Phnom Penh Street Stories: Part 2

Posted on by Anna Spencer and Pen Makara
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A little further down Sothearos is ‘The White Building’. Not so far as it is from the PM’s house, the Royal Palace and Sofitel, it epitomizes for me the ‘us and them’ situation in Cambodia.

Below is an interesting you-tube clip and summary of ‘The White Building’

Built in the 1970s following the design of Cambodia´s star architect Vann Molyvann, the White Building located on Sothearos Boulevard in downtown Phnom Penh has experienced ups and downs. Abandoned and unfinished during the Khmer Rouge period, it became a popular living place for various artists after the war and later on for Phnom Penh sex workers usually working in, or close to, the building. Now threatened from being evicted from their homes due to planned land development projects by the Cambodian government, the people of the White Building show no willingness to easily leave behind what has become more than their home.’
“You don’t only live there, it is part of your daily life, more like it actively takes part in your life”
, – a resident of the White Building.

The White Building – Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Opposite the White building is Meta House, which was relocated a year or so ago from its original place near Wat Botum. It was one of the first places I discovered when I moved here and I loved going to its old location near Wat Botum, the smaller and more rustic version of the a modern, bright, stark ‘contemporary’ space it is now.

Meta House are doing great things and showing brilliant films and needed to expand but I’m not sure about the new slightly fancier version of the old Meta House that I loved so much. Now, during rainy season when you have paid to get in and watch a film if you end up sitting in the uncovered area and a storm breaks out, you have to stand crowded in under the covered part to watch the rest of the film.

Still, they have bread sticks for free and the thin German style square pizzas they do in there are really lovely too. I just personally don’t like all this cool, sleek expat pretentiousness and prefer a comfy, chilled out bar with good music or a nice Khmer beer garden than being blasted with air-con and bright lights. I think the new Meta house sums that up for me and I am sad to say I go there much less than I used to when you could just rock up, pull up a stool, order a beer Laos and watch a film without getting rained on.

I relished escaping the ‘too cool for school’ situation in the UK when I left. My brothers and sisters who live in Stoke Newington in London all laugh when they come here and see the miss-matched clothes Cambodians wear here because in Stoke Newington in London some people would have put that outfit together with great thought going along with the whole ‘it’s so bad its good’ fashion, but they would have paid about 100 quid for it in some overpriced ‘retro’ shop.

Anyway, I’m meandering off the path (or street), so I will go straight to the next Sothearos story. We face the crazy traffic at the intersection with Sihanouk and head over to the Wat Botum park side of the street, where my favourite Indian Restaurant is.

Sher-E-Punjab-II is located on the Street 3 (Sothearos Boulevard), offers really good Indian food, good prices, always a winner for me and my friends.

The owner, Shiva Raj Parajuli and his wife, originally from Nepal, moved to Phnom Penh 8 years ago. Before that they were spice traders in Bangkok. They opened their first restaurant on St.130 seven years ago and the one on Sothearos a year later.

‘I very much enjoy managing my restaurants. We are not affected by the low or high season really because we have many regular customers and our business does very well.’

We ordered vegetable samosas to start because they are delicious – crispy and filled with wonderful spiced vegetables. I am not really a very good food critique; I can just say that when food tastes good it is because it is fresh and full of good flavour and the food here always is.

Makara always orders the chicken curry medium spicy and I am a massive tandori chicken fan, although I am tempted by the owner’s favourite the jalfrezie. But I decided on tandori chicken and we shared a huge garlic naan. The food is always spot on, and the staff are so friendly, constantly refilling your glass with iced cold water.

Back in January 2009, my first friend in Cambodia -a fellow volunteer- and I would spend our first evenings in Phnom Penh wandering from the Golden Gate Guest house we were staying at on 278 to Wat Botum Park. We thought that the ‘tuk roarm’ or ‘water dance’ where the fountains are lit up in a colourful water display against music was for a special occasion and that we had been really lucky to just happen upon it during our second evening wander. We laughed at ourselves when we later realised it was a very usual Sunday evening thing.

My friend laughed twice as hard when I admitted I had wandered around Wat Botum on my first day in Cambodia marveling at its beauty, the whole time thinking it was the Royal Palace. Actually, I think the Royal Palace is a bit of a letdown and I would rather wander around a beautiful, quiet Pagoda.

Anyway, my friend and I discovered Sher-E-Punjab II during our first week and since then I have been regularly eating their delicious food whilst watching the sunset against the aerobic dancers, the children playing with colourful balloons and the street sellers in the park across the street.

‘It has improved a lot here the last few years. Now they have the children’s play park here and it is nice for the families to come” the owner of the restaurant told us as he presented our food with pride. “I am very happy with my life here in Cambodia.”

I asked him if he ever ate out and if he enjoyed Khmer food.

“Yes I like Khmer food, we have it on out menu here and I eat it sometimes although our three cooks are all from Nepal. But when I go to eat out I like to go to eat at a Chinese Restaurant or Suki Soup.”

