Cambodia: Phnom Penh and Kep

From Kota Kinabalu I flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to meet up with my friend Katherine. Kat and I went to college together (I told a friend of hers that I ‘knew her from the nineties’) and I hadn’t seen her for four years, since our going-away parties when she was on her way to Ghana and I was on my way to NZ. We’ve kept in touch of course, and I knew she’d been commissioned as a missionary in the Methodist Church and had been sent to Cambodia to work on community health and agriculture stuff. I would actually love to write an entire post about Katherine’s work, and how it relates to my work, and the amazing discussions we had about our work while we were driving around in her little red car, but I don’t think I can do them justice—I mean I was only in Cambodia a week, you know, I was there as a tourist and I am totally not qualified to comment on anything but my own experiences while I was there. Still, though, those conversations were the best part of being there with her.


Of course getting Khmer massages every other day or so was fun too. Here we are in a schmancy salon dressed in the pajamas they give you when you go for a massage. It’s not like the ones I usually get, like with oil and whale music playing in the background, it’s more stretch-y and pressure point-y, kind of painful and kind of amazing. I love that her first impulse, upon picking me up at the airport, was to take me to the spa.


We didn’t actually stay in Phnom Penh very long, just overnight, as Kat has suggested earlier via our planning emails that she’d like to spend some time down in Kep, which she described, intruiguingly, as a ‘post-apocalyptic French colonial beach resort.’ Since I was the laziest I have ever been re: trip planning and had no real agenda for my time in Cambodia other than to spend time with my friend, I was all, “Yep!” and so down we went, talking as hard as we could and looking forward to some time at the beach.


We stayed at a beautiful guest house Kat’s been going to years, where they know her and where they have delightful French crepes with lime juice and sugar every morning for breakfast.



The first day we went to Rabbit Island on a boat with some other tourists. I was very happy to be wearing my faithful blue beach dress that I got…man, is it four years ago, almost?… when I went to Rarotonga. That beach dress has served me well, man, on its travels around various islands with me (including my home island, of course).



We found a funny little sort of tree-housey platform, which we commandeered for ice-coffee-drinking and lunch eating. I am planning to write a whole separate post about everything I ate on my trip, if I can ever finish writing everything up, so I will wait to tell you about the delicious spicy beef baguettes we ate or the guava dipped in garlic chili salt, sigh.


See how happy I am to be on the beach? So happy!


The water was like a warm bath.


I made a bikini stamp on this wooden loungey thing when I got out.


The view from our seaside restaurant.


We also drive around the area a little bit, visiting a pepper plantation (the area is famous for pepper, which we ate in a sauce over some fresh crab) and checking out various things and stuff, talking talking talking the whole way. I started to pick up a couple of words in Khmer from listening to Katherine: ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘I like to eat Khmer food’, and so forth.






Old French colonial house—there are a lot of those around, but apparently they’re being torn down to make room for new guest houses and hotels as the area gets more popular.


Little did I know how many statues of Hindu gods I would be seeing in just a few days in Siem Reap, when I took this at a roundabout.


And if you think I’m going to drive by a statue of a giant crab and not yell STOP KAT HILARIOUS PHOTO OPPORTUNITY TO STARBOARD, well…hi, I’m Chiara, have we met?


Katherine actually had to do some work while I was there with her, so on the way back to Phnom Penh we stopped at a village where she has been working on a rice bank project with a pastor there; the rice bank is a collaboration amongst several village families, both Christian and Buddhist. She was there to sort out the final contract with the village and deliver the funding. Most of the negotiations were in Khmer of course, so while she was sitting at the table I sat quietly with the women and children and tried to look semi-intelligent.



One of the ladies there noticed my long dress I was wearing, and, in attempt to be polite, I said one of the four Khmer words I knew: the word for scarf, which sounds like ‘kro-MAH” to my English-speaking ears. This led to much laughter and attempts to teach me the words for ‘skirt’ and ‘dress’ and ‘blouse’ and so on, all of which I murdered pronounciation-wise, much to the hilarity of my seat-mates, who brought me a coconut to drink and passed me a baby or so to hold. The kids got in on the (only semi-successful) attempts to teach me to count to five.




They took me on a tour of the village, pointing out various things and trying to teach me to say ‘cow’ and ‘butterfly’ and ‘flower’ and so forth, with not-very-good success on my part. We all smiled and laughed a lot, and I thought about what it must be like to live there. It made me think a lot of the mission trips I went on in the nineties, the various communities who let us in for a couple of weeks basically out of the goodness of their hearts.


Here we all are together—this is right before I asked Kat’s co-worker to please express my thanks for my tour and language lessons, at which one lady replied (in Khmer), “Well, if you stayed a little longer you could maybe learn a little more!”

Kat and her staff member and I talked about the village and the contract and the rice bank and the pastor and the Christian community there the whole way back to Phnom Penh, until it was time to go get a pedicure and a hair wash and home to a delicious dinner. I was very tired but appreciated the chance to have someone massage my scalp, even though I wasn’t completely sure about the side part.



The next day it was time to say goodbye to Katherine (with many promises of a visit to New Zealand in 2012), buy some fish bread at a bakery, and get on the bus and go to Siem Reap.


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  1. Cambodia looks amazing! Do you think you would have had any trouble getting around without a guide who speaks the language? I’ve always wanted to go there…

    Also? I like the new blog lay-out :)

  2. Wow, congrats on the new blog design — all new in ’11, eh?

    As always, I’m envious of all the places you’ve been and people you’ve met. It’s great to read about your travels over the years.