Phnom Penh

To try to find out a bit more about Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole I downloaded on Kindle a book by Henry Kamm the one time New York Times correspondent for South East Asia called simply Cambodia. It is pretty depressing reading I have to say. Basically the people of Cambodia have been let down by the people they elected to govern them, by the people they didn’t but who seized power, by a royal Prince who got into bed with anyone that might keep him in power and by the United Nations who were so busy trying to appease everyone they forgot they were there to protect the people. One amazing statistic if you need to know the suffering of ordinary people is that in 1970 Phnom Penh had a population of 470,000 people and by 1978 it had a population of just 32,000 souls. Pol Pot had seen to that and oh yes the Prince was in bed with him too.

It now has a population of some 2.2 million people and we went out in a Tuk Tuk to have a look at the place. The real purpose was to go shopping ‘cos everyone says clothes are amazingly cheap here.

The lad who had driven us to our restaurant the night before seemed nice and he had fitted wire mesh to the sides of his tuk tuk, the first one to do this modification so we asked him to do the 3 hour trip.

Tuk Tuk Phnom Penh

Apart from snatching from pedestrians the easiest way for a pillion rider on a motor bike to grab an handbag or package is to ride up alongside a Tuk Tuk reach in and grab it. The wire mesh you see prevents that. Very clever isn’t it ?

The Phnom Penh Tuk Tuks are more chariot in design with the bike being the horse.

We set off at a very leisurely pace, these guys all seem to conserve fuel by going slowly.

Inside the Tuk Tuk Phnom Penh

We drove all along the Quay side by the river. This area is just packed with restaurants and bars and great in the evening. I found a French place selling draught Angkor beer for US$0.50 cents a pint now that’s a real bargain.

First stop The Royal Palace , no not a pub, keep up , the real thing.

In my youth I dated for a time Lady Patricia Pelham Clinton Hope the Duke of Newcastle’s daughter. When phoning her one time from a pay phone near school I realised I had left her number back at the house. I called the operator and asked for the number of The Duke of Newcastle in Warminster. After a few minutes she came back and said I’ve got a White Swan and The Kings Head but no Duke of Newcastle. Again I had to say not the pub the person !

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

 

it isn’t actually the Royal Palace it is the gate into it, but the place closes for lunch for 3 hours and we couldn’t wait. Onwards ever onwards

IMG_0488

 

Now this is a statue of a professor who taught culture and was much revered by the people as he wrote many books about Cambodian culture. Instead of fleeing he stayed with his people and was murdered by Pol Pot.

On then to the Freedom Monument

Freedom Monument

 

Most things in Phnom Penh are very new. Pol Pot pretty well raised the place to the ground as he wanted a society of agricultural workers not city folk.. The rebuilding did keep most of the French big boulevards which is good and every roundabout seems to have a statue on it.They even have a kind of London Eye as well.

London Eye Phom Penh

 

Once in the old town though the wide roads disappear and the traffic turns ugly

Traffic Chaos Phnom Penh

 

We hit the Russian Market so called because after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 to oust Pol Pot the market only stocked Russian goods. It took Gorbachev in 1985 who cut off aid to Vietnam to change all that and the Vietnamese quickly upped sticks and left.

To be honest whilst the guide books all say it is the best for bargains almost all of it was the same stuff and no one really wanted to haggle or if they did it was to knock a dollar off perhaps. Try for more and they just looked disinterested and withdrew the goods. No fun at all  as I love a good haggle.

After 2 hours driving around we hit the Central Market and whilst again not much haggling they did try to sell stuff and there was a load more choice and thousands of fake watches as well as clothes.

Central Market Penom Penh

 

It was built in 1930 by the French in an art deco style and is huge inside.

Phnom Penh is a lovely city and I would certainly come back to it again . Mind you the Raffles really does help you enjoy it.

Tuk Tuk driver

 

I gave our driver a big hug of thanks but he actually wanted US$15 as well. After 3 hours driving in that traffic he deserved it.

Now it’s back to Saigon and the Tet New Year festival .Flowers and fireworks are on the menu now.

