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South Asia Trip Part II: Angkor Wat, Friends International, and Khmer History

Hello Cambodia!

From Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh to Angkor gateway Siam Reap, Mizuha and I spent 5 days in the so called ‘Kingdom of Wonders’ getting to know its Khmer history, food, and people. Cambodian cuisine definitely has its own flare, a taste relatively different to Vietnamese food and Thai food. For one, it’s not as spicy! Even more interestingly, Khmer signature dishes (like Cambodian Fish Amok) use herbs that have a slightly bitter taste. So if you like a mixture of complicated spices, make sure to try one of Cambodian cuisine’s many curry-based dishes!

Cambodia is truly a vibrant country just recovering from its Civil War. With good food, amazing temple ruins, and a friendly plus relatively young population, it definitely stood out as a country with its own character!

*Note: Mizuha and I travelled to Phnom Penh first in order to visit the Killing Fields, not just to understand the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in the past, but in order to understand a piece of Cambodian history that is no doubt an important part of Cambodian identity today. For the purpose of this blog, I have not included any photos of our trip. But I think all visitors to Cambodia, if they have a chance, should make their way to the Killing Fields and understand the brutal history Cambodians are trying to recover from today. 

Highlights:

Early dinner at Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) and a stroll along the Tonle Sap River

On our second day in Phnom Penh, Mizuha and I stopped at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh for some afternoon drinks and early dinner. Right around the corner from the Royal Palace, the FCC Phnom Penh is a lovely restaurant with great views of the Tonle Sap, a freshwater lake that flows into the Mekong River. With a slightly pricer menu and airy interiors, the FCC is one of the nicest restaurant-bars in Phnom Penh. The view of the Mekong during sunset was a definite treat, and so was its happy hour! Afterwards, we took a walk during sunset through the main boulevard and had a lot of fun people watching. From people playing jianzi (a traditional Asian game that consists of kicking a colorful shuttlecock) to college students picnicking, we saw a lot of locals enjoying the nice evening weather.

Learning about Friends International (NGO) through a wonderful lunch

Friends, part of the Friends International social enterprise, was recommended to us by a local Cambodian tour guide. In essence, Friends International really tries to train marginalized young adults wanting to go into Cambodia’s growing hospitality sector, and to give them hands on experience through its various restaurants. The social enterprise has been a vast success, with its many restaurants all over Cambodia winning multiple awards. More importantly, the foods served are always fun and creative takes on traditional Cambodian ingredients.

The concept of the Friend restaurants itself is also refreshing: teachers and students (trainees) are separated by their shirts and you can easily spot the student-teacher dynamic in the restaurant. Friends is located in Phnom Penh, right next to the local school a lot of its student trainees come from. Also part of the enterprise is Friends ‘n’ Stuff, a store selling products created by women that are trying to obtain craftsmanship skills in hopes of sustaining their families. But my favorite thing overall? Good food! There’s nothing like a fresh coconut, sunflower seeds, and beets salad paired with mango sticky rice afterwards!

Chic dining at Luu Meng’s Cambodian restaurant, Malis

Malis is famous Cambodian Chef Luu Meng’s high-end restaurant in Phnom Penh. Mizuha and I took a fun tuk-tuk ride there at night and soaked in the charming little food stalls we saw on the way. No doubt, Malis is beautifully designed, with a lovely courtyard and outdoor seatings. Wildly praised by a lot of chefs, Luu Meng’s masterful take on Cambodian cuisine was definitely delicious–the Fish Amok being the standout dish I think. We also really enjoyed Malis’ signature mousse at the end of our meal. Jasmine flower cooked in honey and ginger topped with fresh fruits, the dessert had a subtle sweetness to it that was really lovely. Malis is definitely dinner date material–but just be ready for the heftier price tag afterwards!

Exploring the Royal Palace and National Museum

Mizuha and I decided to take a break from all the food we were inhaling, and to explore Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace, the residence of Cambodian Kings, and Khmer National Museum. I posted some interesting shots I captured along the way. For example, I loved the chickens that were casually flocked outside the National Museum–they added a dash of color to the already beautiful museum. The Museum itself was also very stunning. There were a couple young monks feeding the fishes in the Museum’s central courtyard and it almost felt slightly magical watching them. Considering the hushed whispers and silent photograph-taking of all the visitors once we saw the monks, I think the National Museum is a lovely place to sit back and take in a sunny Cambodian afternoon.

Nothing is complete without a dinner at the bustling Night Market (and Pub Street)

Together with Stephanie, a fellow German friend of ours we met during our Angkor Wat day trip, we explored Siam Reap’s popular Night Market and Pub Street. With restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops packing the streets, the Night Market and Pub Street remind me of Bangkok’s bustling Khao San Road. From insects to spring rolls, they sell nearly everything you can possibly imagine. We did manage to find a popular restaurant, the Khmer Kitchen, tucked in the corner of the Night Market to dine at. There’s nothing like some good curry and a couple of Angkor beers after a long day of exploring and shopping!

Creative Cambodian Cuisine at Marum, one of Friends International’s Siam Reap Restaurant

Marum was definitely the most delicious place we visited in Siam Reap! Part of the Friends International NGO I introduced above, its Siam Reap location is located in a wonderful little garden alcove with beautiful fairy lights lining the trees at night. Again, there is a Friends ‘n’ Stuff shop connected to the restaurant so we stopped by for a couple more trinkets after our dinner!

The food was absolutely delicious and I cannot rave more about how great the service was. I also managed to spot our young waiter bantering and playing around with another fellow waiter during our dinner, which was a really fun dynamic to watch. All things aside, I like Friends International’s concept and more importantly, adored the food! The set menu was definitely a great choice for first-timers. Lastly, we finished with a dense slice of Chocolate Peppercorn Cake with ice cream and passion fruit glaze–just perfect.

And last but not least, visiting UNESCO Heritage Site, Angkor Wat, finally!

Angkor Wat was truly a highlight of my entire South Asia Trip! Not only is it the largest religious monument in the world, its Khmer architecture is hauntingly beautiful–its literal translation, ‘City of Temples’ describes the historic complex perfectly. We were lucky not only to see Angkor Wat, but also Angkor Thom and its central temple, Bayon (and yes, in case you were wondering, it was featured in the Hollywood movie, Tomb Raider!) But if anything, go there to see the beautiful stone faces and Banyan trees that grow in the middle of the temples.

When we were there, there were multiple weddings going on around the Angkor Wat area. It is apparently a popular place for wedding processions as it brings good luck to the newly weds! Sadly, Angkor Wat is not exactly the biggest foodie destination. However, we were still able to find some Khmer food in a nearby village between our visits to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. (When there’s a will, there’s a way right?)

And that’s a wrap for Cambodia!

My Thailand post will be up next week, so look out for that! From Bangkok to Koh Samui, Mizuha and I definitely proved why Thailand is such a popular tourist and foodie destination. (But seriously, so much street foods coming up!!)

with love,

eatprayjade x.

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