we even forfeited the massage. Having said that, I am in Phnom Penh and a good massage is never too far.

The day was in fact so relaxing, that even my good intention to go to a yoga class in the evening was soon forgotten. Instead, Pilates on Tuesday are the plan.

As of yet, I received no confirmation from the intermediary company about my start of work on Tuesday. My lack of major irritation must mean that I am getting used to this way of life. Hmmm.

Posted by TheDukes 17:29 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh pool Comments (0)

Russian market and Cambodian kickboxing

Going local

semi-overcast 33 °C

Uncharacteristically for Cambodia in December, the weather forecast says it should be raining for the next three days. This would, of course, be annoying. Having said that, the temperature has not dropped below 33 degrees and despite it being semi overcast, there are no signs of rain. Men providing live updates of the match via mobile boards

Men providing live updates of the match via mobile boards

Set on having a chill day, after a relaxing morning with a paper, emails and an overly salted omelet, Nicola and I headed to Gloria Jean's coffee for a deliciously blended strawberry freezer and some decent air conditioning. It's the small things in life. Next destination was the Russian Market, where I hoped to get another pair of these comfy backpacker trousers. Unfortunately, there seems to be a shortage of green and blue coloured trousers, which left us feeling dehydrated, exhausted and yet empty handed.

For some reason, whilst our yesterday's walk was much longer and more strenuous, today proved to be a bigger challenge. Abandoning our mission 'town', after a couple of hours we headed back to the guest house for a couple of hours chilling, before heading to a local kick boxing match.

Making friends amongst locals is handy for several reasons, and one of them is the ability to draw on their knowledge of local 'cool' venues. Saturdays and Sundays are hosting 4pm matches and we have just managed to get ourselves a tuk tuk to get there. Audience waiting for the match to begin

Audience waiting for the match to begin

Bumping into a fellow guest house resident whilst waiting for our tuk tuk, we soon managed to convince him that kickboxing on Saturday afternoon is what Phnom Penh is all about. Plus it makes the fare cheaper and generally, when it comes to hitting the town, the more the merrier.

The venue is outside the town in a TV / Radio studio. Driving through rural areas, we passed a number of bamboo houses on stilts decorating the banks of a nearby pond. It was a nice touch of the past way of living. Children were running around and playing football whilst stray dogs kept sniffing whatever piece of rubbish they could get to.

The studio was already busy when we arrived. Finding a cool spot amongst the locals, we settled in for a four match / five rounds each entertainment. Although we spotted a couple of other foreigners, it goes without saying that we did attract a fair amount of attention as two white women. Still, everyone was hugely friendly and soon we felt at home.
Kickboxer being cooled down

Kickboxer being cooled down


Not quite understanding what the moderator was announcing, we patiently sat through half an hour of Khmer talk, before the first two fighters finally got on. The atmosphere was fantastic and I soon made a new best friend with a local teenager who was supporting the same (winning) colours - red.

The quality of the fighting was getting progressively better with each new pair taking the scene, and at the end of the evening we have witnessed some excellent moves. Whilst I am not someone getting out of my way to watch live boxing, this place is great and I will definitely be back in one of the weekends I have here.

Even though the match managed to temporarily distract us from feeling hungry, with the final bell I was positively starving. Fortunately, our tuk tuk driver was ready to go and so within half an hour my order for noodles with vegetables was firmly placed and I was settling in one of the comfy chairs for a spot of reading.
And the winner is ...

And the winner is ...


One of the advantages coming with age is the confidence to admit I do not fancy going out every Saturday. I chose to exercise this prerogative today and so after a great but tiring day, it is time spend an hour or so with Mr. Fitzgerald and 'The Great Gatsby'.