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Raffles Amid the Protests

On Jan 4th the ruling party here banned all form of street protests and gatherings. But yesterday protesters took to the streets to protest the turning down of a licence for a non government radio and TV station.

The locals like in Vietnam take their lunch around 11a.m. so the protest came past Raffles at about 10 a.m. on it’s way to the Ministry of Information almost next door.

We were on the breakfast veranda overlooking the street breakfast Veranda Raffles Phnom Penh

As you would expect the breakfast is huge with table after table of different choices and the customary profusion of waiters and waitresses.

As we sat enjoying the meal an hail of gunfire broke out and the protesters started to run back past us. The military police had opened fire on the crowd using rubber bullets, smoke bombs and some tear gas. They then baton charged them to disperse the protest.Several people were injured and many bloodied

It reminded me of  that part of the book Doctor Zhivargo as the elite danced at a ball while the cossacks charged the protesters. Here are the clips

and

We were part of the elite this morning tucking in to hearty breakfasts while just 200 metres away peaceful protesters were being beaten with sticks and riot shields. I don’t know enough yet about the politics of the country to start to understand it but maybe I won’t moan about the BBC Today programme quite as much when back in the UK or the simplistic Italian TV fare dished up over non state controlled airwaves. Mind you James Naughtie ….no don’t get me started.

The baton charge coincided with a report published by the US Freedom House which ranked Cambodia as “not free” one of 48 countries in that category. The report cites that here ” basic political rights are absent” and ” basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied “. It talks also of the ban on the right to assemble and a suppression of human rights since the disputed general election last year.

But enough of politics let’s take our usual wander around this holel the way we have the others.

The Raffles boasts two pools. This is what they call the play pool

Playpool Raffles Phnom Penh

That side of the play pool in the picture is always in the shade and the other side in the sun. Now that is service !!

This is the main pool

IMG_0472

oh and the view from the bed chair

Bedchair Raffles Phnom Penh

Our bedroom overlooks the play pool and has a pleasant balcony almost at pool level.

You have already seen the view from the breakfast table up the top of this blog .

One thing I must show you is the turndown service that happens every night. Now I am old enough to remember when even in European hotels this service was the normal part of staying in an hotel. These days few even in the Far East offer the service at all but it is a Raffles tradition

Turn down Raffles Phnom Penh

Not only is the bed turned down and the towels used for your evening shower replaced but slippers are laid out by the bed, a bottle of water and a glass placed on your bedside table, the room cleaned again, the bathroom completely wiped down, any clothes you left lying around hung up or folded neatly, the desk rearranged tidily and of course your PJs folded and laid on the bed. The bedside lights only are left on to make it really cosy when you stagger in from a night on the huge cocktails in the Elephant Bar.

Ahh the Elephant Bar so called because of the wall and ceiling paintings of elephants

Elephant motive

and home to a long list of celebrities including Jackie O and Somerset Maugham .

The place is now crawling with NGO personnel who seem the mainstay of the economy as almost every charity seems to be present here in Cambodia. Not only do they drink here but many apparently live in this hotel as well.

I was in Sri Lanka just after the tsunami  and was also amazed there to find the Hilton Club floors in Colombo full of NGOs living the high life . I asked one why he wasn’t at “the front line” as it were where all the trouble was down on the south of the island. “Have you been there?” he asked, “no where decent to stay and no good bars either.”

This seems very similar . It is big business now the charity game with lots of various national government monies flowing into them making them political as well as charitable schemes.

My trusty Luxe Travel Guide to Cambodia tells me of the Elephant Bar is ” more NGO than Jackie O ” which is rather clever and also very true. Her glass still with her lipstick, does adorn a glass cabinet just outside the bar. ,

In my youth I drank in various great hotel bars like the Long Bar in the old Raffles in Singapore where the Singapore Sling was born, the Long Bar at the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi which was already truncated from it’s original and now sadly gone and the rooftop bar at The Acropole Palace in Athens . I loved the feel of those places. Most great hotel bars are now priced way above what I am prepared to pay for a drink I can get outside for well under half the price. So it is nice to be back at one that certainly in happy hour is very affordable with beers at US$3, house cocktails at US$4 and special cocktails at US$ 6 and they come with three different snacks as well.  That said I’m not sure I’d be too happy funding such prices from my own charity donation nor have my tax money paid by my government  to a charity  that was happy to have its people expense it for entertaining or worse still stay at the hotel and charge it to the charity.

