Cambodia - Jan 2015
We left Phu Quoc by fast ferry at 0800 hours and landed in Ha Tien on the Vietnamese mainland about 75 mins later. The ferry was filled predominantly with locals and those westerners on board all appeared to be headed for Phnom Penh via the Chau Doc and the Mekong River ferry.
On this occasion we had decided on using the newly opened border crossing at Xa Xia and Prek Chak and grabbed a taxi to take us right through the 45kms to our next scheduled overnight stop at Kep- an old aristocratic seaside resort for French and later Cambodia well to do. Border formalities were quite straight forward despite the 100m walk between respective immigration offices.
The Cambodian border town is host to a couple of new casinos and is now a free trade zone with Vietnam.- we only saw one other westerner (a Swiss backpacker) using the crossing.
The Cambodian countryside immediately impresses one with their rudimentary farming technologies with very heavy reliance on draft animals (mainly buffalo). And the scarcity of vehicular traffic as compared to their Vietnamese neighbours.
The Vanna Hill Resort (www.vannahillresort.com) was located about one kilometre on the side of a hill overlooking the town proper. We had a great garden bungalow which unfortunately was located furthers up the hillside. Again it was mid range place for flash packers - as we now like to think of ourselves.
We hired immediately hired a small motorbike (US$7.day) to start exploring this famous crab market town. The crabs turned out to be Blue Swimmers and not all that large.
Not exactly an Easy Rider look-a-like
Kep is also famous for the pepper which is grown there
We tried in vain to find the local bank (they are open on Saturdays) and instead opted for an ATM where we found the exchange rate at about 3500Reil to the A$. Having got some money I filled the bike’s empty tank with two litres which cost only $2.50. I had forgotten what a great beer they had over here – Angkor 640ml beers only cost $2.45……very easy!
The sprawled out town of Kep (pop 40 000) has many burnt out waterfront mansions which were sacked during the Khmer Rouge regime. They would be lovely to renovate but this idea has already been taken up by property developers years ago who are now just sitting on them waiting for Kep’s next renaissance.
I recalled a story told to us recently by George Burchett about how, when living in Phnom Pehn in the later 1960s, his parents would bring the family down to Kep for beach holidays and how they could view the spectacular "fireworks" each night as the Americans bombed the nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail......must have been a real treat for the young children.
It quickly became apparent by glancing at advertised prices all over town that everyone wants you to pay them in US$. All restaurant menus only provide prices in Dollars. At the ATM I was given the choice of withdrawing US$s or Cambodian Riels. Of course for us to withdraw in US$s would incur a double exchange fee.
We attempted a swim, but unfortunately the water at the main beach is very shallow ie only about waist high – but still enough to cool off in.
Note the many near fully-clothed local beach goers
Beautiful albeit shallow beach at Kep as well as the the statue of a nude woman (now clothed for modesty) waiting for her husband to return
Kep's Giant Crab Statue and passing tourist
We dined that night at Kep’s rather ritzy Sailing Club which looks out on the Gulf of Thailand and was full of expats and foreign tourists but the food was magnificent and quite reasonable ie $55 for two of us including a bottle of Argentinean wine. We subsequently learnt that the Club hires out sea kyaks and Hobie Cats and Windsurfers. This is a very popular venue with holidaying expats down from Phnom Pehn.
Tomorrow we head for Kampot some 25kms away and we have identified a Tuk Tuk driver to get us there for $12 including a couple of side-track tours.
We received a fabulous breakfast with both Asian and Western offerings. Our Tuk Tuk arrived on schedule at 0930 and we set off for the 25km journey to Kampot- an old river port which has since been overtaken by the development of Sihanoukville in the 1980s.
To Kampot the lazy and hard way
En route I persuaded the driver to detour to take in an old monastery in a cave. This turned out go be a bit of a honey trap for a couple of the local kids to act as “guides”. The cave was a massive disappointment and I will have to forgo similar temptations. The guide took me for $3 including a tip to the local Buddha statue..
