Review: Man Hao Ji Noodle Shop, Phnom Penh

There are a number of Chinese noodle shops in Phnom Penh, but newcomer Man Hao Ji Noodle Shop gives the rest a run for their money. This new Taiwanese-run restaurant on Street 118 has a small menu, but after eating there three days in a row (it’s that good), I can say that every item on it is fantastic.

Garlicky smacked cucumbers at Man Hao Ji.

Garlicky smacked cucumbers at Man Hao Ji.

In my household, we cook pretty regularly from Fuchsia Dunlop’s amazing Chinese cookbook, Every Grain of Rice. So imagine my delight when I was brought to a new Chinese restaurant serving up dishes exactly like the ones I’d been attempting to create at home. This bodes well for the authenticity of both my cookbook and the restaurant, I think. I was also buoyed by the fact that the restaurant is Taiwanese run, because the Chinese food I ate in Taipei was undeniably better than what I ate when spending a month in China, traveling around the country and gorging myself.

Chinese noodle shop Man Hao Ji Phnom Penh

Newcoming to the Chinese noodle competition in Phnom Penh, Man Hao Ji.

Man Hao Ji’s menu features several noodle soups and bowls of handmade noodles. Their speciality is beef noodle soup, cooked in the Chinese style with red braised beef flavored with star anise and Shaoxing wine. At $5, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, but well worth it. The broth is richer and meatier than anything I’ve tasted in town, and would make your typical kuy teav selling tear up in shame. The other noodle dishes I tried were also really good, zhajiangmian, called Beijing mixed noodles, ($3) and Arhat vegetable noodles ($2). The Arhat noodles are named after a term for someone who has attained nirvana in Buddhism, and, unlike most vegetable dishes in Cambodia, is actually vegetarian.

Chinese beef noodles

Fragrant beef noodles, flavored with star anise. Seriously beefy.

The non-noodle dishes are just as good. Garlicky cucumbers in Chinkiang vinegar ($1), “aroma sauce of beef tendon,” beef stir-fried with cucumbers ($2), boiled dumplings with a spicy chili sauce ($3) and Shaoxing wine chicken ($3) were all delicious and excellent value. The only dish that I wasn’t as keen on was the pork knuckles, which was just a plate of cold pork knuckles and not much else going on.

The friendly waitress is from Taiwan and doesn’t know Khmer, but speaks English to recommend her favorite dishes (she likes the Beijing mixed noodles). They have Cambodia beer on draft but haven’t figured out how to work it yet, so bring beers in from the mini-mart next door if you want to save yourself some frustration.

Beef and cucumber stir-fry. Try it.

Beef and cucumber stir-fry. Try it.

Man Hao Ji is one of those small restaurants that’s either going to be a big hit or fold in a few months due to lack of business. The food is authentic, delicious, and cheap and the place is definitely worth a visit, so please keep them afloat until my next visit to Phnom Penh.

Man Hao Ji Noodle Shop

39 Street 118 (at Street 17), Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 089 265 065

How to get from Kampot to Kep (and vice-versa)

If you’re visiting Kampot and are itching to see Kep, or are sick of eating crab in Kep and are ready to see sleepy Kampot, never fear, there are several options to go back and forth between Kep and Kampot. The trip is only 25km (15 miles) and takes between thirty minutes to an hour depending on which type of transport you choose. None of these requires advance reservation and all can be booked while in Kampot or Kep.

The road from Kep to Kampot

The road between Kampot and Kep is finally sealed, and a tuk tuk ride is a great way to see the Cambodian countryside.

Tuk tuk

Currently the trip between Kampot and Kep takes about 35 to 45 minutes by tuk tuk through the Cambodian countryside and several Cham Muslim villages. The road is now fully sealed, so it’s a much more comfortable journey than it was a year ago. When the road was being redone the journey cost between $12 and $15 due to the added wear and tear on vehicles—it was between $8 and $10 before that. These days, negotiations usually start at $15, but most drivers will be happy with $10 or $12 for two people. If you are looking to do a day trip, return trips are usually about the same (because most tuk tuk drivers turn around and go back after dropping you off, anyway). They will be happy to wait for you for a few hours for a couple of extra bucks.

You can catch a tuk tuk at any of the bus stations in Kampot or just on the road. In Kep, your guesthouse can call one for you or you can pick one up at the Crab Market.

