Phnom Penh Cambodia – Full Travel and Food Review
Phnom Penh Cambodia
For our first time in Cambodia, we decided to stop and stay in the country capital city: Phnom Penh. Here we spent 2 weeks discovering the local culture as well as the local cuisine.
Cambodia has a population of over 15 million. The official religion is Theravada Buddhism, practised by approximately 95 percent of the population. The country’s minority groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams, and 30 hill tribes. The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh, the political, economic, and cultural centre of Cambodia.
The kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with Norodom Sihamoni, a monarch chosen by the Royal Throne Council, as head of state. The head of government is Hun Sen, who is currently the longest serving non-royal leader in South East Asia and has ruled Cambodia for over 30 years.
In 802 AD, Jayavarman II declared himself king, uniting the warring Khmer princes of Chenla under the name “Kambuja”. This marked the beginning of the Khmer Empire which flourished for over 600 years, allowing successive kings to control and exert influence over much of Southeast Asia and accumulate immense power and wealth. The Indianized kingdom built monumental temples including Angkor Wat, now a World Heritage Site, and facilitated the spread of first Hinduism, then Buddhism to much of Southeast Asia.
After the fall of Angkor to Ayutthaya in the 15th century, a reduced and weakened Cambodia was then ruled as a vassal state by its neighbours. In 1863 Cambodia became a protectorate of France which doubled the size of the country by reclaiming the north and west from Thailand.
Cambodia gained independence in 1953. The Vietnam War extended into the country with the US bombing of Cambodia from 1969 until 1973. Following the Cambodian coup of 1970, the deposed king gave his support to his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge emerged as a major power, taking Phnom Penh in 1975 and later carrying out the Cambodian Genocide from 1975 until 1979, when they were ousted by Vietnam and the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1979–91).
Following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia was governed briefly by a United Nations mission (1992–93). The UN withdrew after holding elections in which around 90 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. The 1997 coup placed power solely in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party, who remain in power as of 2017.
The country faces numerous challenges. Important sociopolitical issues includes widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, lack of political freedoms, low human development, and a high rate of hunger. Cambodia has been described by Human Rights Watch’s Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.”
While pro capita income remains low compared to most neighbouring countries, Cambodia has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia with growth averaging 6 percent over the last decade. Agriculture remains the dominant economic sector, with strong growth in textiles, construction, garments, and tourism leading to increased foreign investment and international trade. Cambodia scored dismally in an annual index (2015) ranking the rule of law in 102 countries, placing 99th overall and the worst in the region.
Cambodia also faces environmental destruction as an imminent problem. The most severe activity in this regard is considered to be the countrywide deforestation, which also involves national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Overall, environmental destruction in Cambodia comprise many different activities, including illegal logging, poaching of endangered and endemic species, and destruction of important wildlife habitats from large scale construction projects and agricultural businesses. The degrading activities involve the local population, Cambodian businesses and political authorities, as well as foreign criminal syndicates and many transnational corporations from all over the world.
Once known as the “Pearl of Asia,” it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920s. Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, are significant global and domestic tourist destinations for Cambodia. Founded in 1434, the city is noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and attractions. There are a number of surviving French colonial buildings scattered along the grand boulevards.
First recorded a century after it is said to have taken place, the legend of the founding of Phnom Penh tells of a local woman, Penh (commonly referred to as Daun Penh (“Grandmother Penh” or “Old Lady Penh”) in Khmer), living at Chaktomuk, the future Phnom Penh. It was the late 14th century, and the Khmer capital was still at Angkor near Siem Reap 350 km (217 mi) to the north. Gathering firewood along the banks of the river, Lady Penh spied a floating koki tree in the river and fished it from the water. Inside the tree she found four Buddha statues and one of Vishnu.