Two further things have hit us since arriving in Cambodia and the first is the softer language that is not as ”angry” sounding as is the Vietnamese and the second regretfully is that their coffee is nowhere near as strong or as aromatic as that found in Vietnam.
We spent our first day in Kampot wandering around the old quarter with its French Colonial architecture; including wide boulevards The central square is dominated by an oversized brass sculpture of a Durian fruit – not quite sure of its relevance.
There are quite a few Muslim Cambodians living in this district as evidenced by the prevalence of the hijab amongst many of the womenfolk and the presence of the odd mosque.
The Bokor Mountain Lodge (www.bokorlodge.com) is really just an old yellowing colonial guesthouse run by a young English guy who trained as a chdf in Sydney. It’s a bit worn and the meals slanted towards English pub food but the local staff could not have more helpful and it only cost $45 with Aircon, ensuite and fridge. Its location right on the river is a real plus.
Our hotel and the Kampong Bay River and old bridge (across the road)
Kampot is really quite a pretty laid back river town with a number of Australian expats in residence. We will hire another bike tomorrow to explore the town’s hinterland ie more cave temples, a pepper plantation and a colonial hill station retreat – all within 40kms of town.
We had a lovely dinner last night at Rikitikitavi restaurant whose rooftop balcony provides excellent views over the river and served magnificent dishes of Amok and a special dish Saraman Curry – one of Cambodia’s richest curries made from beef, ginger, peanuts and cardamom – it was beautiful with complex flavours without too much heat! – it was also served with some Pitta type breads.
The Rikitikitavi Restaurant
Cambodian Saraman (Beef with Ginger and Peanuts) Curry – Recipe
One of Cambodia’s most famous curries. Beef with lots of ginger and cardamom, some Indian spices and peanuts. One to try if you ever visit this beautiful country with its really, really sad history. But in Siem Riep, don’t order it from one of the tourist eateries in Bar Street. Rather find one of the small authentic places near the market or on the outskirts of town where the Khmer people go.
We tried this dish in countless other restaurants but were never avble to get anything as good as the one we got served the first time and I am determined to prepare it myself once home. For anyone else's interest, I will provide the following recipe
Cambodian Saraman (Beef with Ginger and Peanuts) Curry – Recipe
One of Cambodia’s most famous curries. Beef with lots of ginger and cardamom, some Indian spices and peanuts. One to try if you ever visit this beautiful country.
· 1 kilogram Beef Topside, Cut into 4 cm cubes
· 120 grams Fresh ginger, Finely grated
· 2 tablespoons Coconut oil (Peanut oil could be used)
· 3 Red chillies, Deseeded and chopped
· 2 ½ teaspoons Galangal (Or Ginger), Chopped
· 6 Cloves Garlic, Chopped
· 4 Spring Onion, White parts only – chopped
· 2 Stalks Lemon grass, Smashed
· 3 tablespoons Fresh Coriander Roots, Cleaned and chopped
· 3 Star anise
· 1 ½ teaspoons Mace
· 1 ½ teaspoons Nutmeg
· 10 Green cardamom pods
· 2 x 4 centimeters Cinnamon sticks
· ½ teaspoon Turmeric
· ½ teaspoon Kampot pepper, Ordinary black pepper could also be used
· 2 Green chillies, Deseeded and finely sliced
· 75 grams Peanuts, Unsalted and roasted
· 5 tablespoons Tamarind water
· 4 tablespoons Palm sugar
· 3 tablespoons Fish sauce
· 2 tablespoons Shrimp paste
· 1 liter Coconut milk
1. Squeeze the grated ginger over a mixing bowl to extract all the juice. Discard the fibre. Add the beef to the bowl and toss to cover with ginger juice. Set aside to marinade for 30 to 45 minutes.
2. Dry roast the spices and blend into a smooth powder using a spice grinder.
3. Add the herbs to a blender or pestle and mortar and grind into a fine paste. Add a little water if the mixture gets too dry and sticky. About one tablespoon of water at a time. Mix the dry and wet pastes for form you curry base.