Moto

A moto can be had for between $3 and $6 one-way. If you’re happy to drive yourself, you can rent a moto in either Kampot or Kep for $6 or $7 for 24 hours.

Taxi

Taxis provide a smoother if less authentic journey between Kep and Kampot. As with most taxis in Cambodia, expect an older model Toyota Camry that seats four passengers (but not if you have as many large suitcases). The cost to take a taxi between Kep and Kampot is $20, and your guesthouse or any local travel agent can book one for you. The will start the negotiation at $30 or $25, but the going rate is still $20. The trip takes about thirty minutes.

Bus

Several companies are running mini-buses between Kampot and Kep, and all can be booked at any guesthouse, hotel or local travel agency. The schedules change often—sometimes on a daily basis–so although the times listed below are current as of writing, they change often so it’s best to check before you go.

Vibol Transport runs small buses twice a day between Kampot and Kep for $3 per person. The trip takes 45 minutes and they offer free WiFi. The times have been changing on a regular basis, but there is always a morning bus and an afternoon bus. Currently, the times are 7:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. from Kampot to Kep and 8:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from Kep to Kampot, but it’s best to check with a travel agent as the Vibol staff seemed unsure themselves as to when their buses were leaving.

Vibol VIP Transport
T: 078 505 002; 070 954 502

Kampot Tours and Travel is a Kampot and Vietnam-based travel agency that has a mini-bus service that runs between Kampot and Kep. The cost is $3 and they run twice daily from Kampot to Kep. The current times are 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. They run once daily from Kep to Kampot at 2:30 p.m. (Although as usual it’s best to check the times to make sure they haven’t changed). The trip takes 45 minutes and they offer free pickup.

Kampot Tours and Travel
One block off the riverside, near Kronat Park, Kampot
T: 092 125 556; 097 982 8756
www.kampottours-travel.com

Champa Mekong Tours runs mini-buses between Kep and Kampot as well. Buses cost $5 per person and leave Kampot for Kep at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and Kep to Kampot at 8:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Published times are often different, so check to make sure.

Champa Mekong Tours
Ek Reach Street (also called Old Market Street. Next to the park, one block in from the riverside), Kampot
T: 023 696 8000
facebook.com/Champa-Mekong-TravelTours

Hour Lian Lion is a new service that runs daily buses between Kep and Kampot that cost just $2. You can buy tickets from any agent in either Kep or Kampot (some will charge $3). Check the schedule, but at the time of writing we were told buses leave at 12:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

Hour Lian Lion Transport
T:097 484 8485; 089 782 008

Learning Khmer: Natural Khmer at LINK

After a few months in the Kingdom, most expats relegate learning Khmer to the same category as scheduling dental checkups, something we should do but conveniently don’t ever find time for. Language Institute of Natural Khmer (LINK) in Phnom Penh offers a new method of learning Khmer through listening and has a conveniently flexible schedule. I tried a few classes to see how it worked.

Language Institute Natural Khmer

At LINK, teachers speak Khmer and act out what they are saying to help students learn the language.

Natural Khmer classes at LINK believe that the best way to learn any language is the same way that children do, through listening. Each class has two teachers, who speak Khmer throughout, using acting, props, body language, and charts to help explain what they are saying. It’s a bit like watching a game of charades, entirely in Khmer. In the beginner classes, students are asked to only speak English until Khmer comes naturally and they are at the intermediate level. It’s an unconventional method, but one that the manager, David, believes is superior to word lists and flashcards.

In Cambodia, a surprising majority of expats don’t speak Khmer, or only enough to get by. There’s a reason for this, David Jacobs, the manager of LINK, explained. “It’s not like French or Spanish where you can just go to the country and assimilate some of the language just from listening. You can watch TV or spend time listening to Khmers and it doesn’t necessarily help improve your language skills,” he told me. “That’s what’s different about the class — the teachers give context.”

Like many expats, I can speak quite a lot of Khmer, but have a hard time understanding what’s said to me. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to talk non-stop when my neighbor drops by in order to not give her the chance to ask me any questions.

This is normal, David said. “Many students come to us with this problem, they have vocabulary but no listening skills. That’s what we work to improve.”

