A Love Letter to Phnom Penh

Dear Phnom Penh,

I love you even when people tell me I shouldn’t. You were my first foreign love and throughout our ten year affair (my longest adult relationship ever), you grew on me and helped shape my views on what it meant to be an expatriate. Admittedly, we didn’t hit it off immediately. In fact we had the worst of first impressions. Remember in 1995 when we first met and I was a victim of a scary home invasion? I vowed to leave and never come back to your lawless, unsavory, Wild West-like streets.


But over the years, we both grew up. You matured. I matured. And when we met again a few years later, we were different people. Sure, whenever your name came up, friends still talked behind your back. “It’s dusty,” some said. “It’s backwards,” injected others. “It’s barbaric,” claimed my Vietnamese friends. They were probably remembering you when you were younger, during your more turbulent years. I saw a glimpse of that when I visited the Toul Sleng school turned concentration camp turned museum where rows upon rows of haunted eyes from scared, resigned faces burned right through me. In my dreams I can sometimes hear the echo of my footsteps across faded tiled floors that witnessed unspeakable things. And seeing bits of bone, teeth and fabric poking out from the ground at Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields, just a few miles outside of the city, was nearly too much to bear. I’ll always remember one innocent conversation about Valentine’s Day when one of your daughters stated matter-of-factly that had she kissed her husband in public back in those terrible times, they would have been killed. I know you went through some horrific experiences, Phnom Penh, but that has just made you stronger. The way you’ve put the past behind you is extraordinary. New skyscrapers, trendy eateries, chic boutiques – you’ve never looked as good. But while you’ve blossomed into a real beauty, I love the way your heart hasn’t changed. The easy smiles I see on your people are among some of the most genuine I’ve come across anywhere.


While so many barely take the time to know you, preferring the company of Siem Reap (with its jewel of Angkor Wat) or the laid-back beaches of Sihanoukville, I see the beauty in you – now and what once was – when you were rightly called the “The Pearl of Asia” and the “City of Four Faces” (situated where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers meet). My whole life, I’ve been drawn to cities near water, and I truly miss your vibrant riverside, so much more alive than my current love, Saigon. Remember that one perfect day we spent along the newly rebuilt riverside? Thanks for convincing me to wake up early and do tai chi with the older Chinese ladies. If we weren’t there so early, we would’ve missed Sambo, the huge elephant that came lumbering by, on its way to Wat Phnom, the temple hill you were named after. Then we walked to the nearby Royal Palace with its Silver Pagoda and 9,584 diamond-encrusted Buddha statue whose bling made your eyes light up, Phnom Penh. We came back in the evening for a stroll past other young couples watching the sun go down, groups of kids playing pick-up football games, and the smell of sugared popcorn and fried noodles in the air. That nightcap at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club (locally known by its acronym, “the FCC”), with its live music, vintage ceiling fans and stunning view of the river was amazing. I could almost hear the ghosts of yesteryear’s diplomats, UN officials, and reporters rehash war stories and close calls. And remember that one magical night we spent at the regal Hotel Cambodiana, swimming in the pool overlooking the Mekong, just you and me, when all of a sudden fireworks went off so close that we could almost touch them? I’ll never forget the magic of that moment, Phnom Penh.


A confession, though, now that that we’re no longer together. You’re not the best of cooks. I’m sorry. Some of my other loves, Bangkok, Athens, Beijing, have been more talented in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong. You had some shining moments. Like your ku tiev, some of the grittiest, most flavorful noodles I’ve ever had. The sweeter, more refined Saigon version of hu tiu Nam Vang (“Nam Vang” is the Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh) doesn’t hold a candle to you. Or the distinctly Cambodian amok (coconut-based fish curry steamed in a banana leaf) was a pleasure to unwrap. You’ve surprised me, too. I’ll never forget that time you served me a platter of fried tarantulas, crispy grasshoppers and boiled cocoons in front of the Central Market. Or the strangely tasty traditional dish of red tree ants stir-fried with beef and basil. That was a nice surprise, Phnom Penh.


I enjoyed the quiet afternoons we spent at Wat Phnom, the hill topped by a stupa which in legend was set up by Daun Penh, a woman who found statues of the Buddha inside a tree floating on the Tonle Sap River. Remember when we laughed at the troupe of very bold monkeys just waiting for a moment of distraction to snatch away drinks and snacks from unsuspecting tourists? Or the industrious little boys with their long sticks tipped with glue to re-catch and re-sell the just-released “lucky” little sparrows? I miss our little hikes to the top of the hill to view the temple complete with its colorful murals and naga snakes decorating the roof. There’s nothing like that here, Phnom Penh. In fact, I miss the closeness we shared. No matter where you were, I could get to you within 20 minutes. No so here, Phnom Penh. My current love is so much more complicated. And loud. And high maintenance. We shared simpler times, Phnom Penh.