4. Add a little oil and the shrimp paste to a wok or deep, large saucepan and fry until fragrant. Add the curry paste and fry for another 3 to 4 minutes then add half the coconut milk. Let it come to a boil without stirring and let it cook until the coconut milk splits and the oil separates from the milk. Add the beef and cook for about 20 minutes. Stir regularly.
5. After about 20 minutes, add the remaining green chillies, coconut milk, the palm sugar, tamarind juice, fish sauce and peanuts. Reduce to medium heat and cook covered for about another hour to an hour-and-a-half until the beef is really tender and sauce is thickened. If the sauce gets too thick, add one or more tablespoons of water. Stir regularly and check the heat as the sauce thickens. Serve with boiled or steamed rice.
Our bike trip turned out to be quite a laugh. The biked was rented for $7/day but desperately needed re-fuelling. After 3 litres we were attempting to pay a young chap who was trying go rip us off only to have the local constabulary lean on his shoulder.
Due to the lack of any definitive road maps, I had decided to rely almost entirely on the odometer to guide us to the sights I wished to visit. Just after re-fuelling I realised that the bike had had its speedometer and everything else disconnected – bugger.
As a consequence we got gloriously lost on more than one occasion, finding rural villagers with the barest knowledge of English as scarce as hen’s teeth.
We eventually stumbled across an important temple located in a deep cave – but I had seen better in Vietnam. However, the numerous steps leading up and then down into the cave certainly gave our legs a badly needed work out after so much slothful motorbike riding.
Rural scenes encountered whilst lost
Crossing an irrigation channel
While the temple was not much to look at the views of the countryside were
After eventually finding our way out of the labyrinth of village tracks and irrigation channels we drove out of the town about 8kms to climb into the Mount Bokor National Park. The assent of 1050m was made possible by a new Chinese made road of nearly 25kms which took 5o mins of constant switchback conditions but our mighty scooter made the most of it. The road up is “littered” with large multi-lingual signs warning of the penalties for littering and or eating by the roadside.
We celebrated Maria’s birthday at the large and very garish new casino resort atop the mountain. It was quite cold up there even though it was only 1050m above sea level and blowing a gale. This old colonial hill station now sports a very sino/Russian concrete casino resort – all seemed a little anomalous
That evening we took a boat trip up the Kampong Bay River to watch the sunset and the fireflies which come out after dark. It was interesting to view the number of Eco orientated guesthouses established on the river upstream from the town and to learn how cheap they could be for your average ‘flash-packer’.ie $25-$50/night
Our river Helmsman
On the boat we again encounter the majority of young Europeans all smoking – the message obviously is not not getting through!
We dined finally at a place called Veronica’s Kitchen but which proved not a patch on our previous night’s experience at the Rikitikitavi – still their bottle of Chilean Cab sav was OK.
Tomorrow at 0745hrs we go to Sihanoukville via mini bus - a distance of approx 120kms for about $7.00 each
We had mixed feelings about coming here as I had heard reports that it had a reputation as a bit of a party town - a cross between Kuta Beach in Bali and Pattaya & Patong Beaches in Thailand and I guess its headed that way but on a very small scale. Nevertheless, its worth a visit so long as you can tear yourself away from the crass party kingdom down at Serendipity Beach which is 24/7 bars, non-stop replays of British football matches or else amateur karaoke competitions for the mainly boozed patrons on the beach.
There is more civility to be had down at Otres Beach, cruises and diving on off-shore islands and small get away destinations scattered about the onshore islands. For the well-healed there are quite expensive casino resorts with their own private beaches at Independence and Sokha Beaches.
We got us into Sihanoukville at approx. 1030 hours and were dropped off at the golden lions roundabout
– despite protestations from some Russians in the back who wanted to be delivered right to their hotel door.....their sudden presence again did not auger well.