Learning Khmer through listening, not speaking

Most expats learn to speak Khmer by learning vocabulary, but LINK suggests the focus should be on listening.

I went to two classes and it’s true that being forced to listen (and getting to listen to people who won’t switch into English or walk away the minute it becomes clear that you don’t understand) is illuminating. I appreciated that, for the most part, the teachers spoke slowly and clearly enough for me to understand, and they repeated what they said often. Some of my private tutors haven’t been willing to slow down, which can be frustrating.

However, it’s also true that I found it very difficult to make sense of the differences between certain things — think “want to” verus “want” — and would have appreciated an explanation. David said that he’s been learning Khmer entirely through the Natural Khmer technique and he seemed quite fluent for someone that has only been in the country for two years, but I would say that Natural Khmer classes would probably be better as an addition to more traditional language classes rather than a student’s entire course of study.

The classes are a good listening and speaking supplement to other studying,” one intermediate student told me. “I’m not sure that it’s the absolute best way to learn Khmer, but I find the lessons entertaining and worthwhile, and I like that I can just attend class when I want without a fixed schedule.”

The flexible schedule is perhaps the best part of the Natural Khmer program. There are six beginner classes Monday through Friday, and four on Saturdays. Students are welcome to drop in and come whenever they want. Classes are $5 each if you buy them as you go. If you buy more than 10 classes at a time, you pay $4 per class, and prices go down further if you buy larger chunks of time. The first class is free, so if you’re wondering if the “natural learning” technique will work for you, it’s worth checking it out.

Language Institute of Natural Khmer (LINK)

Sovannaphumi School 4th Floor, Street 200 (between Norodom Blvd and Street 51), Phnom Penh
T: 012 293 764
naturalkhmer.com

The 10 best movies set in Cambodia

Today’s blog post is from Phnom Penh cinema buff and film critic, Niall Crotty. Niall has been living in Cambodia for more than five years where he runs the Empire bar, restaurant, and movie house.

Film was once a hugely important and respected medium in Cambodia, with no less than King Norodom Sihanouk himself writing, directing and starring in too many movies to mention during the 50s and 60s. After the devastation of the Khmer Rouge period, cinema is making a comeback in Cambodia with new multi-screen movie theaters, 3D and 4D screens, and even a Cambodian Oscar nomination. But there have been international productions throughout the intervening years that have been set in, or have used Cambodia as part of their story. Here are some that you should be watching.

The Killing Fields movie

The Killing Fields is based on the story of two journalists’ experiences during the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg.

The Killing Fields (1984)

The quintessential movie to see about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge period. The film, while covering the effects of Pol Pots dictatorship concentrates on the real story of friendship between American journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian translator Dith Pran. If you see one movie about Cambodia, make it this one.

(The Empire screens The Killing Fields every day in Phnom Penh, at 4:00 p.m. on weekdays and 1:30 p.m. on weekends)

Swimming to Cambodia (1987)

Jonathan Demme directed this filmed version of Spalding Gray’s monologue, covering his trip to Southeast Asia to create the role of the U.S. Ambassador’s aide in The Killing Fields movie. Though essentially an hour and a half of a one-man monologue, Gray’s witty stories are mesmerizing and very funny and make the film a very enjoyable if unusual watch.

Lord Jim (1965)

This adaptation of the Joesph Conrad novel was perhaps the first big foreign film to be made in Cambodia and features several scenes set amongst the temples of Angkor. Production was beset by problems throughout, leaving star Peter O’Toole to describe the experience of filming in Cambodia as “sheer hell.” The real Dith Pran, one of the main characters of The Killing Fields actually served as a translator during production.

Same Same But Different movie

Same, Same But Different is the true story of Benjamin Prüfer’s unconventional romance with a Cambodian woman.

Same Same But Different (2009)

The true story of Benjamin Prüfer and Sreykeo Solvan, a backpacker and a bar girl who find love in Cambodia against the odds. This German-made film (in a mixture of German, English and Khmer with subtitles) stars David Kross of The Reader fame. A compelling love story with some great shots of modern Cambodia this film received a mixed response locally after the casting of Thai leading lady Apinya Sakuljaroensuk as Cambodian Sreykeo.

