Posts Tagged ‘cambodia’
La Mien noodles are the signature dish at Phnom Penh’s Noodle House. The chef makes them from scratch every time someone orders this dish.
Even though it’s great fun to watch how these noodles are made, the dish itself tastes a little bland. It clearly needs some more spices or sauce.
What I recommend instead are the vegetarian Dim Sum at $ 2.50 and the Red Peanut Curry at $ 3.50 at Noodle House. Both of these are excellent.
The bamboo railway isn’t exactly the Orient Express, a French TGV or a German ICE train. It’s basically a wooden bed frame on wheels, powered by something like a lawnmower motor. These contraptions are held together by nothing but the force of gravity. You clearly see that about 2′ 15″ into the youtube clip I’ve added at the bottom of this post.
Bamboo trains can reach speeds of up to 40 km/h – pretty scary, if you ask me, but also a lot of fun as long as no one gets hurt.
The bamboo trains have been running in Cambodia since the 1980s. Those were the days just after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge. The country’s roads were mined or in disrepair, trains didn’t run any more and air travel wasn’t affordable for the average Cambodian.
In the beginning, these “norries”, as the locals call them, were pushed with long poles – pretty much like the gondolas in Venice. Now, they’re propelled by motors.
The problem for the conductor of these “trains” is that all of Cambodia’s railway connections are single-track lines. So if someone comes from the other direction, either one party gets off the tracks or there’s an ugly crash.
In the days when the official railroads connected Cambodia’s major cities, train schedules prevented such incidents. But when the bamboo trains started, they didn’t run according to schedule: everyone just used the tracks whenever and wherever he wanted.
So if two “norries” were going in opposite directions on the same track, one of them had to give way and let the other pass. Originally, the one that carried the heavier loads would stay on the track. The lighter one would quickly be taken apart and its wheels taken off the tracks so that the heavily laden one could pass.
These days, the bamboo trains run mostly for tourists on a short stretch near Battambang. This piece of track is 3.7 kilometers long and it takes about an hour to go out and come back.
The ride is a lot of fun, especially every time you have to stop because there’s traffic from the other direction and you have to get off the tracks. Or when cows are grazing on the tracks and need gentle persuasion to move out of the way.
But it’s uncertain, how much longer these Cambodian “thrill rides” will be running. There are plans to reactivate the country’s railway system. And once real trains are back on these tracks, the bamboo trains will have to give way to diesel locomotives permanently.
During the 15-day Pchum Ben festival, the spirits of the dead acestors are said to walk the earth. So this is a good time for Cambodians to get on their good side by offering them food and saying prayers for them.
The offerings are supposed to help the deceased pass on to a better life. According to Khmer belief, people who don’t follow the practices of Pchum Ben will be cursed by their angry ancestors.
Today, Thursday, September 7th, is the fifteenth and final day of this year’s Pchum Ben festival. It’s the day when Cambodians travel to their home provinces to pray at the temples and pagodas where their ancestors were cremated.
“Oh,” he said, “that’s a shame. Then I got that one wrong on my test.”
It seemed he’d written a geography test at his university, in which he had to list European countries.
Next he wanted to know whether France and England were in Europe. “Yes,” I said. He was glad that he got these two right.
“And how about the United States?” Surely they were part of Europe?
I was stunned by the question.
“No, sorry,” I said, “the U.S. isn’t part of Europe.”
“But then what about Egypt? That’s part of Europe, right?”
Our driver was heartbroken that he’d made so many mistakes on his geography test.
Looking at it from his point of view…
At first, I was mildly shocked by our driver’s concept of Europe and the rest of the world. But then I remembered, that not everyone knows how to read a map. Certainly not everyone in Cambodia.
Since I had the good fortune of growing up in the West, map-reading is a skill that I learned in geography class and from my parents.
And looking at it from our Cambodian driver’s point of view, most foreigners must look alike. What difference does it make to him if one of them is from the U.S. and another says he’s from Italy, Germany, France – or Australia.
All those places are so far removed from the daily lives of the average Cambodian. His (or her) life in the Cambodian backwaters circles largely around the family, the village, and maybe the province.
He (or she) will never have a chance to visit far-away countries.
So who cares whether those foreign countries are east or west, north or south of Cambodia.
Or whether they’re part of Europe or not.
But then what’s the message these traffic cops in Phnom Penh are sending out? Their guard house clearly displays an advertisement for beer.