Our room at the Blue Sea Boutique Hotel (www.bluesea-boutique.com) is a little indulgent both in size and fit out….but after roughing it for the past week we owed it to ourselves….but I do not want to give the impression that we are getting soft!. The hotel was located just off Serendipity Road about half way between the Golden Lions roundabout and the beach. It had a large swimming pool which seemed to be occupied constantly by a couple of elderly chain-smoking Poms escaping three months of winter with a couple of cheap whodunit paperbacks. The hotel also had a pet rabbit which would jump up onto your bed if you left your door open.
After checking we delivered our 3.5kg of dirty clothes to the local laundry where we are getting it done for A$4.
Next a quick recky down Serendipity Road to the beach for a a look at the hotel Ben stayed in for $30 (now $50)
Various Charter Boats at Serendipity Jetty
and those line of beachfront bars and cafes one of which Peter Hansen so wanted to own.
I searched in vain to purchase a replacement stubby holder – no one could oblige. However with draught Angkor Beer at only $0.70 per schooner who cares!
The demographic down here is certainly young European backpacker with the odd older retired couple such as ourselves here and there.
Serendipity Beach appeared quite crowded with banana lounges all over the place together with beach umbrellas, touts of all descriptions plus a phalanx of pesky Tuk Tuk drivers.
Tomorrow we rent another motorbike/scooter to explore outlying areas of Sihanoukville.
We explored a lot of Sihanoukville today first visiting the impressive Wat Leu atop a forested hilltop. The main prayer room was covered in very brightly covered painted scenes of various incidents of the Buddha’s life and even some new ones still being drawn on the ceiling.
Hazy view of Sihanoukville from the Pagoda
En route there I was pulled over by the police who claimed I failed to stop at one of the few red graffic lights. They immediately asked to see my International Driving licence (not expecting me to have one) and then said I had to pay a fine for running the light. When I asked how much, the policeman replied “up to you” – so I forked out 2 x US$1s. Apparently this is a local scam and they will even fine you for driving around with your lights on during the day. We eventually made our way over to Otres Beach reckoned to be the best all round one with less of the noise generated by the teaming party animals down on Serendipity and Occheuteal Beaches.
While over there I persuaded Maria to take her first scooter riding lesson in a deserted soccer pitch and within 5 mins she was riding solo – albeit slowly. Several more lessons were taken later.
That night we dined really well at the Black Grouper restaurant where we both had whole grilled fish – mine the grouper and Maria a baby snapper we both agreed mine was the better of the two. Later I ventured into the Led Zephyr – the premier live music club and was surprised to hear a young lad from Pascoe Vale Melbourne singing – he wasn’t bad either. In the spirit of the moment, I decided to buy Ben and Tom a couple of souvenir T shirts from the place.
We visited the local produce market the following day and en route was again flagged down by the police demanding to see my Driver’s Licence. I instantly recognised the copper as the same one who stopped me the previous day and reminded him of this fact. He also recalled inspecting my licence and rather sheepishly waved me on.
On the same day we happened upon a fellow roasting green coffee beans over a charcoal fire. He slowly manually rotated the beans in a specially designed steel drum into which he periodically added Ghee – hence the unique flavour associated with both Cambodian and Vietnamese coffee After about an hour the resultant roasted beans are cooled on a rattan mat on the ground.
Adding the Ghee
The market offered more than the usual amount of blood and guts especially around the fresh seafood section where we saw giant Trevally, Dolphin fish, Barracuda, Eels and Stingrays as well as an assortment of smaller snapper et al.
There were of course all manner of fruit and vegetables for sale and one could not escape the pungent Durian stalls.
We then went off exploring about 25km out of town up NH4 (the busy highway to Phnom Penh) to find a waterfall (Kbal Chhay Cascades) which we eventually found down an 8km stretch of corrugated gravel road – a bit of a challenge for our bike. The waterfall turned out to be a mere trickle over some rocks and was part of a water conservation area. There are many wooden picnic platforms popular with locals.
We later retired back to our favourite beach at Otres where the madding crowds are more subdued and generally made up of an older demographic. Still you could take boat rides, windsurf and even a bloody jet ski if you so wished.
We dined at the rather up market Outback Restaurant which was not especially good save for the Affogatto with Amaretto at the end.