Last night we listened while a few NGO types moaned into their cocktails about the unfairness of their lot when diplomats got more leave per annum than them and more flights home each year as well. I guess join the elite few who pass the Civil Service Exams in the UK and change jobs would be my advice !!

Chau Doc

Spent the day half way up Sam mound today. I could have gone to the Chau Doc floating market and seen the floating houses ( houseboats I guess)  but decided against it. Leisurely breakfast I thought looking out over the paddy fields. Well up we went at 9.10 and it had all been cleared away. The staff most of whom are training as this hotel is also home to the Victoria Hotels Training Academy looked somewhat aghast . It was clear we had been forgotten. All the other groups had upped and gone en route to Cambodia and we fell through the net. They recovered well and produced the a la Carte menu and dragged the poor egg chef back upstairs. But leisurely it was not . We appear to be the only guests here today and have had the pool to ourselves once again. It has become a feature of our stays in out of the way places.

Pool Victoria Nui Sam

To be fair the trainee’s are lovely and so eager to please just quite disorganised which seems to be so much a part of hotels in Vietnam unless they have a foreign General Manager.

Being built on the side of the hill the hotel sets some challenges even to the fairly fit. There are stairs everywhere and not an elevator  nor any form of mobile transportation in sight. This is the staircase from our room

stairs at Victoria Nui Sam

There are sixty of them, trust me I counted them. Then you have to get down and up to what was our private pool today

Stairs to Pool

43 of those little beauties and another 36 to get up to the dining area and reception. Housekeeping carry everything up and down the stairs as there are no trollies and so it is not surprising that the staff look unbelievably fit but with bulging leg muscles .

We stayed one time in an hotel in Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus and that had a quite a few steps but nothing like these. It was there I first heard about the complaint bungalow knees which is a condition most bungalow dwellers get when after a year in the bungalow they are faced with climbing stairs again on a regular basis.

Chau Doc has been part of Vietnam for 300 years and before that it was part of Cambodia. more map drawing by the Europeans I would imagine. The hill the hotel stands on is very famous place of pilgrimage for the Vietnamese people. They come to worship the Lady of Sam at a temple further up the hill from us  and some 2 million arrive each year.

Chau Doc is a trading town being so close to Cambodia and is also famous for it’s fish paste and catfish . But like floating markets I think everywhere on the Mekong and on the coast  seem to be famous for the same things. Looking out from the poolmore Paddy Fields Nui Sam

surely rice must be the big thing here as all you can see are paddy fields

Tomorrow we leave here at 5.30 a.m. ( fire the tour operator someone) and take the early boat “up the Mekong” into Cambodia.

When I went to sea with P&O in 1967 my second voyage was to bring what was then a huge tour group organised by the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine. They booked the entire ship and the average age of the participants most of who were women was 64years. The difference was amazing for a young purser cadet whose first and subsequent voyages had at least 500 girls between the age of 16 and 22 on board. We were required to entertain the passengers on deck at night but on this trip by 9 pm almost all were tucked up in bed fast asleep. I therefore spent a lot of time in the ship’s cinema watching the latest films and one of those was Khartoum which given the boredom factor of being on deck I think I saw about 10 times. One line in it stuck with me. When Gladstone played by Ralph Richardson says to General Gordon improbably played by Charlton Heston ” It’s up the Nile for you Gordon , up the Nile”. What a line, oh the romance. It was then I decided I wanted to spend much of my life living around the world. There were so many “up the Niles” I wanted to see and work in.

and now I am up the Mekong.

