A highlight of the area was hip Haji Lane – aome to cute and highly unique clothing stores, Middle Eastern eateries, pokey stairways leading up to treasure troves of vintage goods, and pavements lined with mats and shisha pipes.
The trip definitely opened my eyes to a side of Singapore some people don’t realise is there – one that’s not all about endless shopping malls and skyscrapers, but instead, unique and colourful neighbourhoods with pockets of quirky, cool places, like the Arab Quarter’s Haji Lane and Ann Siang Road in Chinatown. Overall – a great place for a weekend or mini-break!
Visiting Singapore’s Little India was like stepping into a scene straight from the sub-continent, with abundant colour, noise, crowds, chaos, lights, flowers, spices…the area was full of life and reminiscent of our explorations of India a few years back. It actually made me want to go back, despite my love/hate experience at the time.
Being a Sunday, the area was teeming with predominantly Indian (and Bangladeshi and Pakistani) men – supposedly the itinerant workers from the sub-continent head there on their one day off for a taste of home. The atmosphere was festive as it was Deepavali (or Diwali), the Indian festival of lights, so there were colourful banners and neon lights adorning the main streets.
We randomly picked a restaurant for one our all-time favourite dishes – dosais. The restaurant was called Sakunthala’s and was totally packed. It had a frenetic energy as staff buzzed around delivering plate-loads of tasty Indian fare served atop bright green banana leaves. Our masala dosais were suitably massive and very authentic, though a paper dosai (a crispy pancake minus the potato filling) may have been all that was needed to soak up the tasty chutney and sambal accompaniments.
We ate dinner at a nearby food centre (like a hawker centre – but a small version) called Tion Shian Eating House. The seafood with crispy noodles we tried was delicious yet the sauce quickly turned the noodles from crispy to soupy. The highlight was a plate of chicken wings accompanied by a red hot chilli dipping sauce and a small lime to suck afterwards if the heat got too much (according to the vendor). The wings were some of the best I’d ever tasted – crispy on the outside with tender meat – and all for the sum of a few dollars.
As promised, here are some things I wish I knew when I first moved to Phnom Penh – those little bits of information that might help save you the time and effort involved in finding things for yourself (and if you’ve already suffered disastrous haircuts, painful pedicures and fruitless searches for obscure groceries you may find this useful!).
- For hair and nail primping head straight to Lucky Salon, above Lucky supermarket on Sihanouk Boulevard. They offer the best manicures and pedicures in town and the most hygienic – how often do you see PP parlours putting their nail equipment in a steriliser? Not often enough, say my friends with the foot fungal infections! And they use OPI brand nailpolish with a huge selection of colours. The haircuts are also excellent – and male friends attest to this as well. I recommend bypassing the local $1-2 haircut joints – while they seem so fun and cheap and cheerful at first, you soon discover they’re just cheap.
- For obscure grocery items look no further than Thai Huot on Monivong Boulevard. It’s here I’ve found filo pastry, harissa paste, arborio rice, chicken stock and lots of great dairy produce – if you need thickened cream or sour cream (and these can be hard to come by in PP) head to the Huot. Added bonus – the alcohol selection is great and slightly cheaper than the selections at Pencil and Lucky. Oh, and there’s lots of chocolate goodness as well.
- Fabric street near O’Russei Market has the largest selection of cotton fabrics for getting shirts, skirts, dresses and more tailor made. It runs the southern length of the market (on the street outside that is) and there’s another street that runs off this with more, which is particularly good for men’s shirt fabrics. Bargaining is essential (but easy) and you can usually get good quality cotton for around US$1.50-2 per metre. There’s lots of crazy, glitzy, slinky, shiny (read: crazy) stuff among the finds, but it’s fun to look at! The 2nd floor of Olympic Market has lots of good fabric too, and it’s undercover and a little more orderly.
- Boom Boom Room on Street 278 is a great way to buy music. While this will sound obvious to PP residents it took me a while to stop buying CDs at Russian Market and instead get with the times and purchase MP3 files at BBR – much cheaper, and they can fit around 9 albums onto one CD which you can then copy onto itunes. Or you can get them to put the music straight onto your ipod. The music selection is updated frequently too.
- And a few favourite food places: The Deli Bakery for bread, The Shop for lunch and dessert (especially dessert – OMG!), Le Duo for pizza (bar the decor!), Pop Cafe for lasagna, Romdeng for Khmer, Boat Noodle for cheap and cheerful Khmer or Thai, Sam Doo for dim sum, Mekong Village for duck pancakes, Sher-e-Punjab for Indian (go for the tandoor offerings), Cafe Fresco for coffee (illy), Garden Center 108 for burgers, shakes and great service, and finally, one of my favourite ‘secret’ places is a little find called ‘Khmer Thai’ – the food is great, the setting is chic, the prices are cheap and for some reason it’s off the expat radar. To find it – head along Mao Tse Tung (inland that is) and turn left just before the wat near Russian Market. Head upstairs to sit on Thai cushions and feast!
I recently discovered that comprehensive website About.com has a Southeast Asia section containing travel advice, forums and a blog spanning a wide variety of topics regarding travel in the region. Some Phnom Penh advice from yours truly appears in the latest post by blogger and writer Mike Aquino – here. Of course, it’s shopping and restaurant oriented – just doing my bit to spread the Phnom Penh word! Speaking of which – I still can’t believe I’ve left Cambodia. Living out of a suitcase (or 10, actually maybe more) in a hotel room in Saigon is only fun for so many days. I’m really looking forward to finding a real place to live, and soon!
On the weekend Steve’s staff let us tag along with them to a pagoda to make offerings as part of the lead up to Pchum Ben. Pchum Ben is a religious holiday where Cambodians remember their deceased loved ones, and in the two weeks prior to the holiday Cambodia’s temples and pagodas are packed with people bringing food, money and offerings to the monks. Read more about it here.
Our friends decided to go to a poorer pagoda a little outside Phnom Penh, since they figured that those in the city will receive alot of visitors hence alot of money and food – good thinking! We headed across the Japanese bridge then out of town for a while to reach the temple. We certainly attracted a bit of attention (in a good way) and as usual our baby was a hit! There were people videotaping us and cute little toothless old people taking our photo.
Here are some more photos from the morning (by the way, I didn’t realise females are supposed to wear white so I’m wearing a hot pink t-shirt! Being a clueless barang I think I was forgiven).