Posts Tagged With: Wat Phnom

Cyclo Architecture Tour in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a city seriously misunderstood.

When visiting Southeast Asia, tourists expect two things from Cambodia: The ruins of Angkor Wat, and the Killing Fields. After booking their flight to Siem Reap and their bus to the beach, they plan to pop into the dusty and chaotic city of Phnom Penh for a few nights—no more—to tour the Killing Fields and have a beer overlooking the Mekong River.

I have news. Phnom Penh is so much more than the Killing Fields. It is a city in renaissance. A city overflowing with a culture unlike any other in the world.

Sure, the roads are a bit busy and the air a bit humid. Phnom Penh is a city of 2 million people.

When you visit Phnom Penh, you walk the pebbled streets of smiling women scrubbing pots and brushing the hair of baby girls.

You wave at the moto drivers playing chess on the street corner and they wave back. When you visit Phnom Penh, you giggle with the girls in the market as you try on clothes that obviously don’t fit.You are invited to play games in the street. You taste countless different types of sour soups and steaming curries. You never knew a noodle could be cooked so many ways. You never thought flowers could smell so sweet or fruit could be so fresh. You take a selfie with your lover in the moonlight, and look behind your shoulder to see a young Cambodian couple doing the exact same thing. You hear men singing as they pedal their bicycles past you as you walk home from the market. Teenagers sip bubble tea as they get a manicure for a weekend wedding. You try to photograph the architecture of the wooden Cambodian houses peeking out alongside the French colonial facades, but you realize that your camera can never capture the creeping vines, the butterflies, the shadows, the tiles, the apsara dancers carved in wood, the smell of the incense. And when you fall asleep, you dream of the people who were so patient with you in a place where you are so clearly a foreigner.

Phnom Penh is not a place to be “done”. It is not a place to ask, “Is it worth it?” When you go to Phnom Penh, you need to slow down, take a deep breath, and look around you. I have lived here for two years and I am surprised every day.

When my family came to visit, I wanted to show them a part of the city neither of us had experienced before. I had seen the cyclos looping around Wat Phnom on Saturday afternoons, and knew there was a pretty popular cyclo tour. After a quick visit to the Khmer Architecture Tours website, I knew it would be the perfect way to spend the morning.

IMG_5185(All pictures are courtesy of master photographers; my Aunt Pat and my sister.)

There were seven of us: Sean and I, my dad and sister, my aunt and her two friends. We arrived at eight in the morning to a group of men in lime green t-shirts and white hats. They didn’t speak English, and my Khmer small-talk is brutal. We had a tour guide who was a recent graduate of Phnom Penh University with a major in architecture. IMG_5187Our sunscreen on, and our introductions complete, we set off to learn more about the architecture of Phnom Penh.

IMG_5202Our first stop was at a Chinese temple, one of the few in the city.

IMG_2816The temple had a few people praying or making offerings. There is a large Chinese-Cambodian presence, and many Cambodians identify as both Chinese and Cambodian to a certain extent.
IMG_2819The streets weren’t crowded as we cruised along, seven cyclos in a row. I can’t imagine what someone sitting in a barbershop must have thought when they saw us filter past!

IMG_5221We stopped at an old Jesuit church that has now been converted into housing. Before this tour, I had no idea how complicated housing is here in Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge, people were marched out of the city and the houses became abandoned. After the Khmer Rouge, people returned to an empty city to try and rebuild their lives. The government passed a new law which said that if you inhabited a place for one year, then it legally became your property, and you were the rightful owner to sell it as you pleased. This presented a real problem. Imagine that you were forced to leave your home during the Khmer Rouge, crossed the border into Thailand, and were finally able to return three years later. You are dropped off on your street. Not only does everything look different, but you walk up to your door, and a stranger opens the door. Your house does not belong to you. However, the new owner is “so kindly willing” to sell your house back to you, if you can agree on a price.