Food Glorious Food

One of the problems with  rapid tourist growth on an island is that things get thrown up in an hurry to meet the ever growing demand. Here on Phu Quoc the “strip” from what was the old sleepy fishing village  down to the end of Long Beach is just that a strip lined with restaurants and travel agents selling excursions. The local catch here is squid and prawns plus some local king fish. The rest is brought in from the mainland by boat.  So the locals who threw up a shack with tables and chairs and a makeshift kitchen with the loo in the middle of it were somewhat hampered for choice. Some bright spark ( all puns intended) came up with the idea of cooking the three staples on a BBQ and then tossing some rice or noodles onto the plate and serving it. The rest quickly followed and that is the choice down almost the entire strip. Great for a backpacker getting a few days of rays after a long trek through Vietnam before heading off to Cambodia some 3 hours away but not so great for the two week holiday maker. Then try us on our 4th week here and you realise why we are leaving before planned and also heading off into Cambodia.

I really haven’t been good at recommending places to eat on this blog unlike many other bloggers. One man’s meat is another man’s etc etc. But let me assure you that we have had to kiss an awful lot of frogs to get to being able to say where we most like to eat and we have suffered during the night and often all the next day in that quest to find a prince. Most Vietnamese just don’t know how to BBQ and of course what they don’t use that night goes back in a freezer and then is defrosted again the next day and so on until it is sold. health and safety would have a field day here.

However before we eat we have to have a sundowner or three so where do we go for those? Most restaurants are happy that you sit and just have beer but the majority are on the increasing busy main road so we look on the beach.

This one should be the king of all bars

Headland bar

 

it sits on the headland between the two parts of Long Beach and gets the cooling winds as well as some great views and sunsets

Sunset on Phu Quoc

 

It should be packed but it is run by a gloriously inefficient Vietnamese lady who rushes about doing almost nothing. 20 mins to order a beer and then 20mins for it to arrive. Who knows where she goes or what she does. It is a fact of life and maybe an endearing feature of the local people that they have no memory at all. It is not even the last person they talked to syndrome. Ten paces from the table they took the order it has gone from the mind as if it were never there they wander away and start on some other task and you sit there expecting within minutes a couple of cold bottles of beer to arrive. 10 mins later they wander past your table without a flicker of memory that they ever took an order from you. So you need a bar where the bar person  is close to you and the supply with no distractions in-between. This one is rough and ready but hits the two key objectives

Sundowner bar

 

Yes those are infant school class room chairs and yes you sit on them. It is like being back at the parent teacher meetings where the teacher in oder to rush you along sits you in little Freddies chair so you can view his scribblings, but the beer cooler is 5 paces away and the guy sits within feet of you and has nothing else to do and no real distractions. You can even get squids and fish from him and his BBQ is clever

BBQ

 

a kitchen sink !!! Now before i discovered the delights of an outside wood oven I used to do a load of BBQ and have a Webber at home. I went one time to buy the attachment they sell that gives you a workspace on the BBQ and realised that to buy it i would need to take out a fourth mortgage on the house. This local lad has solved that problem instantly clever fellow.  I’ve never been brave enough to eat anything from him but have seen others do it though to be fair i have never seen them ever again.

So after the sunset and the beer to the restaurant

Canadianand there is the champion after 4 weeks of testing. It is just by La Veranda Resort if you are ever down this way. The place is run by a Vietnamese family but they have a Canadian ex restauranteur as an advisor. He sold his house in Vancouver at the height of the housing bubble and bought a motor home for the summer to tour around visiting friends in Canada and invested the rest to pay for winters in the sun on Phu Quoc. He stayed at one of the cottages the family rent and offered to help out in return for beer and food. He also bought with him his 250,000 tune music library and each day he compiles two playlists one for lunch and one for dinner. As he says the music therefore matches his mood or hangover and we have sat there some evenings feeling maybe he wants everyone to cut their wrists. However the food is good, not a BBQ in sight and because as he in a very unCanadian way boasts that his place is by far the most popular on the beach or on the strip the turnover in food is very rapid.

A second place mention must go to Ganesh the indian restaurant who not only serve great curries but prove that you can take locals and turn them into good waiters. They bring in teams of Nepalese managers, head cooks and supervisors and train the local workforce. it is an impressive organisation with staff eager to serve you and never once forgetting why they are in a restaurant and wandering off to look at the sky.

All this is making me thirsty and hungry so I’m off