It’s sponsored by Asahi breweries. The company is based in Japan and just trying to get a foot in the door in other Asian countries.
Aaccording to the company website, Asahi’s corporate philosophy is:
The Asahi Breweries Group aims to satisfy its customers with the highest levels of quality and integrity, while contributing to the promotion of healthy living and the enrichment of society worldwide.
Ah, so that’s what all this is about: not drinking and driving, but “…the promotion of healthy living“.
In that case: cheers, officer!
Somehow the combination of binge drinking, oom-pah music and big-busted waitresses in dirndl-dresses always failed to intrigue me.
So I was unprepared for what I experienced last night, when I attended the Oktoberfest in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh – of all places.
The locals seemed to enjoy it, but most of them didn’t have a clue what the singer was trying to tell them when he repeatedly shouted “oans, zwoa, gsuffa!” (rough translation: drink, drink, drink!).
The food was surprisingly authentic, though. The organisers must have had a tough time trying to find Sauerkraut, Weisswurst (a special kind of Bavarian sausage that is boiled, not grilled) and Apfelstrudel (an Alpine interpretation of apple pie) in Cambodia.
Overall, Phnom Penh’s Oktoberfest was bizarre, but fun. Munich on the Mekong.
And for those in Phnom Penh who can’t get enough of German Gemütlichkeit, there’s good news: the Cambodian capital is home to not one, but two Oktoberfests. One’s at the Cambodiana Hotel, the other at the Sunway.
Want to get away from it all? Come to Kep in southern Cambodia and check in to Knai Bang Chatt resort.
Knai Bang Chatt is a name that needs explaining. It means ‘rainbow around the sun’. In Buddhist symbolism, this rainbow is the halo around Buddha’s head.
But even if the name may be difficult to remember, the resort itself will not be once you’ve been there. It’s pure luxury, pure relaxation, pure paradise.
For Cambodian standards, the place is extremely expensive. But it’s worth every cent.
The resort consists of three large villas. They were originally built in the early 1960′s by a student of Cambodia’s most prominent 20th century architect, Vann Molyvann. He, in turn, had studied with Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus.
The villas were abandoned during the Khmer Rouge period and were left to deteriorate. In 2003, their fate changed, when two Westerners bought them and began to return them to their original architectural splendor.
Today, the resort looks like it’s straight out of ‘Architectural Digest’ or a handbook for interior decorators. Everywhere you look, there are flowers, Asian antiques and other decorative elements.
But as a guest, you never feel like you’re staying in a design store. The owners and staff make sure that you feel welcome and right at home.
They make it easy to forget the rest of the world while you’re there. And one simple way they achieve this is by having no TV-sets in the rooms.
What a wonderful idea.
I saw the most unusual dinner show the other day.
It was at a North Korean restaurant in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.
Before I make an attempt to put this unique dining and entertainment experience into words, please take a look at a short video I made during the show to get an idea what I’m talking about.
What you see in this video are the singing waitresses at the Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh. Every night at around 8 p.m., they interrupt serving dinner and hop on stage to sing, dance and play music.
Let’s just say that the Dear Leader‘s idea of a proper show and Western concepts of funky entertainment are obviously worlds apart.
Exiled North Koreans, a theme restaurant or the real thing?
Before we entered the Pyongyang Restaurant, we didn’t really know what to expect. We’d heard rumors about singing waitresses and a dinner show, but we still weren’t sure what kind of place this would be.
Was it a North Korean restaurants run by expats who’d fled the country and tried to recreate a little piece of Heimat in far-away Cambodia?
Was it a restaurant that just devoted itself to North Korean cuisine? For, surely, North Korea must also have food specialties and national dishes – even though the people there are suffering food shortages nowadays.
Or was it the real thing? Could this be a North Korean enclave in Phnom Penh? A place celebrating the Dear Leader and the North Korean way of life? Could such a thing exist?
Yes, it was the real thing
I have no idea how the deal worked, but this restaurant was truly showcasing North Korea in Cambodia. The waitresses were from North Korea, the food was supposed to be North Korean and the entertainment was North Korean.
Since I’m still kind of shell-shocked from this bizarre experience, I’ve just listed some of my observations from that evening.
Sorry, but since the experience was so absurd, so out-of-this-world, I haven’t been able to turn them into a narrative.
- The waitresses all looked alike. Same hairstyles, same facial expressions, same dresses. Thankfully, they wore name tags.
