Odom Garden: Phnom Penh’s newest park is amazing, and doomed

The newly unveiled green space Odom Garden in BKK1 offers almost everything that the capital’s expats have long complained that Phnom Penh was lacking: towering trees, shady walking paths fringed with greenery, play areas for children, craft beer, and what may be Cambodia’s only dog run.

Odom Park

Odom Gardens: A way for big corporations to remind you what you can’t have.

And it’s all doomed, because Odom Garden isn’t a park. Rather, it’s an elaborate marketing ploy to get long-term residents to buy apartments in the Singaporean-designed towers due to start construction in mid-2021 “when the site begins its transformation into Odom — and expansive development of two buildings offering the city’s best address for both residences and commercial office space…[that] will bring the community feeling of traditional Khmer villages into the future,” according to marketing bumf, whatever all those words mean. Continue reading

Preah Khan — no, not that one, the other one

The Preah Khan temple complex in Preah Vihear province is huge, nearly two square miles, making it the largest of the Angkorian religious sites. Yet thanks to its remote location down bumpy unpaved roads, it wasn’t properly documented until the mid-20th century, and was only properly looted in the late 1990s with the end of the Khmer Rouge.

Preah Kanh Kampong Svay

Preah Kanh Kampong Svay

Preah Khan Kampong Svay (its more impressive, full name) sits, confusingly, in Preah Vihear province, not Kampong Svay. It’s also known as Prasat Bakan or Bakan Svay Rolay. The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list earlier this year.

Together with Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Sambor Prei Kuk, Bang Melea, and Banteay Meanchey, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay sits in my esteemed club of “awesome temples that are not in the Angkor Archaeological Park.” It was also the last on this list for me to visit, so I am rather chuffed I could squeeze in a visit after a stay at nearby BeTreed. Continue reading

Lockdown, what lockdown? Embracing expat life in Phnom Penh during coronavirus

“Life not normal is the norm” a Khmer Times editorial read, explaining the importance of adjusting to virus safety precautions in the early days of COVID-19. It’s fair to say, however, that a few months on (and notwithstanding that old chestnut about what constitutes ‘normality’ in the Kingdom of Wonder), expat life in Phnom Penh feels pretty much as usual.

Cambodia covid hand-washing sign

“In order to prevent the recent outbreak of coronary artery disease (Corona Virus)…” Helpful signage at Dol Chaang Cafe.

As most of the rest of the world navigates various levels of lockdown, in our rarified corner of Southeast Asia it’s almost possible to forget there’s a global pandemic out there. With the number of confirmed cases in the low hundreds and no deaths to date (and I’m typing this with difficulty due to the need to keep my fingers firmly crossed) Cambodia has so far been able, for a whole slew of reasons I’ll leave to the experts to consider, to keep the virus contained. We’re lucky, we know it. Continue reading

Sambor Prei Kuk: Cambodia’s other forested temple complex

Back in the halcyon days of my first few months in Cambodia in 2014, when political discussion among local colleagues still included optimism for the future and there were far fewer coffee shops, I first visited Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom province while en-route to Preah Vihear.

Sambor Prei Kuk banyon tree temple

Kampong Thom has their own extremely photogenic banyan-tree-smothered-temples!

In fact, I saw both of these before even venturing to Angkor Wat a few months later to brave “the temples” with the great hordes of unwashed masses. It may not get the attention that Angkor does, but the Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex is no less worthy of a visit.

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BeTreed Adventures, ecotourism in Preah Vihear province

Down a potholed village road in Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia, in what can accurately be described as ‘the middle of nowhere,’ you’ll find BeTreed Adventures, an excellent ecotourism project focusing on conservation and community development, with an environmental protection mandate over a vast swathe of forest.

Preah Vihear forest

Seeing the forest for the trees at BeTreed Adventures

BeTreed Adventures (the capital T keeps the focus firmly on the forest) offers rustic accommodation in treehouses or stilt cabins, as well as ziplining and guided hikes that give visitors the opportunity to experience Cambodia’s lush forest, a luxury rapidly disappearing across the Kingdom as pressure for land and resources grows.

Banteng, eagles, owls, hornbills, wild pigs, deer, monkeys, snakes, two ponies, a tame squirrel, a somewhat-friendly gibbon, and a three-legged dog called Mikey are just some of the animals you might spot during your stay. Continue reading

Pchum Ben in Cambodia

Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day is a uniquely Cambodian ritual, and one of the country’s most important holidays. It’s based on the lunar calendar and is usually between late September to mid October. The holiday is 15 days long, and each year three days are official state holidays. In 2020, the national holiday is September 16-18, and the country shuts down while Cambodians return to their home provinces and visit pagoda after pagoda, making offerings for their ancestors.

Putting together the meals that will be served to the monks. Some Cambodians believe this brings them merit, others believe that the food is transferred directly to their dead ancestors.

The 15 days of Pchum Ben are a time that the line between the spirit world and the living world is thought to be especially thin. It is believed that the gates of hell open and ghosts are particularly active. Monks chant continuously at pagodas, and some believe that during this time souls released from the spirit world look to find their living relatives and repent — these can be spirits that have bad karma or those that have died a violent or unexpected death. For Cambodians, most of whom had relatives die during the Khmer Rouge era, it is important to do everything they can to ease the transitions of their ancestral spirits to the next phase of their spiritual path. One way they do this is through food. Continue reading

Museum of Money and Economy: Cambodian history through economics

Name three facts about money in Cambodia’s present or future. Go on, I dare you. Fine, I’ll start. Did you know that the Angkorian Empire largely used a barter system and forswore cash? Or that when the riel was re-introduced in 1980 it was pegged against rice (1 kilogram of rice was equal to 1 riel)? Or that the Khmer Rouge printed millions of dollars worth of banknotes in China, and then promptly blew up the National Bank of Cambodia and banned money for a few years?

The outside of the Cambodian Museum of Money and Economy

Cambodia’s newest museum is all about the Benjamins (not riel-y! It’s all about the Sihanouks)

Well, I knew the last one, but the first two were new to me, and all thanks to SOSORO: Cambodian Museum of Money and Economy, Cambodia’s newest museum, and one certainly different from those that have come before it. Housed in the former French protectorate municipalité, with the modern layout, the attempt to tell a story, the clear and informative (and mostly grammatically correct) bilingual signage, the request that visitors switch their shoes for white faux-Crocs during their visit, and the fact that it is most certainly aimed at both local and expat audiences — nothing quite like it exists in the Kingdom. Continue reading

The Areng Valley – a rare victory for environmentalism in Cambodia

Not all villagers in the Areng Valley, a remote community in the southeastern Cardamom Mountains, were happy when news that the Chinese-funded hydroelectric dam project had been cancelled in 2017. They had been promised land (and all important land titles) to relocate, with schools and electricity and roads — all largely unavailable in the community at the time.

Areng Valley Cambodia

Eco-tourism in Cambodia’s Areng Valley is attracting domestic tourism and saving the forest.

Yet three years later and the victory of environmental protection is clear; today Areng Valley is a growing ecotourism attraction, drawing Cambodians from across the country to hike, boat, bicycle, and camp amid flora and fauna now increasingly rare in other parts of the Kingdom. Continue reading