The Travel Series: Cambodia
Cambodia is a country where neither of us knew what to expect. When telling people where our adventure was taking us, the word Cambodia was always met with a concerned expression and the instructions to be careful. Before visiting, we didn’t really know much about the country other than that it is a Southern Asian country that we imagined to be considerably behind us on the development scale. Many of our friends had visited Cambodia during their gap year, and so whilst we appreciated our loved ones’ concerns, we remained undeterred.
Throughout its’ history, the country has struggled tirelessly to be independent, being ruled by France, Japan, and Vietnam in the past, with the latter being the Government ruling Cambodia when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge overthrew them in 1975. At first, the Vietnamese people were relieved, but the rebels immediately emptied the capital of its’ residents and sent them to work on the fields as farmers to cultivate produce for the nation, with many died from disease or malnutrition. The Khmer Rouge managed to wipe out 1.6 million of Cambodia’s 8 million population and the capital became home to large prisons where people were brought to be tortured until they owned up to their ‘crimes’.
More often than not, they were accused of crimes that they had not committed but would be tortured until they just confessed that they had. Sometimes they would break after a couple of weeks of ‘soft’ torture – whippings and beatings, but sometimes the more headstrong prisoners would withstand years of torture from the ‘rabid’ group, who were permitted to do anything but kill them. When they finally confessed, the consequence was no better as they were sent straight to the ‘killing fields’ and were brutally murdered. This ‘Reign of Terror’ lasted for 4 years.
Our world has suffered many tragedies and witnessed horrific things for reasons we will never be able to comprehend. It was easy to detach yourself from the significant events taught in history lessons at school, it’s quite easy to remain ignorant to the wars in the Tudor times, to the Viking invasions, to the slavery in Australia, by reasoning that these all happened before civilisation had developed. Barbaric conditions seem more justifiable if they happened in a time before we had brick houses and roads, before we had parliaments, voting, and advancing technology. The most hard hitting thing about Cambodia’s history is that these atrocities happened in the late seventies; the Khmer Rouge were in power from 1975 until 1979.
'Schools should be teaching this history to children, teaching them what is really happening in OUR world!'
It is hard to believe that whilst this tyranny was unfolding, many of us were alive; we went to school, we read the newspaper, we listened to the radio, we raced home for Mum’s roast dinner on a Sunday, and apart from different fashions and questionable haircuts, we lived in a world that we would still perceive to be normal now, to be as civilised as it is today. Instead of explaining how to distinguish between each Tudor coat of arms, schools should be teaching this history to children, teaching them what is really happening in the world, in OUR world. This resilient country has made us both realise just how easy it is to be ignorant to the hardships that are still unfolding in the world while we are so sheltered in our little western cocoon.
Resilient is what Cambodia is. Learning about their tulmounous history changed everything for us. We looked differently at the people and villages we passed: had they agreed with the rebellion? Had they been victims? Had they lost friends and family? We became almost skeptical, but any apprehension was quickly dispelled by the deep laughter lines around each Cambodian elder’s eyes, dissolved by the warm and banterous quips offered by every tuk-tuk driver, market stall owner and shopkeeper, erased by the excited hellos and waves from each and every child we passed. Cambodian people are resilient, they may have been downtrodden not so long ago, but this country and its’ people are fighting back.
Now that we understand why the older generation had concerns about us visiting Cambodia, we’re no longer surprised that the thought conjured images of a war-torn, dangerous country. Whilst we may not have shared their apprehension, even we did not expect the vibrant, cosmopolitan culture that is alive and kicking in the major cities. Abandoned houses and gaping holes in the landscape are still stark reminders of the carnage caused by the Khmer Rouge, but out of the ashes, speakeasy bars, gourmet restaurants, and a rapidly expanding gin culture are rising.
It’s safe to say that during our brief 2 week stay in Cambodia, we gorged ourselves on traditional fish amok, devoured way too much freshly caught peppered crab, and thoroughly immersed ourselves in said, rather-unexpected gin culture, but all in the name of research of course…! Unfortunately, two weeks is nowhere near enough time to really experience what the country has to offer, and we are certain that there are many gin havens that we didn’t get the chance to visit during our whistle stop tour. But fear not, we made sure to get our fix in every town we visited, and out of the establishments that we were fortunate enough to find – we won’t be indiscreet enough to say just how many of them there were – the four below were definitely our favourite!
Pub Street is a haven for nightlife; it is alive with neon lights and signs advertising about the bars and restaurants that fill the little streets, but sometimes the best places are those that aren’t shouting the loudest… Tucked away down a small alley, Menaka is almost impossible to find. Purposely straying off of the tourist-ridden streets in search of authenticity, we spotted a shining halo of a sign – ‘Menaka Lounge Premium Spirits and Cocktails’. An arrow pointed us in the vague direction, and, by some miracle, we stumbled across the bar’s very unassuming door; there were no signs, no menus, nothing… We’re big fans of quirky ‘speakeasies’ because the atmosphere is much more enjoyable when people have purposely sought out somewhere that they like instead of just finding the nearest bar selling $1 Angkor. It definitely speaks volumes.