The discovery was taken as a divine blessing, and to some a sign that the Khmer capital was to be brought to Phnom Penh from Angkor. To house the new-found sacred objects, Penh raised a small hill on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River and crowned it with a shrine, now known as Wat Phnom at the north end of central Phnom Penh. “Phnom” is Khmer for “hill” and Penh’s hill took on the name of the founder, and the area around it became known after the hill.
Phnom Penh first became the capital of Cambodia after Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer Empire, moved the capital from Angkor Thom after it was captured and destroyed by Siam a few years earlier.
There is a stupa behind Wat Phnom that house the remains of Ponhea Yat and the royal family as well as the remaining Buddhist statues from the Angkorean era. In the 17th century, Japanese immigrants also settled on the outskirts of present-day Phnom Penh. A small Portuguese community survived in Phnom Penh until the 17th century, undertaking commercial and religious activity in the country.
Phnom Penh remained the royal capital for 73 years, from 1432 to 1505. It was abandoned for 360 years (from 1505 to 1865) by subsequent kings due to internal fighting between the royal pretenders. Later kings moved the capital several times and established their royal capitals at various locations in Tuol Basan (Srey Santhor), Pursat, Longvek, Lavear Em and Oudong.
It was not until 1866, under the reign of King Norodom I (1860–1904), the eldest son of King Ang Duong, who ruled on behalf of Siam, that Phnom Penh became the permanent seat of government and capital of Cambodia, and also where the current Royal Palace was built.
Beginning in 1870, the French colonial authorities turned a riverside village into a city where they built hotels, schools, prisons, barracks, banks, public works offices, telegraph offices, law courts, and health services buildings. In 1872, the first glimpse of a modern city took shape when the colonial administration employed the services of French contractor Le Faucheur to construct the first 300 concrete houses for sale and rental to Chinese traders.
By the 1920s, Phnom Penh was known as the “Pearl of Asia”, and over the next four decades, Phnom Penh continued to experience rapid growth with the building of railways to Sihanoukville and Pochentong International Airport (now Phnom Penh International Airport). Phnom Penh’s infrastructure saw major modernisation under the rule of Sihanouk.
During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was used as a base by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and thousands of refugees from across the country flooded the city to escape the fighting between their own government troops, the NVA/NLF, the South Vietnamese and its allies, and the Khmer Rouge. By 1975, the population was 2-3 million, the bulk of whom were refugees from the fighting. The Khmer Rouge cut off supplies to the city for more than a year before it fell on April 17, 1975.
Reports from journalists stated that the Khmer Rouge shelling “tortured the capital almost continuously,” inflicting “random death and mutilation” on millions of trapped civilians. The Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the entire city after taking it, in what has been described as a death march.
Tuol Sleng High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces and was turned into the S-21 prison camp, where people were detained and tortured. Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and therefore killed many people perceived as educated, “lazy” or political enemies.
Many others starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society and the sale of Cambodia’s rice to China in exchange for bullets and weaponry. The former high school is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where Khmer Rouge torture devices and photos of their victims are displayed. Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), 15 kilometers (9 mi) away, where the Khmer Rouge marched prisoners from Tuol Sleng to be murdered and buried in shallow pits, is also now a memorial to those who were killed by the regime.
The G Mekong Hotel is an artistic urban sanctuary that embraces contemporary design, stylish comfort and metropolitan luxury. The Hotel is perfectly located on Monivong Boulevard in the heart of Phnom Penh, a city the French once called the ‘Paris of the East’ set on the banks of the mythical Mekong River.
The Hotel is ideally placed only a few minutes from the city’s timeless landmarks such as the Independence Monument, the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Museums, the Old Central Market and the beautiful riverside precinct, where visitors enjoy evening strolls or idyllic boat trips on the river.
G Mekong Hotel
Khmer cuisine (Khmer: សិល្បៈខាងធ្វើម្ហូបខ្មែរ) or, more generally, Cambodian cuisine, is the traditional cuisine of the people of Cambodia. Average meals typically consists of more than one dish and ideally contrasts flavours, textures and temperatures within the meal using plenty of herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, edible flowers and other garnishes and condiments.