Another demand to view my international licence – lots of Europeans being fined – one even asked me where he could buy an International Licence locally.
The number of Russians here are still large.
Quite a number of Eucalypts and Melaleucas have been planted around town and along the major highways.
Plenty of deserted and ruined resorts as well a lot of super-sized new resort developments – many of which have incorporate a casino
We ventured out to Independence Beach named after a very up market resort of the same name. Like Sokha Resort this one has its own strictly policed beach for guests only. However, the amenities here are clearly more pitched towards locals than tourists. Still Maria managed to have a pedicure by one of the itinerant massage women wandering about.
Today the beach was being battered by quite heavy half metre swells providing almost surf-like conditions. No doubt something to do with the full moon experienced a few days earlier.
We booked our minibus ticket to Phnom Penh for first thing Monday morning and both feel as if we have stayed too long down here in this party town.
Got pulled over again by police who appear to be having a concerted crackdown on tourists on motorbikes without licences and or wearing helmets. During the day we endeavoured to find out more about the golden lion statue – but no local could tell us anything. So good old Google came to the partial rescue to advise that they were erected in 1996 but by and for whom remains a mystery.
We tried another LP starred restaurant last night this time the Sandan – run as a vocational training program for children at risk (similar to the Romdeng in Phnom Penh). Unfortunately the food was a bit of a let down again and we are starting to question the LP’s judgement when it comes to identifying worthwhile eateries – we have struck out quite a few times with the likes of So
We visited a Russian run guesthouse and restaurant called the Snake House on account that it has live snakes kept in glass containers set in the middle of tables. In addition they have a beautiful tropical yard full of other reptiles including a lot of crocodiles (I presume they must be farming these) as well as exotic birds, fish and a monkey. I had to pay a $3.50 entrance fee but it was worth it.
Visited a French style bakery near the markets for a rather stale Chocolate Croissant. I also wanted to take some movie footage of the coffee roaster but the bugger had moved on.
As we further explored the town’s back streets we were again amazed at the number of resorts advertising casino activities.
We again spent the afternoon at our favourite Otres Beach where Maria had her third motorbike riding lesson. She is getting more confident and should now take on the bitumen roads – but I think some of the locals’ cavalier observance of the basic road rules would still frighten her.
One afternoon we noticed a couple of Japanese girls returning to the beach after a diving expedition and one of the girls laid down in the hot sand while her companion buried her in the sand.
We subsequently learnt that some divers believe that the hot sand helps prevent the development of the bends??
Maria enjoys her final 'health drink' at Otres Beach
During an early morning stroll down on Occheuteal Beach I noticed that the far end is used predominantly by local families with many of the children including those of teenage years, playing in the water wearing life jackets. Meanwhile down on Serendipity Beach they were already advertising tomorrow's Australia Day party; viz:
Down on the jetty I noticed for the first time a 19m catamaran (Sail X Cat) docking which offered one day sailing cruise for a max of 10 passengers around Koh Krung and other islands plus lunch for $60. Had we known we would have jumped on board.
In summary, we decided that we could only take so much lolling around indolently on cabana lounges at the beaches without either a kindle or decent book to read and it quickly became quite boring.......there's only so many cocktails or Angkor beers that a responsible motor scooter driver can consume on a hot day.
When we came to pay our bill at our Sihanoukville Hotel we were told that their EFTPOS machine was only calibrated to accept US$s and so we again have been unnecessarily slugged twice for exchange charges.
Our4hr ($11) minivan trip to Phnom Penh ended up taking 5 hrs as we arrived on the outskirts of the city at lunchtime peak hour. It took over an hour to crawl the last 12kms from the airport into the riverside bus station.
A rough looking Tuk Tuk driver then took us to our hotel (www.thebillabonghotel.com) which was only 200m from the Central Market. It’s called the Billabong on account of the shape of its large shaded swimming pool.
Oneredeeming feature of the Cambodian Tuk Tuk as compared to his Thai counterpart is that the rooflines are much higher so that a person of my size or taller does not have to crouch to see out or keep track of where they are going.