Inside, the bar was dark and a little bit sexy, beautifully decorated with rich, polished wood and dark, inviting leathers. Their menu boasts a plethora of cocktails with a handy little rating of how sweet, sour, refreshing or strong each one was. Naturally, and pretty unsurprisingly, D jumped at the chance of something sweet, and A opted to sample a more ‘classic’ cocktail. If you ever find yourself in Siem Reap, we urge you to keep your eyes peeled for the discreet signs, and we promise that the treasure at the end of the trail is well, well worth it!
Nestled in a serene corner of the bustling Pub Street network, Miss Wong is Siem Reap’s answer to oriental glamour. Uber-suave owner Dean Williams welcomed us warmly into his classy bar, and explained to us how he came to acquire it after leaving his native New Zealand, and why he decided to transform it into the gin-influenced cocktail lounge that it is today. Ornate lanterns swing from the doorways, intricate folding screens give a hint of exoticism, and a red blush eclipses the bar creating a sexy, and almost burlesque, atmosphere. Heightening this even further is the fan-shaped menu, which we absolutely loved, and are not ashamed to admit that we are guilty of posing behind it for a few cheeky snaps…
Dean treated us to a sample of each of Miss Wong’s 5 signature infused gins: the novel ‘Tom Yum’ that tasted surprisingly similar to the tomato and lemongrass Thai soup, the ‘Queen Mum’ which Dean concocted to resemble the classic taste of Hendricks after struggling to get hold of the brand itself, the very strong ‘Thyme’ infusion that Dean had correctly pre-warned was rather overpowering, the subtle yet moreish ‘Rosewater and Cardamom’, and the ‘Sitting Buddha’ blend of fresh pineapple, cilantro and ginger. Of course, we were in absolute heaven as one of our favourite things to do is explore new and exciting gin infusions, but boasting a flavour to suit pretty much every palate, Miss Wong is definitely a bar NOT to be missed!
Stepping through the sliding glass door into Le Boutiers’ serenity was how we imagine it would be to go through that well-known wardrobe to Narnia. We have made no secret of the fact that we’re not fans of big, sprawling cities, so it probably won’t surprise you to hear that we had mixed feelings about Phnom Penh. Walking from our hotel to the famous cocktail hub of Bassac Lane, we were feeling uncomfortable, weary, and a little bit overwhelmed. But, that all changed as soon as we slid open those doors, and slid into Le Boutier; there was very much welcomed air con, it was sparkling clean, and everyone inside welcomed us with genuine smiles. A rather different atmosphere to that we had just experienced on the way to the bar.
Immediately, we were greeted by one of the most genuine and passionate bartenders we’ve met on our gin quest so far, Seth. His expertise and experience guided us so effortlessly through the bars’ extensive menu that we decided to leave our drinks choice in his more than capable hands. A sweet egg-white and gin cocktail for D, and a very strong – thanks to Asia’s spirit measures – G&T for A. But the thing that we loved most about Le Boutier was nothing to do with the delicious drinks, it was down the the incredibly warm atmosphere and genuine welcome we received from staff in an otherwise overwhelming capital city. It would certainly be considered a crime to not treat yourself to a drink here if you ever find yourself in Phnom Penh!
The Looking Glass
What we first assumed to be a speakeasy bar in the sleepy riverside town of Kampot, The Looking Glass is a little bar that we were glad to stumble across after we caught a glimpse of its’ hidden doorway on a stranger’s Instagram story. But it turns out that this isn’t a bar on a ‘need to know’ basis; the owners only found out about the venture 3 weeks before we arrived and hadn’t yet had the chance to market it. Despite the fact that they were still trialling cocktails recipes and were yet to decide on marketing promotions, The Looking Glass shone out like a diamond in the rough. glistening in the towns’ bustling centre, its’ potential is impossible to ignore.
The bar has an Alice in Wonderland ‘eat me, drink me’ concept and it’s pallet furniture, tin roof and quintessentially English mismatched tea-pots give the bar a quirky loo. The atmosphere is very laid back, it is consumes you as the owners welcome you into their bar, arms open, immediately feeling like old friends. We must have kept falling down that pesky rabbit hole because we found ourselves drinking gin in this bar more than once during our brief stay in the town. This is definitely a bar to watch out for!
And so, it is with sadness – and a horrifically long bus journey – that we leave Cambodia; a country that we have found to undermine our preconceptions, to underpin the definition of resilience, and to be completely and utterly, underrated. And like the famous saying about the Phoenix that rises from the ashes, Cambodia is definitely doing so, and it’s cloaked in gin…
So, until next time - Bottoms up!
Written by A
29th April 2018
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