Rice is the staple food in Cambodia, and it is part of every meal, both as an accompaniment and used as an ingredient for many dishes. According to the International Rice Research Institute, there are 2,000 rice varieties indigenous to Cambodia that were developed over centuries by Cambodian rice farmers.
Rice is eaten throughout the day in the form of street-side snacks, such as deep-fried rice cakes with chives and spinach, for breakfast, as in Cambodia’s famous rice noodle soup kuyteav or rice porridge, and in many desserts. Plain white rice is served with nearly every family meal, typically served with grilled freshwater fish, a samlor or soup, and an assortment of seasonal herbs, salad leaves and vegetables.
Water, rice and freshwater fish exert the most profound influences on Khmer cuisine. The Mekong river, the twelfth longest in the world, cuts through the very heart of Cambodia. The capital Phnom Penh is on its riverbank, at the junction where two other rivers meet: the Tonle Sap and Bassac.
The Tonle Sap river connects the Mekong with the Tonle Sap lake, or Great Lake, which acts as a liquid heart and natural reservoir for the entire Mekong river system, regulating the flow of huge volumes of water, and allowing the safe passage of an astonishing number of freshwater fish. The lake itself is believed to have more fish than any other in the world and ranks second to the Amazon river in biodiversity.
When the rainy season begins at the start of the Khmer New Year, the region becomes inundated with monsoonal rain and Cambodia turns into a vast ocean of emerald rice-paddies. The geographical setting of wetlands (Cambodia ranks second to Bangladesh for the largest amount of wetland in Asia) and floodplains explains why water, and hence fish and rice (which grow in water) are such an integral component to the cuisine. Many dishes, in particular the samlors, have a pond-like appearance, and are often loaded with reed-like plants, leaves and vegetables, mirroring the surrounding landscape. Dipping sauces tend to be quite watery, as are most Cambodian curries.
Khmer cuisine shares many commonalities with the food of neighbouring Thailand — although, less chilli, sugar and coconut cream are used for flavor — and of neighboring Vietnam, with which it shares and adopts many common dishes, as well as a colonial history, as both formed part of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia. It has drawn upon influences from the cuisines of China and France, powerful players in Cambodian history.
The Chinese began arriving in the 13th century, but Chinese migration accelerated during the French period. Curry dishes, known as kari (in Khmer, ការី) show a trace of cultural influence from India. The many variations of rice noodles show the influences from Chinese cuisine.
Preserved lemons are another unusual ingredient not commonly found in the cooking of Cambodia’s neighbours; it is used in some Khmer dishes to enhance the sourness. The Portuguese and Spanish also had considerable influence in Cambodian affairs in the 16th century, introducing chilli and peanuts into Asia from the New World. However, chilli never gained the same status or prominence as it did with the cuisines of neighbouring Thailand, Laos and Malaysia. Even today very few recipes include chilli.
One legacy of French, the baguette – known as nom pang in Khmer – is ubiquitous in all parts of Cambodia today. Cambodians often eat bread with pâté, tinned sardines or eggs. One of these with a cup of strong coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, is an example of a common Cambodian breakfast.
Freshly buttered baguettes can be made into sandwiches (also called nom pang) and may be stuffed with slices of ham or any number of grilled meats, with Kampot pepper, similar to Vietnamese banh mi. The French also introduced beer, butter, pate, coffee, chocolate, onions, carrots, broccoli, potatoes and many other types of non-native produce to Southeast Asia.
Traditionally, Cambodians eat their meals with at least three or four dishes. A meal will usually include a soup, or samlor, served alongside the main courses. Each individual dish will be either sweet, sour, salty or bitter in taste. Chilli (fresh, pickled or dried) and chilli sauce is served on the side and left up to individual diners and to their taste. In this way Cambodians ensure that they get a bit of every flavor to satisfy their palates.
Street Food Tour Phnom Penh
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