I still have some of the quirky gifts you gave me – all the lovely silks and even the “I survived Cambodia” t-shirt from the art deco, ziggurat-looking Central Market (Phsar Thmey in Khmer). Especially since it got that USD4.2 million facelift a couple of years ago, it’s never looked better. I didn’t even mind shopping with you at the Russian Market (known as Phsar Toul Tom Pong) with its claustrophobic warren of stalls but with amazing bargains like the hand carved, wooden plaques (great as trivets), and inexpensive silver and turquoise jewelry. I’m still using the wallet you gave me that has a Cambodian newspaper design and the fork that got twisted into a ring.


I’m so sorry it had to end, Phnom Penh. It wasn’t you. It was me. I needed a change. But I’m so glad we’ve remained friends. After all, I’m still coming over for Tet. We’ll pick up where we left off and it’ll be like I never left.

If you go…
Many bus companies (Sapaco, Mekong Express, Mailinh) do the six hour trip between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, with multiple departures daily which include stops at both borders and for a meal. Tickets are around USD12 and for many nationalities, the bus staff takes care of Cambodian visas on arrival (USD25, though check with your embassy). It should be noted that the actual cost of the visa is USD20. The extra USD5 is ostensibly for the convenience of having someone expedite the paperwork for you.

Hotel Cambodiana Pool 1 - Courtesy Hotel Cambodiana

Where to stay:
Initiated by the late King Sihanouk as the first luxury hotel in Phnom Penh, the 4-star Hotel Cambodiana occupies the best spot on the riverside. Floor to ceiling windows from the restaurant as well as a gorgeous swimming pool overlooking the Tonle Sap River take advantage of its prime location, within easy walking distance of the bustling riverside and private boats available for river cruises. Doubles start at USD100+, inclusive of buffet breakfast with its own ku tiev station. See www.hotelcambodiana.com.kh

White Linen - Bedroom

For more intimate accommodations, try the 5-room White Linen Boutique Hotel. Located near the Russian Market, the bright and airy property has flexible booking options from single suites to entire floors. Best of all, White Linen is one of six small businesses run by the Daughters of Cambodia NGO, providing fair trade employment for victims of trafficking. Doubles start at USD45 (including cooked breakfasts). See www.daughtersofcambodia.org

Oi caught up with Breanne Orndorff, Outlet Director with Daughters of Cambodia, a non-profit NGO which runs the White Linen Guesthouse on the unique business / social model they have.

How did Daughters of Cambodia get its start?

Our founder had a background in social work and as she started building relationships with women and created a Day Center (in 2007), she found that a lack of income was a problem because they still had to work in the sex trade at night. We needed something we could sell so that we could pay them. That was the beginning of a line of products: shirts and bags and woodwork, screen printing…

Our first cafe shop, the Spice Garden Cafe, opened in 2010 and we also have a boutique hotel (opened in summer 2013) and a visitor’s center with a shop and a small women-only spa. Internally we also have workshops for woodwork, screen printing, and teams for sewing and jewelry.

Sons of Cambodia, now comprised of 15 boys who left the sex trade, started with coconut products and now has woodworking and screen printing.

How do you find disadvantaged women to help?

We do outreach, two times week, handing out fliers in Khmer, in Steng MeanChey, so we’re in their communities, which at the time was one of the largest red light districts in Phnom Penh. People also hear about us through word of mouth. It seems half of them are related to each other somehow; I’m not sure if it’s Khmer relation [where people often call a friend or acquaintance “a relative”] or really related. We conduct open interviews. We have a team that goes out at night to the brothels and hands out fliers. Sometimes girls come to us voluntarily for interviews.

White Linen - Reception

What pushes women into this trade? Is it by circumstance or is it ever by choice?

I almost see it as the same. A lot of them are driven to it because of their circumstances. I’ve known none of them that say ‘I want to do this as a career.’ It’s more born out of a desperate need, in order to provide for their family ties. Taking care of each other is their culture.

Some NGOs completely build a new life for their clients: providing job training, shelter, counseling, etc. Daughters doesn’t do that. Why?