The whole system is terribly flawed, and shattered the lives of thousands. They not only lost their loved ones, but their houses were now “owned” by strangers.IMG_5224This church had room after room that had been cobbled together and built on top of each other. The church can’t be taken over by one dominant person as each room is independently owned by the people who resettled there after the Khmer Rouge.

IMG_5266The tour was fantastic not only because of the history and the architecture, but I had never seen Phnom Penh from the viewpoint of sitting inside a cyclo.

IMG_2817Each bike was a testament to the life of the man who drove it. You could tell they were meticulously crafted and continued to be cared for. These cyclos are the cadillacs of the city, man. Not to mention one of the drivers who really enjoyed saying, “Ooh la la” to make us laugh. IMG_5226At the end of the day, we said goodbye to our guide and our drivers, our minds full of awe at this city and it’s hidden alleys, temples, and histories that we never knew existed.

If you have the chance, come to Phnom Penh. And stay a while. I’ll take you to my favorite neighborhood. You’ll meet some really great people. It’s a hard place not to love.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tuk Tuk Monopoly In Phnom Penh

You had to read that title twice, didn’t you? It is almost like trying to speak a different language. Catching a tuk tuk in Phnom Penh, okay, that makes sense. But Monopoly? Let me slow down.


First, you must remember that this is a tuk tuk:


Second, you must remember that this is Phnom Penh:



Third, if you have never played Monopoly…




Now, let’s get started. As a staff ice-breaker and introduction to the city for new teachers, our school held a “tuk tuk Monopoly” race throughout Phnom Penh. We were given a game board, and instead of “Park Place” or “Boardwalk”, we had “Wat Phnom” and “Malis Restaurant”. The team who visited the most locations and racked up the highest points was the winner.

Never one to refuse a challenge, I met with my team at the start time, and we worked with our tuk tuk driver to map out a route of the city.

Our driver was amazing. The best driver I have ever had in Cambodia.

I’m not kidding.

When I first moved here, and had no idea where anything was, I would tell a tuk tuk driver, “Bouchon wine bar, please. Do you know where it is?” And he would politely nod, yes, of course. Then, thirty minutes later, I would be outside the number one night club in Phnom Penh, Pontoon.  I quickly learned that the tuk tuks know every single Wat and pagoda, but if you ask them about some swanky, foreign gastropub, obviously they’re gonna draw a blank. So, I learned to speak Khmer, mapped out the pagodas in my head, and have no more problems.

But this tuk tuk driver, he was in another league.

This guy knew every street, every bar, every cafe, every landmark. And he mapped out our route for us, in complete perfection.

I would mention three or four places we needed to go, and he would say, “Well, first let’s go to the riverside, because we can hit three of those places in order. Then, we’ll head over to the place you mentioned, and then down to the final stop. What else is on the gameboard? Oh, Sorya Mall? We can put that second. But if you want to get a picture of Raffles hotel then we need to go there before we go down to Central Market.”

The best part? His name is Bond. Jame Bond.

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 5.42.46 PM


I took one of his cards before he left. With his photo on the back, he makes sure you never forget his name or his face. This guy, he was legendary. If you are ever in Cambodia, do yourself a favor and call Jame Bond.

So, as I was saying, we—and by we, I mean Jame—mapped out our route, jumped onto the tuk tuk, and sped off down the congested streets in quest of first place.

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 4.50.16 PM

We had around three hours to check off as many places as possible.  I mapped our journey for you to get a better picture of where we went. I mean, just look at that route! Absolutely no back-tracking, no unnecessary streets, just seamless travel. If you ask me, Mr. Bond should become an urban planner.

0Our team. Meli, next to me, teaches Language Support in the Primary School. Mark, in the blue, is a grade 6 teacher. John, in the white, is our Secondary school guidance counselor. (And is from Wisconsin!) Jame, in the light blue, is navigating the streets. We had a dream team, let me tell you!

1The rule of the game was that we had to get a picture of ourselves in front of each location, with some sort of sign labeling the place. Our first stop, as you can see, is Russian Market. (Toul Tom Poung market, in Khmer.)