- The waitresses looked so pale, you’d think a vampire had just drained them of all their blood.
- The dresses that the waitresses wore were made of the finest North Korean polyester. The design was somewhere between The Sound of Music and The Stepford Wives.
- If they weren’t handing out menus or taking orders, they were busy telling people not to take pictures. So all the photographs and videos on this page were taken “undercover”. I wonder why photography wasn’t allowed – were the waitresses all senior officers of the North Korean secret service afraid of having their cover blown?
- A flat-screen TV on the stage showed a contiuous video of The Wonderful World of North Korea. The film consisted mainly of nature shots. But my favorite scenes showed traffic in North Korea: in one scene, you saw a train travelling the countryside, in another you saw city streets that were absolutely deserted – except for a lone bus. Both the train and the bus looked like ca 1950. Almost like the kind of miniature trains and vehicles you sometimes find on nostalgic kiddie karoussels. Unfortunately, we can safely assume that that train and that bus in the video must be cutting-edge technology and design in North Korea.
- The group of Asians at the tabel next to ours remained absolutely stony-faced throughout the dinner show. This was in stark contrast to the waitresses’ pasted-on on smiles. Only during one of the numbers did they smile and clap. But as soon as that number was over, their faces turned to stone again. Soon after that song was over and as soon as they’d eaten up their dinner, that whole group left.
- A group of Asian men in suits and ties at another table got a little rowdy. It almost seemed as though they were celebrating a bachelor’s party or just plain had a little too much to drink. Anyway, during one of the songs, one of the business men got up onto the stage, and started to dance around the singer. He also started taking close-up pictures of her, which alarmed the other waitresses. No pictures! And definitely NO such outbursts of joy and emotion! Once they’d ushered him off the stage, one of the waitresses remained stationed right behind these guys’ table, keeping a watchful eye on what they were doing. She even asked to be shown the pictures on the guy’s camera. I don’t know if she made him delete any of them or if she just flipped through them disapprovingly.
- After the waitresses had ended their dinner show, it was karaoke time. First, one of the well-dressed businessmen got up on stage and sang. Then, an Asian man in shorts and sandals made a very courageous attempt at singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in English. He put on a pretty good show and tried to encourage us to join him on the stage, since we were the only Westerners in that restaurant and the only ones who might have really known the words to that song. We preferred to stay seated and applauded him wildly instead. When we asked him, whether he was from North Korea, he vigorously denied: “No, no, no! South Korea! I’m from South Korea!”
- After the karaoke, the management began to turning off some lights in the restaurant. A subtle hint for the customers to pay up and leave.
- As we got out of the place, all the waitresses lined up near the exit, bidding us adieu. I wondered how they lived in Phnom Penh: were they free to explore the city? Did they have lives of their own? Or were they holed up in some barrack-like communal living quarter and not allowed to befriend foreigners?
- What did these waitresses think of Cambodia and the relatively carefree and colorful life in that city? How would they feel when they’d head back to Pyongyang? What would they tell their friends and families back home about the world out there? Or were they so deeply convinced by North Korean ideology that they really believed in the words of the Dear Leader?
Christmas isn’t exactly a traditional holiday in Cambodia.
95 % of the people here are Buddhists. Only a very small minority are Christians.
But just like the people in many other Asian countries, Cambodians love Christmas lights and decorations, giving gifts and throwing Christmas parties.
Especially young Cambodians seem to enjoy the magic of Christmas (and in Cambodia, almost everyone is young – the median age is 21).
For this new generation, Christmas embodies Western culture and lifestyle.
So in keeping with the holiday spirit, my hotel in Phnom Penh started putting up Christmas decorations at the beginning of this month.
On the first day of their decorating spree, the hotel decorators just installed a Christmas tree in the lobby that lit up at night.
On the second day, they added some wreaths, some stars and more lights.
By the third day, the decorating team had turned the whole lobby into a winter wonderland of lights. I think they must have all taken classes at the Liberace School for Refined Home Decorating.
This week, the hotel team also draped tinsel garlands and red ribbons around the abstract stone sculptures in the lobby – which to my mind only improved the artwork.
And since last night, there’s also a sign in the lobby wishing us all a Happy Hanukah.
I wonder if tonight or tomorrow, we’ll also see a poster wishing Happy Kwanzaa.
I’m sure the handful of Africans and people of African descent in Phnom Penh would appreciate the hotel’s thoughtfulness…