Two Brothers (2004)

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s family adventure movie set in French Colonial 1920s Cambodia features Guy Pearce, but its main stars are two tiger brothers, who get separated as cubs and go on to very different fates before being re-united. An old fashioned and charming adventure story, this movie features beautiful cinematography and amazing use of its animal stars. One for all the family.

City of Ghosts movie Cambodia

The plot may be lacking, but City of Ghosts offers some beautiful shots of Phnom Penh before development started.

City of Ghosts (2002)

Matt Dillon, bewitched by the seedier side of Cambodia after several visits, wrote directed and starred in this attempt at modern noir set in a gritty early nineties Phnom Penh. Roping in Hollywood buddies, James Caan and Gérard Depardieu amongst others, the film also features several well known expat and Khmer faces in supporting cameo roles. Not a fantastic movie by any stretch, but interesting to see how much Phnom Penh has changed in 10 years and if nothing else for the strange pleasure of seeing James Caan speaking, and indeed singing, in Khmer!

Wish You Were Here (2012)

This recent Australian drama follows four friends whose Cambodian holiday takes a very dark path, and then the after-effects of this on their lives back in Australia. Joel Edgerton leads the cast in this edgy but gripping mystery thriller. While featuring a great deal of Cambodia, it doesn’t leave best impression of the country (the fact that they specifically label some of the movies bad guys as Vietnamese gangsters isn’t really enough of a get-out clause). But it’s worth a look as a compelling modern mystery with some impressive performances.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

The film that first brought Angelina Jolie to Cambodia, this video game adaptations features lengthy action sequences filmed around Angkor and particularly Ta Prohm. While not a hit with a lot of critics, the movie was a huge box office success and has led to several sequels (though no more using Cambodian backdrops). Tomb Raider was a huge deal for tourism (many still reference this film when exploring the temples) and while it’s nothing special, it’s actually a hugely fun adventure romp in which the stars are clearly aware of the silliness and seem to be running with it.

The Missing Picture movie

The Missing Picture tells one man’s story of the Khmer Rouge era in an entirely different way.

The Missing Picture (2013)

When this movie from seasoned French-Khmer director Rithy Panh got nominated in the shortlist of the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film category, many were surprised. It’s the first such nomination ever for Cambodia and given the lack of much home-grown film-making in the country, really ushers in a new era for Khmer filmmakers. Rithy, who has been quietly making films in the Kingdom for decades, based this part-documentary, part-clay figure animation on his own story during the Pol Pot era. It’s a melancholy meditation on loss and reflection and a worthy watch for those who want to explore the subject of that era beyond The Killing Fields.

The Gate (2014)

Based on the memoir of the same name by François Bizot, this French language movie has not yet received a general release but it is imminent. The only Westerner to have survived imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge, Bizot’s story is likely to be a compelling one. The movie was filmed in the Kingdom, mainly in Battambang, during early 2014.

Niall Crotty is the owner of The Empire bar, restaurant, and boutique movie theater. They show movies every night of the week, including a daily screening of The Killing Fields. If you like cinema, drop by for a visit

Water Festival in Siem Reap

Cambodia’s Water Festival is a traditionally Phnom Penh-centric affair. The first Water Festival celebration in Siem Reap took place was in 2001. That year, it was a small affair with just 20,000 people showing up to watch the races. This year couldn’t be more different. The streets around the river are closed to traffic, and Siem Reap has become a pedestrian paradise as everyone from the province has flooded into town to watch the boat races. Dozens of street food vendors are out hawking their wares, and local restaurants have dropped their prices for the Water Festival hordes (Blue Pumpkin are selling scoops of ice cream for $1). Locals, tourists, and expats were enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere that went on long after nightfall. If you didn’t head to see the Bon Om Touk festivities yesterday, it’s well worth a visit today.

Water Festival is here!

Here in Cambodia, Water Festival, or Bon Om Touk, is upon us. The Tonle Sap and Mekong River are the heart and soul of Cambodia; every November the Tonle Sap changes its course and Cambodians gather in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to watch boat races to mark the occasion. This year, the celebration takes place on November 5th, 6th, and 7th.

Phnom Penh Water Festival

Preparations for Water Festival in Phnom Penh. Photo by Jeff Mudrick.