Posted by TheDukes 06:58 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh kickboxing Comments (1)

Work a little, play a lot

Making some progress on the research and big progress on getting to know the town

sunny 32 °C

I finally managed to get my first interview. The good thing is, that I only need to get another 5-9 MFIs. The bad thing is that the guy only probably understood 70% of what I was talking about. Whilst he could answer all the questions in the structured questionnaire, he did not show any signs of thinking outside of what I directly asked him. But hey, one down .....
A ice-cream van like minibus taking some of the guys to the beach

A ice-cream van like minibus taking some of the guys to the beach

Keen to keep to momentum of my research work, I decided to spend the afternoon calling MFIs I graced with an email in the previous couple of days. This proved to be a 'mission impossible'. To start with, most 'lower level staff' do not speak English. It is hard enough to explain the concept of what I need to someone familiar with the language, but try someone who doesn't have the same functional background and does not speak the language. Needless to say that after four attempts, one possible hang-up and three promises of being called back, I was ready to face the weekend.

Friday night was in sign of a pool party. Chatting to other volunteers at the guest house, we slowly created a healthy group of 10 to hit to town with. More talks and a Khmer nibble later, we were packed to a couple of tuk tuks on our way to Bar Eighty8.
Monk_proce.._food_gifts.jpg
New to the party scene in Phnom Penh, I thought arriving at 9pm is a decent time to start a pool party. I was wrong. It took us a couple of cocktails and some local shots, before the place started filling up and the band was ready to rock. But once it started, it was worth the wait. Fun people, cheap cocktails and the music was to die for. Local band made up of Cambodians and expats, with a line up of singers busting tunes in Khmer, English and some obscure african language.

A several hours later, we were ready for a change of scene. Whilst Top Banana sounded like a good choice, it was disappointingly boring and so it didn't take long, before we decided to head to the famous Heart of Darkness. A local nigh club frequented by rich kids and the occasional westerner. What a blast! Having arrived at the right time after midnight, we straight away hit the dancefloor and haven't left until one of the locals became far too enamored in one of the girls from the guest house called Hailey. Clear sign that it was time to chance the scene.

Not quite yet ready to head back, we enlisted the services of a keen looking tuk tuk driver to go back to Top Banana. Although it was very clear once we arrived that the bar is closed, the driver insisted on us paying him again for taking us to the hotel. When we decided that we had enough of being reasonable and started to get off the tuk tuk to walk back, he came to his senses and delivered us to the door steps of the guest house. Result.
Relaxing after the best pedicure yet

Relaxing after the best pedicure yet


This weekend is a bank holiday Monday, so majority of Cambodians and pretty much most travelers head out of town to the beaches, Siem Riep or anywhere worthwhile seeing. Knowing that I have three months to see it all and too keen to fight the crowds, I decided to stay in Phnom Penh. So far it seems to be an excellent decision.

Waving good bye to a beach-heading crowd from the guest house in the morning, I enjoyed my morning omelet and lemon water whilst plotting the day ahead. Riverside for a fish pedicure followed by a visit of the Silver Pagoda. The royal palace is unfortunately closed due to mourning for the late king, but there is plenty to see around.

It turned out that Nicola who was bed-bound for the past two days with severe food poisoning was also up and happy to toggle along. First stop was a decent coffee shop to get something 'safe' for Nic's stomach. After a relaxing break in a pleasantly airconditioned bar with a view, we decided to find Dr. Fish Massage. A local spot where pedicure is delivered by a herd of hungry little fish. Unfortunately, we failed. Fortunately, there are plenty of beauty spots around Phnom Penh and so we picked a random one and settled in for an hour of pampering.The picturesque grounds of the Silver Pagoda

The picturesque grounds of the Silver Pagoda

Refreshed and ready to rumble, we made it to the Silver Pagoda. Sporting a skimpy top and hot pants, Nicola was in no uncertain terms recommended to purchase a plain T-shirt and borrow a set of orange coloured trousers, before we were allowed in. The Silver Pagoda is a complex divided by a wall from the Royal Palace, comprising of several buildings, shrines and the actual Silver Pagoda. Taking our time to walk around and equipped with my morning research into this site, we browsed around all the main buildings, mixing with other western, as well as Chinese and Cambodian visitors.

Although it was a great way to spend the afternoon, the heat kept reminding us that we should head back. Getting quite tired but determined to keep walking, we took a not so nice walk along the main road towards the guest house. Half an hour later, we were back and rewarded by a can of cold drink. The Silver Pagoda

The Silver Pagoda

Despite initial intentions to go to the cinema or some local performance, the cinema listings proved rather unattractive. With every minute chilling in the comfy straw chairs, we were less and less set on heading out and more and more content to stay in and chill. After all, it is a long weekend and we'll have plenty of opportunities to go out.