Royal Palace - still there as are the flocks of pigeons which tourists feed
One can also buy a sparrow to release - presumably for good kama
After setting up we took a stroll around the Central Market which is surrounded by hordes of particularly pesky Tuk Tuk drivers. This market is more utilitarian in character and pitched at the needs of locals rather than tourists......nevertheless there are some wonderful sights to be had; such as these 'dancing' strangled fowls:
We then headed out to the river to catch some breeze in the torpid heat of this bustling city. On sitting at one riverside (tourist trap) café our ears were assailed by the chatter of two elderly northern (?Yorkshire) Englishmen nattering on about the football scores back horm and the price of their rooms – there appear to be lots of these types about – all on one year retirement visas. We met a couple of brown wizened ones poolside at our hotel in Sihanoukville who come every year for 3 months just to beat winter ‘back horm’.
On our first night we dined at the Romberg Restaurant another of the ones set up to train children at risk in the hospitality industry. This time the restaurant was set in a lovely French colonial villa quite near us and the food was good, albeit the serves a little too generous - I again tried the beef (Saraman) curry with cardamom, ginger and peanuts while Maria had chicken in lime cooked in a banana leaf.
The next day we tackled the Russian Market. This place is just a maze of tiny stalls selling just about anything and about as easy to navigate through as any Middle Eastern souk.
On our last trip to Phnom Pehn, Maria developed a severe stomach upset which curtailed our wanderings too far from the identified WC emplacements. This time no such impediments and we ploughed on relentlessly for a couple of hours. We have seen the imitation vine leaves Amy is chasing on the back of a bloody Tuk Tuk and so are on the hunt for them.
We gave the Russian Market a good going over this morning had a few wins but could not find those vine leaves. We also visited a number of boutique craft shops full of products made by children at risk and or the victims of land mines – some beautiful silk, silver and wood products but while we bought a couple of items we find our interest in any extensive retail shopping waning severely as this holiday draws to a close.
Later that evening we strolled along Street 172 which seemed full of cheap guesthouses and retired British and French expats sitting in restaurant bars offering anything but Khmer food eg Bacon Butty, Lancashire Hot Pot or Croque Monsieur et al. I do not recall this demographic being present in such numbers on our earlier trip in 2010.
Cannot secure postal votes for the Qld State Election – tried Embassy who said their assistance had not been sought although they had been asked to assist with Victoria’s election late last year. We have registered for postal vote but guess our forms will be sent to our home address.
There really should be a movement in all SE Asian countries to ‘reclaim the footpaths’ – we are getting a little tired of risking our lives amongst the cars and Tuk Tuks on the road all the time.
We change hotels in Phnom Penh after two nights at the Billabong and move to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (www.fcccambodia.com) . Being on the riverfront or more accurately the Tonle’ Sap it was much cooler.
My early November decision to try and book one of the eight riverfront rooms at the Foreign Correspondents Club has paid off with a beautiful 1930s style room with teak floor and furniture. It also has some copies of historically press clippings framed on the walls. French doors open out onto a spacious balcony overlooking the Tonle’ Sap. On the floor above is the iconic bar and restaurant and then the rooftop bar.
All rooms are on the first floor with restaurant on 2nd and bar on roof
Selfie of some smug guests
View of Tonle' Sap from our balcony
Local fishermen/women working nets in the Tonle' Sap
The truth about its history is quite a story but certainly puts paid to all those who (like me) believed it had had a long career; I found the following extract on the internet:
It's happy hour at the FCC Phnom Penh and the hottest bar in town is also the coolest, the sultry evening air whipped by the propellers of overhead fans. On the rooftop terrace scantily dressed expats, Western tourists and well-heeled locals stand shoulder-to-shoulder, absorbing half-priced mango daiquiris and views across the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers; while downstairs, gin-sozzled barflies prop against the curved wooden bar or sink into deep leather armchairs, dreaming Rafflesque fantasies of a bygone era.
