A local guide in Cambodia

Where are you going for inspiration?

Siem Reap is like a ghost town right now, as a lot of things are tourism based; it reminds me of the first time I went there when I was four years old and there was no one around. Artifacts and temples are still being discovered, and many objects looted in colonial times are returned to museums across the country. I use Khmer statues in my work and really dig into the stories behind them – the whole region, including Burma and Thailand, is so culturally rich and connected.

In Phnom Penh there are also the pagodas of Wat Phnom and Wat Botum next to the Royal Palace – but sometimes I go out of town for Silk Island, which is about 20 minutes down the Mekong, for its Buddhist pagodas and ruins. And back in town, there’s the Modernist Olympic Stadium and the National Museum of Cambodia, both designed by architect Vann Molyvann during Cambodia’s heyday of the 1960s. straight to Siem Reap, but there is a lot that they lack here. In addition, the city is booming and tripling in size. So it’s really inspiring to sit in the eye of the storm and help contribute culturally to the Cambodia of tomorrow.

What about a place to eat and drink?

For that home-made vibe, I take friends for a Khmer barbecue at Sovanna 1 and 2 in Phnom Penh: classic plastic chairs, beef, morning glory and local fish on the menu, and you order a bunch of fried rice to accompany this. Recently, we are seeing a lot more sugar in food which makes it closer to Thai cuisine than traditional Cambodian. But for a trip back in time, there’s Khmer Surin, with its wood-paneled walls, and Pleng Chan if you want a leafy, friendly local cafe with traditional Khmer dishes.

Most people drink beer in Cambodia, and it’s everywhere – beer with durian, with coconut – but there is now more of a culture of consumption with rum and gin. Cambodian-made, such as Seekers gin. The Pearl Bar is a cool new place with cocktails including the Royal Sand Beach – coconut tequila, banana, lime, sugar and egg white – and there are plenty of bars on Bassac Lane. For a Third Republic vibe, head to the Elephant Bar at Raffles Hotel Le Royal.

Where can you escape the city?

Traditionally, Sihanoukville on the coast was the escape from the city, but Kampot feels more laid back these days; this is where people go kayaking and you have the mangroves and mountains nearby. To the west is Bokor, where I painted a lot: all those old royal residences and abandoned houses from the Golden Age – the proper name of this architectural style is Third Tropical Republic.

Tell us about the booming music scene.

A lot of music has been inspired by the K-Pop scene and there were only covers from the 1960s. But since the early 2000s there are also some local sounds. KlapYaHandz is the first hip-hop label in Cambodia, founded by my friend Sok Visal, who took refuge in France and then returned in the early 90s and mixing hip-hop and traditional sounds. One of his last signed artists is Sin Setsochhata, the granddaughter of Sin Sisamuth, Cambodia’s most famous singer (he was our Elvis) and victim of the Khmer Rouge regime. You should also check out SmallWorld SmallBand, a rock ‘n’ roll band from Kesorr; Khmer Kmeng; and Baramey Production, founded by singer Laura Mam, with big new artists such as VannDa under her label. What I like most about this musical renaissance is the mixture with typical sounds of traditional Lhmer instruments such as trô (a kind of vertical violin). Before the pandemic, we organized many events, mini-concerts like grown-ups, at Factory in our artistic space.

Where’s the best for a bit of peace and quiet?

Before the pandemic, you could go every Sunday evening and Wednesday morning to meditate at Wat Langka Pagoda. It is right in the middle of the city near the Independence Monument (sort of our Arc de Triomphe). I love it there, especially its quiet streets with its cafes and frangipani trees planted nearby. For meditation classes and guides there is the Vipassana Meditation Center near Battambang.

Follow Fonki on Instagram @fonkiworld

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