Just steps from the Independence Monument, off the embassy-lined Preah Suramarit Blvd in central Phnom Penh, is The Corn Restaurant. Walk down a long driveway and you’ll find the this small and simple eatery, with a menu compiled of modern Khmer plates, most of which are vegetarian.
From one of the two tables on the small outdoor patio, we order the corn fritters and the “Cambodian Beer Sampler” to start. The fritters are lightly fried and delicious. The beers are more a slightly varied assortment of 4 cans of beer (2 Cambodia Lagers, 1 Ganzberg, 1 Angkor) than a legit sampler. The mains, a pumpkin and sweet potato curry and vegetables sauteed with a coconut curry, are both mild in spice but full of fresh flavors.
The staff is gracious and welcoming, the setting is stark, but calm and comfortable. The entire meal (beer sampler included) comes to about $17 USD. A solid option for modern Khmer cuisine with vegetarian options in Phnom Penh.
With the exception of a brief absence during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace has been home to Cambodia's kings since its construction in 1866. A sprawling complex of gardens, pagodas, stupas, spires, pavilions and ornate halls for every royal occasion, it's reminiscent of Versaille or Buckingham, but with traditional Buddhist architecture and without the hordes of tourists. Its impressive grounds allow space to wander, so much so that it’s easy to feel like you’re paying a Saturday afternoon visit to King Sihamoni himself.
The Kingdom, and its royal family, is taken very seriously in Cambodia. It’s difficult to miss the large, framed photos of King Sihamoni, as well as his father Norodom Sihanouk and wife Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, which are proudly displayed in nearly every restaurant or hotel in Phnom Penh. At the Palace, spires reach high into the clouds and gold tiles shine in the sun. In true royal fashion, the beauty is found in the details, with intricate ceiling frescos, gold-plated busts, and Buddha statues encrusted with diamonds found throughout. The Silver Pagoda in particular is breathtaking, with over 5,000 floor tiles made of silver and housing some of the kingdom’s most prized artifacts and treasures.
The palace is beautiful; a symbol of royalty, wealth, and opulence. However, it’s difficult not to think of the outer city limits, the dirt roads, the barefooted children and the people collecting plastic bottles for recycling. Another example of hierarchical tradition in a modern, and in this case, struggling world.
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After exchanging several comments about Domrei Restaurant's mellow and quaint vibe from multiple walks down street 188 in Phnom Penh, we decide to give it a shot. Fronted by a large courtyard with tables that stretch to the back bar and a small open-air interior section, eating at Domrei feels like having a meal at a French Diplomat’s home. When we arrive, the restaurant is completely empty, but after an hour the courtyard is full of couples like us, sharing a quiet dinner in the beautiful garden.
Following a popular trend in Phnom Penh, Domrei offers a modern take on traditional Khmer cuisine. The menu includes many Khmer favorites including Cambodia’s "national dish", fish amok, as well as various curries, spring rolls, chive/coconut cakes, lort cha, and banh xeo, all delicately cooked and served beautifully.
We start with (our daily fix of) fresh vegetable spring rolls that include a generous addition of fresh mint and a light, spicy, chili sauce, as well as Cambodian chive cakes that are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. We then opt for Domrei’s lort cha, with fresh vegetables and a fried egg on top, as well as the banh xeo, a perfectly prepared crispy crepe filled with coconut meat and served with greens and fresh herbs to wrap it all together. Draft beers and ice coffees at $1.00 are the perfect accompaniments to our favorite meal in Phnom Penh.
Dwarfed by westernized restaurants with patios and rooftop bars, large furniture and swanky furnishings, the inconspicuous eight table Cafe Soleil serves up really good vegetarian Khmer dishes at reasonable prices. The green curry noodle soup is the perfect marriage of Vietnamese and Thai, with thick rice noodles swimming in a bright green curry broth. Khmer cuisine introduces forbidden rice and sweet Thai flavors, such as fresh pineapple and coconut, which balance the medium spice of red curry. It’s our first dinner in Cambodia, and it is delicious.
Prices range from $3 - $6 for an entree (more for Western food, but if you’re craving a pizza this is not the spot to indulge). An iced Angkor beer, a light lager not unlike Saigon found in Vietnam, will run you $1 per bottle. Expect to wait awhile for food to be delivered, a welcomed sign that it is being prepared to order (and why on Earth would you be in a rush in Cambodia anyway?).
After more than three weeks in Vietnam, crossing the border into Cambodia is a completely new adventure. Upon entering the ancient Khmer Empire, the effects of the political and economic decisions of the last few decades are quickly apparent. There are fewer motorbikes, more bicycles and the contrast between the “have” and “have nots” runs deeper than in Vietnam.
In the southeast corner of Cambodia, where the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Bassac rivers intersect, lies the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. With just over two million residents, it’s Cambodia’s largest city and economic and political hub. It’s also the country’s wealthiest city, the evidence of foreign investment and Western expats everywhere. The people here are gracious, kind, and dignified, reflecting a wisdom only those who have endured great hardship can know. The persistent “tuk tuk?!” offers are almost always followed by “thank you’s,” and nearly every smile given is easily returned.
Head into the city center and a different story is being written. Resting in the shade of treelined streets and sleek new apartment buildings are fancy restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques. Costa Coffee and even a brand spanking new Domino’s Pizza can be found here. The tuk tuks, motorbikes, and bicycles weave around Land Rovers and Lexus SUV’s.
It’s a country still recovering from the horrors of the all too recent past. Phnom Penh, a striking example of the impact of modernization with pockets of prosperity floating like islands in a sea of third world reality.
But what stands out the most about Phnom Penh, is the disparity created by the double digit growth rates of the past two decades. On the outskirts of town, small children hoist bags of recycling twice their size as they stumble along dusty roads. Large flatbed trucks carry dozens of women to work, packed shoulder to shoulder with barely any room to breathe. Massive piles of trash line each dirt road and the rubble of brick and stone mark where buildings once stood.
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