Well, we begin with basic sewing skills, then put them into one of the crafts team. They live in their own homes in their communities. We don’t house them. By them living in their homes, coming to us [during the day], that creates challenges in some ways, but we believe that they are positive changes: they have a stable job where they’re making decent money, their health improves, their lives improve, they’re looked upon differently by the community.

There could be a stigma coming from living in a shelter, being housed, and we wanted to avoid that stigma. In Khmer culture, they’re already looked down upon. Khmer culture, has a saying: Men are like gold, women are like cloth. That implies that men can be polished up, whereas women are used and torn. We partner with other NGOs as well: some will when a woman needs protection or has security issues; social work NGOs; legal NGOs; other NGOs for business (for example, Agape International makes the t-shirts which we screen print). We just became partners with an NGO that does staff care, counseling or direction. Our staff needs to stay healthy, too, to take care of all the men and women we help.

White Linen - Breakfast

This is obviously working. You’ve experienced some amazing results.

Other than a few expats and expat volunteers (sometimes supported through churches or missions), we have about 150 woman employed at Daughters as clients that go through the program and about 15 men.

After the 6 month training period at the center, we’ve seen that 98% don’t go back [to the sex trade].

Stuff takes time, though. You can come here three months or six months and volunteer, but I’ve been here over a year, and you can start seeing a lot of change. Just this morning, I sat with our sous chef. Just 10 months ago, we were really worried about her — she was taking drugs and missing work and not taking care of her daughter. Now she’s bragging about how well her daughter is doing at school. She found motivation in her daughter and in Daughters [of Cambodia]. She said, “I know if I don’t come to work, you guys will call and ask.” It’s cool to see a life change. There are victories and defeats and if we did all of this just for a few girls, then it’s all worth it. We’re family — we love each other, we hate each other, we cry with each other and our Khmer staff do a great job of taking care of them all.

Daughters of Cambodia is a non-denominational Christian organization. Is there a conflict between religion and aid?

There was an atheist who came in and said: “You force all these girls to become Christians?”

But, no. All of our clients have a choice if they want to attend Bible service or church service, and we’d love them all the same if they choose not to. Some girls choose not to come and that’s OK. Some sit and listen but choose not to pray. True healing doesn’t come through a paycheck or a job.

White Linen - RoomWhat are some challenges in the aid / business model you’re using?

IT has been the hardest, like booking, making payments, online calendars, etc.

Funding is also a problem. Due to reduced funding we’ve had to cut back in different areas in order to be self-sustainable. We’re really looking for and searching out new donors. We have Christian donors and non-Christian donors. People can make a one-time donation or support us in different ways, like our sponsorship program or our representative program in different countries.

In the end, though, I want people to come to Daughters and say, “They have such amazing food, and, oh! they also help women!” I don’t want people to buy out of pity. I believe we produce beautiful, quality products and make beautiful tasty food. I want people to come to the hotel because it’s beautiful and comfy and homey. I want to hear people say that this food is fantastic AND it’s for a good cause. I believe our girls produce great, beautiful things that are worth that attention.

Where to eat:
Try Malis (136 Norodom Boulevard) for an upscale Cambodian meal in an elegant setting (mains start at USD10), Khmer Surin (9 Street 57) for authentic, reasonably priced Cambodian fare (mains are USD3-6), and a tiny, unassuming noodle shop that’s only open in the morning but has the best ku tiev in the business (corner of Streets 51 and 208). Get there at around 10 am as it’s starting to wind down for the most flavorful soup you’ll ever have.

Where to buy:
Check out the Central Market for its architecture but head to the Russian Market for a wider selection of souvenirs. If planning on clothes shopping, be aware that the cramped stalls have no dressing rooms, so wear comfortable clothes and be prepared to duck behind a stack of clothes to change. The market can get pretty hot, so head over to the only air-conditioned stall in the market, Bodia Nature (stall #284-285), and pick up some excellent all-natural balms, lotions and oils.

How to help:
Phnom Penh has lots of beggars, both adults and children. Instead of giving money directly to the poor, support NGOs and other worthy organizations. Mith Samlanh (“Friends” in English), an organization which provides training opportunities for former street youth and employment for their parents, runs various outlets including Romdeng Restaurant (74 Street 174) which serves up delicious tapas and even red tree ants stir-fried with beef and basil. Or stop by the Friends ‘N’ Stuff stall at the Russian Market (#434) for some unique mementos. See www.mithsamlanh.org

Images by Nguyen Duy Phuong

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