I always end up with enough for a massive take-away from our order and as they boxed up what would be delicious cold tandori chicken for the next day we were presented with the free, extremely sweet treacle ball for dessert.

Too sweet for me, but it’s always great to get the free crackers and dips at the beginning and a little sweet ball at the end. Little things like that make me pretty happy.

The last part of Sothearos leads right past the Royal Palace, where the sunset glow of six pm always looks magnificent against the ornate spires of the Royal Palace. Pigeons fly low amongst street sellers and picnicking families. Makara and I made our last stop here to talk to a ‘bong mourn hang’ seller.

The first time I translated the chant of the familiar bbq egg man, I instantly felt more assimilated into Cambodia. For me the words are poetic, or at least pleasing and hypnotic in both Khmer and English,

Bong mourn hang som cru piset mien rous gia chnoy chnang

BBQ eggs with ingredients inside have a good smell and good taste’ (rough translation admittedly).

So we stopped and bought a bag of BBQ eggs and had a little chat with Sok, the egg seller.

“I start my morning near Central Market and make a tour of the streets but I always end up here near river-side in the evenings. I sell around 200 eggs a day. A small hole is made in the top of the egg and then some ingredients like Knor (the soup powder) and oyster sauce are put in and then they are barbequed slowly from underneath the cart. The ready-to-go ones are lined up on top of the cart and I sell for 300 riel per egg.”

He smiles and asks if I think they are chnang (delicious). I’ve tried them before and am quite partial to them: they’re basically like a nice hard-boiled egg with a kind of smoky taste.

Makara and I took our bags of eggs and made our way back Sothearos towards Tuol Tumpoung. The sky had darkened with the promise of an imminent storm.

Meta house had a film showing, I felt sorry for the people who were about to get a soaking whilst watching it. The best advice is to get there early so you have the good seats under cover.

We stopped at VIP mart because they sell cherry 7up which is one of my new discoveries of interesting products on sale at VIP mart , so I always grab a couple when we pass by because it is a refreshing drink filled with antioxidants apparently.

The barbers outside Svay Propay Pagoda had all gone home, the owners of ‘Wicker World’ were putting their rattan stock inside and the sign for the entrance to Soul Town had begun to flash its neon lights almost in time with the huge electrical storm that lit up the dark stormy sky.

Anna Spencer and Pen Makara

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7 Responses to Phnom Penh Street Stories: Part 2

  1. philip phan says:

    Thanks Anna and Makara. Thoroughly enjoyed reading the article and looking at accompanied photos; felt like i was tagging along your “dah-leng”.

  2. Dermot Sheehan says:

    The White Building wasn’t built in the 1970s, it was built at the same time as the Olympic Stadium and completed in 1964. It wasn’t unfinished either, it was finished on time if over-budget, and quickly filled up. If anything epitomized the them-and-us situation in the city it was the huge shantytowns that filled the areas surrounding it that were evicted around 2008.

    http://cambodia.ka-set.info/culture-and-society/news-building-phnom-penh-urbanism-architecture-080530.html

  3. anna says:

    Thanks Dermot
    That’s a really interesting link(and sorry for the mistake.I enjoyed reading the stories of the people inside the White Building on that link.
    And yes, the forced evictions of the people in the surrounding slums 2008 and the ones that happen regularly since are,I agree,a much bigger example of this ‘us and them’ mentality.
    I think Makara and I just wanted to write the stories/ our viewpoints of the street and it’s buildings, which, I can just remember thinking when I first came here that just round the corner is PM’s glitzy mansion and then this really decrepit building.
    Thanks again for that link though,
    I have started to delve deeper and get more information about that White Building and the people who live and worked there in 2008. When reading the stories of the people in that link, especially the young architect it is easy to see why they want to defend and to stay in the White Building, unfortunately it seems very unlikely that it won’t be torn down at some point soon.

  4. Joe Brennan says:

    No one wants to leave a place that’s been ‘rent free’ for 40 years.

  5. Willem says:

    “My brothers and sisters who live in Stoke Newington in London all laugh when they come here and see the miss-matched clothes Cambodians wear here because in Stoke Newington in London some people would have put that outfit together with great thought going along with the whole ‘it’s so bad its good’ fashion, but they would have paid about 100 quid for it in some overpriced ‘retro’ shop.”

    Haha. Check out http://accidentalchinesehipsters.tumblr.com/

  6. Sateev says:

    I’ve eaten a LOT of Indian food, from a Bengali family-owned dive in the back streets of Hollywood, to Bangkok, and points in between, BUT I have to say that Sher-E-Punjab II is one of the very best I’ve encountered. That the owner cares about the food is obvious; that he has talent is abundantly so. Glad to see others appreciate it as well…

  7. Shiva says:

    Thanks Anna and Makara, you write about my restaurant , thank you so much ,

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