Water Festival gets a bad rap amongst expats. The week leading up to Water Festival is affectionately referred to as “robbery season,” because so many bag-snatchings take place. Every year, millions of Khmers from the countryside flood Phnom Penh (and to a much lesser extent, Siem Reap) and the streets are packed with families who have set up camp on the sidewalk, sometimes days in advance, waiting for the festivities to begin. Unsurprisingly, petty crimes rises when the city is flooded with poor relations.

This is what expats usually gripe about: the streets are packed, traffic is at a standstill, stores are closed, and crime is up. In 2010, there was a stampede during the Water Festival on Koh Pich in Phnom Penh that killed more than 350 people. There hasn’t been a Bon Om Touk celebration in the city since then, until this year.

But the Water Festival also offers a glimpse of Cambodian culture that shouldn’t be missed. If you’re in Phnom Penh, head to the riverside to watch the boat races. They have special grandstand seating set up for foreigners–or anyone willing to pay to sit there–that have unobscured views of the river. If you’re planning to head into the crowds, leave your valuables at home but bring sun protection and water. Once you find a seat you’ll probably not want to leave. In the evenings, there are fireworks.

Savvy Phnom Penh expats head to riverside apartments to watch the races. If you don’t have friends with a riverside balcony, considering getting a hotel room for the day. Check out the Hotel Quickly app for same-day hotel deals, if you sign up using the code MTCAM you’ll get a $15 credit (and so will we!). Agoda also often has good same-day deals on Phnom Penh riverside hotels.

Siem Reap Water Festival

Siem Reap’s sleepy river in the days leading up to Water Festival.

Water Festival celebrations in Siem Reap are much less crowded but just as enthusiastic, with a carnival-like atmosphere, games and rides. Boat races are on today and tomorrow, with 34 boats set to compete. Like the festival itself, the boats in Siem Reap are smaller but no less colorful. At night, there are floating candles and fireworks.

Introducing Siem Reap Food Tours

Over here at Move to Cambodia we’ve long been working on another project that revolves around one of our favorite things about Cambodia: the food. I’m delighted to finally announce the launch of our new venture, Siem Reap Food Tours.

Siem Reap market tour

Eating street food in Siem Reap doesn’t have to be scary.

We’ll be offering a scenic three-and-a-half-hour morning tour that takes visitors to markets, village kitchens, and local restaurants. You’ll be able to sample an exciting array of delicious Khmer dishes, street food, and snacks, which might include Cambodian breakfast staples like bobor, a savory rice porridge, and kuy tiev, a local noodle soup, as well as exotic tropical fruits and treats like prahet (fried fish cakes) or a dessert made of a special dried tree resin afloat in sweet coconut broth.

We offer morning tours so that guests can experience Siem Reap’s busy morning markets while enjoying cooler morning temperatures. Also, traditional breakfast dishes are amazing–some of our favorite foods in Cambodia. Tours start around 8 a.m. and last for three to three-and-a-half hours.

num banh chok

A classic Cambodian breakfast: num banh chok.

We start and end in the Old Market area, but will travel far and wide, to places you would probably never find otherwise! We’ll take you into the bustle of a Siem Reap morning and explore local markets, then head through rice paddies and temples to a village that’s home to a breakfast dish that’s part of Khmer folklore. We return to Siem Reap for our final culinary adventure via one of the country’s most scenic drives.

Please let us know of any food allergies in advance. If you’re a strict vegetarian you probably won’t like our tour; most Cambodian soup and noodle bases have a small amount of fish sauce or meat in the stock, but we can avoid red meat and gluten, if you’re so inclined. We have more information on our website, siemreapfoodtours.com.

Siem Reap market food tour

Getting a laugh (and a giant bag of veg) at the market in Siem Reap.

Tours cost $65 per person, and include all food, drinks, and transportation during the tour. In order to provide a truly personal in-depth experience, we limit our tours to no more than four people. For an additional fee, we can give you an entirely private tour. Either way, please book in advance.

Siem Reap Food Tours is run by Lina Goldberg, notorious glutton and the author of Move to Cambodia: A guide to living and working in the Kingdom of Wonder. Steven Halcrow, whose resume includes cooking at Scotland’s only Michelin two-star restaurant, serves as tour guide, drawing on the insights he gained working with local ingredients in the kitchen of Siem Reap’s most acclaimed eatery, Cuisine Wat Damnak.

To book a tour, visit siemreapfoodtours.com or email info@siemreapfoodtours.com.