As one of South-East Asia's most legendary watering holes, the cream walls of the Foreign Correspondents Club speak volumes, its folklore embedded in bricks and mortar. Its history is palpable, the ghosts of war correspondents past lingering in the shadows, whispering of turmoil, coups and dictators, of breaking stories and deadlines.
Stories to tell ... the Foreign Correspondents Club is only 18 years old. Photo: Cat Vinton
But while this breezy, open space bears the countenance of a colonial dowager who has witnessed countless military campaigns, the FCC's secret is that it is, in fact, a mere teenager - albeit one that's lived turbulently.
Its story began just 18 years ago, when a South-East Asia-based British lawyer named Steve Hayward talked his way across the Vietnamese border on New Year's Day, 1992, hung-over and in search of adventure. A tentative ceasefire had just been declared in Cambodia after years of genocide, civil war and invasion; tanks rumbled through the streets of Phnom Penh and a military curfew was imposed after 10pm, enforced by soldiers bearing AK-47s.
"It was desperately poor — the best you could get was a bloody banana — and there was a lot of unease with the withdrawal of the Vietnamese and the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) coming in," Hayward recalls. "But there was a real feel to the place, despite it being so off-bounds."
On his first day in Cambodia, Hayward met a couple of UN advance soldiers who told him there'd be 23,000 troops arriving in six months' time, each with $US100 allowance for a day. Sensing a business opportunity, Hayward went to Hong Kong and convinced a bunch of lawyer mates to invest $US5000 each. This was promptly transferred into gold and used to buy a building near the Phnom Penh Central Market called the Gecko Bar.
The first bar to open in Cambodia since 1967, from the start the Gecko became a hangout for UN officials, diplomats and of course, gin-swilling reporters; and before long it had become the de facto journalists' club. But Hayward wanted something bigger; and he found it on the riverfront at Sisowath Quay in 1993, then a no-go zone of "thieves, vagabonds and worse".
"The river was a place you'd never come at night — it was scary. In those days, there was nothing but warehouses and Chinese emporiums — big houses faced the palace out of respect and no one thought of the river as a great view. Only some goon from London."
And so the FCC was born; five individual units were bashed into one and gradually expanded into what it is today, consisting of nine guest rooms, a restaurant, bar, terrace and cafe.
Expats flocked to the place; and as Pol Pot took his final stand in the jungle, so journalists filed breaking stories from the "F", including Nate Thayer, the correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, who famously scored the last interview with the elusive Khmer Rouge dictator.
Thayer, it is rumoured, had a penchant for randomly shooting automatic weapons from tall buildings — as did several other regulars at the FCC. According to Hayward, many a bullet was fired from the balustrade in those early days, fuelled by alcohol and the frontier spirit that permeated the city. This was the wild, wild east — but in a lawless city where kidnapping, assassinations, rapes and theft were rife, the "F" was a haven of relative sanity and probably the safest place to be.
"It's an oasis in Indochina," Hayward says. "People think the place has been here for years. I've read some brilliant stories of people saying they'd stood here watching American warplanes fly over — that certainly never happened. And some people say Ernest Hemingway came here, but that's impossible. I'm sure he would have if he could have, but he didn't because the bar wasn't even open then!"
Had a pleasant afternoon visiting surrounding galleries and artisan shops and then retired to the FCC for the 5 to 7 pm happy hour and dinner.
Traffic in Phnom Penh especially during the lunch and after work rush hours would make riding a bike a little dangerous so we are content to use Tuk Tuks for our longer journeys around town ie to the supermarket.
We decided to use one such Tuk Tuk to journey some 40 km NW of the capital along National Route 5 – leads to Thai border (what a joke – the road was just a series of pot holes that had our Tuk Tuk preferring to drive on the corrugated grave shoulder most of the time. Track alongside. It took over two hours of bouncing in the dust to reach Oudong - the former Khmer capital and burial place of the ancient kings.
National Route 5
To get to the Wat atop the hill one has to negotiate a very steep climb of 439 steps (Maria countered them) past numerous hissing and pissing monkeys, wannabe child guides and then to find the bloody thing closed for renovations. However, the views from the Wat terrace over the rice paddies, fish farms and the Mekong River made it all worth it……I think.
