Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Elephant walking on Phnom Penh's riverfront
As Phnom Penh’s main riverfront street, Sisowath Quay certainly has character. Besides the occasional passing elephant, I’ve encountered sights that you'd never expect to see in any capital city.

One morning on a downtown bus, I saw a macaque monkey calmly making his way crossing this busy downtown street! He crossed the road by walking along an overhead powerline, like it was a vine in the jungle. Well, that’s one way to avoid the heavy traffic.

Other animals found on Sisowath Quay are not live, but served for lunch! Riverfront food covers a very wide range of tastes, including the bizarre. Today I look at a street vendor's food, and to my surprise she's selling fried frogs! Not frog legs, but whole fried frogs! Smaller than the average frog, these munchables can be yours for only 24 cents a piece.

As frogs are not to my taste, I keep looking. In another bowl, she’s selling fried spiders! These are also fried whole, and they look like tarantulas. Another day I saw a street vendor selling fried snakes! They were cooked whole, and each snake was curled up, as if it was hibernating.

Local street food in Phnom Penh includes fried snakes!
Although most river front restaurants have menus with normal fare, some have equally bizarre food items. Right down the street, are a string of ‘pot pizza’ restaurants. No kidding. They have names like ‘Happy Herb Pizza’. 

I've never tried any of these pizzas sprinkled with marijuana, the only mind altering thing I consume is beer. Locals don't eat there much either, but I did meet some American university students who had tried the 'happy' pizza. They left disappointed; none of them felt stoned. The joke was on them, they probably had been served pizza with oregano.

As there are more reputable restaurants on the river side, I enter a doorway down the block, and walk upstairs to what locals call, 'FCC'. This is the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia. An open air colonial style restaurant, it overlooks the Bassac River from its rooftop terrace. A horseshoe shaped bar has ceiling fans overhead. News photos line the walls, dating back to Cambodia's war years.

Would you like some fried insects to snack on?
I've worked with journalists in years past, so I occasionally eat here for nostalgia. Renovated in 1992 by a Hong Kong company, it’s now open to the public. Foreign reporters are rare in Cambodia these days. With no more war here, war correspondents are off in Afghanistan or Iraq. Journos in town today prefer a bar where power players go, like the Elephant Bar. 

The FCC's clientele tonight is mostly backpackers and businessmen, with a diplomat and deminer mixed in with the locals. The lack of windows means there are also many uninvited 'airborne' guests. I hear one patron say, “If you’re going to drink at the FCC, you have to be willing to take insects out of your beer!”

The fact that this 'Foreign Correspondents Club' isn't really for journalists is fitting for Cambodia, as there isn't a free press here anymore. Prime Minister Hun Sen gives only lip service to free speech, and freedom of the press. The fact is, he's Ex-Khmer Rouge - he's been slowly clamping down on press freedoms for years.

Restaurant sign, made from cut-up AK-47 assault rifles!
A recent Phnom Penh headline, detailed how a local newspaper publisher had been accused of 'defamation' by the Cambodian government. His offence: publishing three articles uncovering corruption by officials working for Deputy Prime Minister Sok An. Soon after, a public statement given by 21 rights groups said those defamation charges were a ‘threat to journalists’.

Nearby down the riverfront, is another odd eatery, the Mexican themed, 'Cantina'I ate there another night with an American friend. That evening I didn't find the decor impressive, until I saw the restaurant’s sign on the wall. Made by some artist, the words ‘Cantina’ had been made out of dark, twisted metalwork. Looking closer, I couldn't believe what I saw! I got up, and approached the sign to make sure.

Clock made from cut-up Kalashnikov rifles!
All the letters on the sign were made from cut up assault rifles! The artist took those AK-47's, sliced them to pieces, bent them into shape, and welded them together to form each metal letter.

Looking to another wall I found a clock, made of the same deadly Kalashnikov rifle material. For the first time during my Southeast Asia travels, I finally saw guns put to good use.

Although disarmament after the Cambodia's wars was extensive, it's still common to see AK-47's carried by local police. A Kalashnikov is more firepower than they need, but they also use them for economic reasons. With many thousands of AK-47's left over when the wars ended, it was much cheaper for the government to convert them from military to police use, rather than to spend millions of dollars buying new pistols for every police station in the country.

Thankfully, guns are not often used here, and murder and armed robbery are rare. But like in Vietnam, purse snatchings are common. An English teacher friend, was a victim of the worst kind of purse snatching. One Sunday she left a church service, when two men on a motorbike approached her from behind. When they grabbed her bag, she tried to let go of her purse, but couldn’t, as the strap was wrapped around her shoulder. She was dragged more than 100 feet down the street. She suffered serious abrasions, and had to go to the hospital to recover.

As terrible as that incident was for her, Cambodia's crime rate is still far lower than in the USA, especially for violent crime. Culturally Khmers are not confrontational people, and don't resort to violence as quickly as Americans these days. Thankfully, it looks like Cambodia's era of violence is behind them.

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