Posted by TheDukes 23:34 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh silver_pagoda Comments (0)

I say research, Cambodians say improvisation

Getting to grips with Cambodian meaning of 'preparation'

sunny 34 °C

Having completed two days of 'induction', Wednesday was supposed to be first of three days allocated to my microfinance innovation research. The start of my volunteering has been postponed until Tuesday next week (Monday is a bank holiday here) to allow me to follow up on some of the leads to be gained from my volunteering support organisation. That was the plan.

Despite initial doubts about leaving all contact with MFIs (Microfinance Institutions) until I got to Phnom Penh, I was reassured that the volunteering guys cooperate with many of them and everyone will be happy to give me their time to conduct interviews. Unfortunately but not entirely surprisingly, the reality hit me at 2pm when I turned up for a meeting at the office.
Busy street 125 outside the Tattoo Guest house

Busy street 125 outside the Tattoo Guest house

'Loads of MFIs' turned to be 3 and as one of them is unsuitable and for one of them I will be working, I was left with 1 MFI to be interviewed in three days. The recommendation? Email the Cambodian Microfinance Association asking for assistance with facilitating contact to other MFIs. Then go on the net and email a number of MFIs asking for interviews. Great. Never mind that I proposed to do exactly this when I was still at home, to avoid wasting time whilst here.

Either way, recognising defeat when I see one, I did exactly that. My first steps led to the guest house where I composed a very impressive email, if I may say so myself, pestering MFIs for their time. The only dumper on my dedication was the fact that it is precisely these emails that most often meet the 'delete' button when I receive them back home. Lets hope that Cambodians are bit more responsive.
My tuk tuk driver with his little princess

My tuk tuk driver with his little princess


To get over my disappointment, I decided to celebrate the evening by attending my first class of yoga. After chatting to all the other volunteers who just had their first day at various projects around Phnom Penh (with mixed impressions), I convinced one of the girls to hit the yoga studio with me. A short tuk-tuk ride later, I was sweating my socks off at a roof terrace, trying to execute various yoga movements whilst preventing my legs from shaking uncontrollably whenever I tried to stretch them to an uncomfortable position. But when it was all over, I felt great. So much so that I decided to make this a habit.

Knowing that I am unlikely to get any positive responses on my 2nd research day, I decided to explore the town, before emailing few more MFIs and checking-in with the office to see if they have any nice surprises for me. If there is one thing no-one in Cambodia does (unless they really cannot help it) it must be walking. It thus doesn't come as a great surprise that in the two hours of slowly making my way towards the riverside through progressively wealthy-looking hoods, I was continuously asked if i need a tuk-tuk.

Having said that, 'tuk tuk?' is indisputably the most common English phrase Cambodians use. Note to self: support local economy by purchasing a 'no tuk tuk' t-shirt from a market.
Communal area at the Tattoo guest house

Communal area at the Tattoo guest house

The riverside, in comparison to the Olympic stadium area is rather touristy and decisively more commercial. Refusing to be labeled as a wealthy tourist, I headed for the back streets where I knew should be a massage spot manned by blind people, called Seeing Hands. What a bliss. Knackered after barrage of tuk tuk attacks and long walk in the scorching sun, I got myself the best and yet cheapest Khmer/Thai massage I have ever head. The proceeds go to a blind persons charity and despite the basic surroundings, this is worthwhile stop when in Phnom Penh.

Rejuvenated I decided to find a local caffee for the very delicious version of Cambodian ice coffee. Causing a riot by ordering in Khmer, I settled in for a little read and people watching. Judging by the number of middle-old aged men with perky little Cambodian ladies on their arms, sightseeings are not the only attraction in this vicinity.