Maria's stairway.......to hell
After all that its then 'shoe removal' time
We then had to traverse the same route home but this time we settled some of the dust with cold beers bought along the way.
During this foray into the countryside we passed numerous signs advertising a myriad of “International Schools” – now they all seemed to have been sponsored by US or European organisations and all seemed well-attended with their students smartly dressed in uniforms. I guess all of these schools are basically established to improve basic literacy and numeracy and perhaps English language.
Once back in town I got dropped off at another religious landmark – the Wat Phnom….really I think we have seen better Buddhist shrines in Myanmar and Lao – this one even though it was heavily populated with local devotees and monks was nothing very special and not a patch on the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda down the road.
Maria unfortunately got into a verbal tangle with our Tuk Tuk driver who claimed he had not been paid his agreed price of US$30 for the day. He had earlier refused to count the notes Maria had handed over to him in front of his fellow drivers and an hour later came back to publically demand a further US$10 he reckoned he was owed- he had her over a barrel and so had no choice but to pay up the extra dosh to shut him up – all this happening under the gaze of FCC patrons at the bar above…..certainly left us feeling a little pissed off for the rest of the evening.
Views from FCC rooftop Bar
We spent the next day trooping around all the tourist shops looking for that special piece of clothing or object d’art – mindless and quite tiring. However, on a return journey to the central market we had a win by being able to find and purchase the synthetic string of vine leaves that Amy was after.
For our final night we had booked a dinner cruise which I imagined would be quite a festive affair meeting fellow tourists and swapping the odd travel story – alas we were the only passengers for the 3 crew to look after. They served up quite a feast of soup, fish amok and grilled prawns and beef. However, it all felt a little flat and we returned an hour earlier than scheduled.
This ‘wrong-un’ occurred simply because of the poor language skills possessed by the staff at the local tourist info office with whom I had booked. I had earlier tried at the FCC reception desk but the fellow on duty at the time could not understand my request – ho hum !
This beautiful Gecko appeared from behind a window at the FCC dining room
Next day we tackled our final packing task to see if everything would fit. We have booked a car to take us to the airport mid-afternoon for our 1800 hour SilkAir flight down to Singapore and then wait for our midnight flight to Brisbane with Singapore Airlines which gets in at about 1030 hours.
We were scheduled to have a final lunch at a French styled café in 240 Street only to have its peaceful ambiance turned upside down by some very vocal middle aged American and French couples comparing travel notes two tables away – we left early sick of eavesdropping on their banalities and instead took shelter in the FCC’s newspaper reading room.
All went to plan with no hold ups, delays or even covert recliners in the seats in front of us. We did witness the magnificence of the piccaninny dawn over the Simpson Desert and Eastern parts of Lake Eyre – we have never flown over them in daylight before
Good to be home after having now plugged a few more gaps into our SE Asian knowledge bank.....where to next????
On this trip, I experimented by choosing to travel only with my Microsoft Surface 2 tablet which I found much less bulky than my laptop and I was able to store it readily into my day pack. A breeze to open up at airport security check in points. However, its detachable keyboard proved a bit difficult to get used to and my fingers often hit two keys at once but I was still able to record all my diary notes on the thing as well as nearly 3GB of photographs - downloaded each night from our cameras.
The beauty of the Surface tablet was that it offered a near seamless MS Word format which was readily transferred to the laptop once home and as well supported MS Excel spreadsheets to help monitor our finances whilst travelling and a MS Outlook email platform .....a great machine.
Unfortunately, there has been some delay in publishing these last three chapters occasioned by the appearance of Cyclone Marcia on 20 February 2015 and the fact that we were then left without power for 8 days. We luckily escaped unscathed apart from the loss of the odd tree and bush....many others in the town were not so lucky!
Gladstone Radar at about 1030 hours - the eye of the cyclone eventually passed just to the west of Yeppoon at about 1200 hrs.
Back to Main Menu