Then we headed over to the newest place in Phnom Penh, Aeon mall. (You can start to see a theme of the photos… from here on out it’s all shots of us standing in front of something.)

3Then, to Malis, a famous Khmer restaurant.

4Metahouse, a popular place to see foreign films. Jame took all of our photos—pretty soon we got into a fluid routine of jumping out of the tuk tuk, snapping the photo, and racing back in.

5One of the “bonus” activities, to win extra points, was to get a photo with a monk. With the help of Jame, that was no problem.




Then it was off to the National Museum.


And one of the most famous expat places in Phnom Penh, the Foreign Correspondents Club. The most legendary bar in Phnom Penh, you can read the scandalous backstory of the place here.





Wat Ounalom.




9The token Irish pub of Cambodia, Paddy Rice. (Where we ran into a teacher from another team who had long given up hope at winning tuk tuk Monopoly. He should have joined Jame Bond.)




A brief stop over at Artisan’s Angkor, a social business where local artists sell their work.



11Wat Phnom! My favorite wat (temple) in the city.


12Doors, known for their live music and great brunch. (Doesn’t this photo look like an album cover?!)
13Funny story about this photo. This is the Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel. We were terrified to go inside because there was a rumored “policeman” somewhere in the city for the Monopoly game. (Remember when you played the game and got sent to jail?) If we were caught by the policeman, we had to head straight back to Northbridge, a thirty minute ride, get a signed form, and then head back into the city. So we snapped a quick picture and left as fast as possible!


Central Market.


Sorya shopping center, near Central Market. They’ve got a nice food court on their top level, most memorable for me when I dumped a 16 ounce avocado smoothie down the front of my shirt.


16The French cultural center.
17Deco, which has fantastic microbrew beer on tap from Cervisia brewery, an up-and-coming brewery here in Phnom Penh.

18Tabitha foundation. One of the more famous NGO’s, which has built Nokor Tep hospital, a free hospital for women in Cambodia.

And then, the finish line! We rolled in with five minutes to spare. And guess what? Thanks to our diverse team knowledge and Jame Bond’s skills, we actually came in first place!  We earned the most points by means of visiting the most places, getting the most bonus shots, and all showing up in a fancy dress. (I left that photo out though, for the integrity of my lovely coworkers.)

The bottom line? Next time you’re in Cambodia, use this map as a guide for all things local, and call Jame Bond.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Goldilocks Guide To Massage In Phnom Penh

We all know the story of Goldilocks. The famous “Goldilocks Principle” can be applied to a vast number of situations. It is that search for something that is neither too extreme nor too tame, neither too much or too little, but “just right”.

Southeast Asia is famous for massage. In Phnom Penh, you can find massage parlors averaging about one every two blocks. When we were on the beach, my sister and I thirsted for a massage every afternoon. Generally, you can expect to pay between $7-10 in the city for an hour massage. In the local places, the prices drop down to $2.50, and in the luxury hotels, they can rise to $50. Your basic Cambodian massage is much different than any massage you will receive in the States. For example, your massage is not complete until you’ve been hoisted into the air on the shins of your masseuse:

khmer(Photo courtesy of Champei Spa on Tripadvisor.)

This position is also signature in a traditional Khmer massage:


(Photo courtesy of Lotus Blanc Resort.)

The Khmer massage involves a lot of partner stretches and movements that use the masseuse’s body as a hinge. In a Khmer massage, you are always fully clothed in loose, cotton pants and tunic that they provide.

This weekend, I tried out my third place here in the city. Having been to three separate parlors, with three VERY different experiences, I can say that I now have the Goldilocks Principle for massage in Phnom Penh.

Location #1: East West Healing Massage

East West Healing Massage, on street 53 in BKK, was recommended to me by our school nurse. She told me she didn’t like “wimpy” massages. I told her I couldn’t agree more. She said that East West REALLY massaged you deeply, and that you would certainly thank them afterwards.