Walking back to the guest house through yet another route, I am now fairly familiar with the layout of Phnom Penh. This should come handy over the next months living here and when I am trying to locate MFIs headquarters for my research interviews. One can always hope...
3 years old but already knows how to pose for the camera

3 years old but already knows how to pose for the camera


I am pleased to say, that my initial concerns about the standoffishness of some of the fellow guest house peeps are only partially justified. Whilst some mainly US guests make exceptional effort to ooze bitchiness (sorry you lovely Americans out there, just saying...), there is plenty of other people which are great fun. So much so that I was once again accompanied in my quest to maintain some kind of a sporty regime, this time by a lovely Scottish girl living in Australia. Mission Pilates.

After two hours at the yoga/ Pilates studio, I decided to get a 10 visit pass. Bring it on!

And there was one more development - I have Friday interview with my first MFI. There is hope.

Posted by TheDukes 01:34 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh massage Comments (2)

Whistle stop tour of Phnom Penh

Introduction to my stint as a volunteer

sunny 34 °C

It has been a few days now since I arrived in Phnom Penh and I am slowly but surely getting to grips with the heat. Whilst days are hot and humid (even though it is now the 'cold' season), it is the nights that I find difficult. But after a few days of two hours per night sleep, for the first time last night I managed to get my 7 hours.
Rooftops from the Star Kampuchea office

Rooftops from the Star Kampuchea office


Although I haven't started properly working yet, the last two days have been in sign of preparation. The local partner company taking care of volunteering arrangements is Star Kampuchea and compared to the laissez-faire way of doing things around here, these guys have been amazing.

After the compulsory powerpoint presentations about Cambodian do's and dont's and a couple of role plays, we got to hit the town in our super dooper minivan and drive around the main sites. The Royal Palace, Art Museum, National Museum, etc. Even though we didn't have enough time to go into any of these, I suppose it is useful to know where they are. It's not like that I won't have enough time over the next three months to see any of these. The highlight of our trip was, however, the Killing Fields.
Colourful aisles of the Central Market

Colourful aisles of the Central Market


I did manage to see the S-21 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) on Sunday so was preped for what was coming. But still, once there, the site is disturbingly real. With a little help from my audio guide I made my way around the many mass graves and displays with victims' clothes and teeth washed out on the surface especially during the rain season.

It is disheartening walking between the graves with paths only wide enough for one person and seeing more and more shallow holes of different sizes as far as you can see. Given the relatively small size of some of the graves with reported hundreds of victims in each, one can only image the horror these people went through. And that is even without seeing the Killing Tree with signs of the spot where children were swang by their legs and smashed on a tree as the fastest and most efficient way of killing them. An important part of Cambodian history and thoroughly disturbing site.
The Killing Fields with visible dents after mass graves have been excavated

The Killing Fields with visible dents after mass graves have been excavated


Despite being driven around, by the end of yesterday I was exhausted. The heat really gets to you and so I was not a little deflated when I finally got to the guest house at 5pm, only to find out that the electricity was out. Again. The downtimes can last anything between 10 minutes to few hours and our yesterday's stint was approaching the latter. Not a great timing as most rooms in the guest house have covered windows so without a torch you can't really do anything. And somehow I failed to locate my torch in the dark so opted for having a cool drink in the bar instead.
The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree


Normally the timing would not be a problem but yesterday we had an introductory dinner at 7.30, so when the electricity came back up at 7, I had only 30 minutes to shower off the road dust and jump into something decent before covering myself with mosquito repelent. My eight bites all over my legs are a visual testament to the blood-thirstiness of local mozzies.

Dins was fab and I got to try frogs legs (tastes like chicken), tongue of a nondistript animal (chewy and will not have again if possible) and warm beer (will have again most likely). There were, of course, other delicious dishes and together with great conversation it was a great night out. Although Michael from Danemark remarked that during his dinner they had snake meat, fried tarrantulas, crickets and warms so I supposed you might say that I missed out.

Unlike other volunteers, I only start my work on Tuesday next week (Monday is a bank holiday). This week is supposed to be my induction and research week. This afternoon I am heading to the Star Kampuchea office to talk about my research and hopefully get some leads for Microfinance Institution innovation officers. Fingers crossed. Time to check out and hit the town before my 2pm meeting.

Posted by TheDukes 02:36 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh killing_fields central_market Comments (1)

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