(Photo courtesy of  Holistic Health and Me.)

I arrived at East West, and they asked me if I wanted Khmer, Chinese, or Vietnamese massage. As they were a Chinese parlor (I deduced this only by the artwork and signs on the walls…) I asked for the Chinese massage. I was pretty sure our school nurse gets the Chinese massage, so I decided to go for it.

To be brief, I was glad I was face-down for much of the massage, so that the women could not see the expression of sheer agony on my face. I was actually gripping the legs of the massage table, which were conveniently (or purposefully?) within reach. This woman was INTENSE. The picture above is the best likening I can find that captures the experience. Every movement on my back was as hard, fast, and penetrating as her muscles could muster. And it wasn’t just simple pressure points—she would find a tendon, and then with her elbows she would twang the muscle back and forth like she was in a fiddling competition. She would press her thumbs into my veins to stop the blood flow to my hand, then swing my arm around in a circle like a rag-doll having a seizure. She would oscillate my shoulder/wrist/ankles back and forth, hearing the crunching of bones and cartilage between every push and pull. I don’t think she was satisfied until my cartilage was dislodged from the area and floating freely around my circulatory system. With every grip, every stab, every contorted manipulation, muscles were begging for mercy. Up until that day, I never thought it was possible to break a sweat during a massage.

East West Healing Massage? Goldilocks Says: Too Hard!

Next up, we have:

Location #2: One Day Spa & Beauty Salon

 One is in my neighborhood, and was one of the first parlors I visited in Cambodia. Near the Russian Market, they pride themselves on giving struggling women dependable and positive employment.

the one(One on Facebook.)

At One, I have had a back/neck/shoulder massage as well as a 90-minute traditional Khmer massage. To begin, their ambiance is fantastic. Cozy, dimly lit rooms, scented candles, and smooth acoustic music filtering through the air. All of their employees are very sweet and polite as well. I always feel very comfortable at One. However, whenever I am having a massage, I am waiting for that spine-tingling-“aaah” moment, but it never seems to come. They are very delicate and smooth in their movements, but leave me always wanting a little bit more. It’s hard to describe in words, but they consistently seem too gentle for my liking. My sister, on the other hand, loved One. She loved the light pressure massage, as opposed to anything heavier or more forceful, which she had in Thailand. For me, it is too easy to start daydreaming during the massage—I need a massage that is gentle enough not to cause pain, but strong enough to give me a sensation I cannot get by massaging my legs or my head myself.

One Day Spa? Goldilocks Says: Too Soft!


Lastly, I happily present to you:

Location #3: Seeing Hands Massage Center

 Located near Wat Phnom, all of the masseuses at this parlor have visual impairments. I would say 90% of them are completely blind. The other 10% have visual impairments of different sorts. Luckily for them, they found a professional that fits their skills perfectly. To massage the human body, one can “see” in many different ways.


(Photo courtesy of

THIS was the ideal massage. Set in an older building, it is a much different atmosphere than the other two parlors. This had a communal setting; you walk in, pay in advance, and head upstairs to the massage room. You enter a room and see ten massage tables set up with people getting massages all in the same room. They hand you your cotton clothes, and you changes behind a curtain and put your personal items in a locker. Then, you lie down on a bed, and wait. Eventually, you feel someone approach you, and touch you from your feet up until your head. He smiled and said, “Hello”, as he touched the four corners of the table to get his bearings. Then, he draped the massage sheet over my body (as all massages here do), and began to give me the best, firmest, most controlled, most effective, most professional massage I have had in Cambodia. This guy knew where to massage, how hard, and for how long. He really made it an art! Luckily, they have all of their employee’s pictures at the front desk, so I plan on asking for the same guy when I go back next time. It was a GREAT massage: perfect in every way. No contortions, and plenty of, “Aaah, that’s the spot” moments.

Seeing Hands Massage Center? Goldilocks Says: Just Right!


Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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