Phnom Penh on a Plate: Golden Indulgences, Gut-Wrenching Genocide & Arachnid Appetizers

Crispy Tarantulas with Lime and Pepper Sauce
Loved the fried tarantulas at Romdeng!

There’s a certain ambivalence to how I feel about Phnom Penh. Sure, compared to Saigon, Phnom Penh was equally appealing, and I honestly could not decide which city I enjoyed more. But one thing is certain: some of the city highlights may be hard to swallow.

The Cambodian capital, according to legend, was named after a 14th century nun named Lady Penh, who found five buddha statues in a tree trunk floating down the Mekong river. She had the villagers pile earth to build a hilltop temple where the images found their new home. This 27-meter high hill, topped by a temple called Wat Phnom, is one of the landmarks of the city.

Very similar to its counterpart in Bangkok, the most impressive landmark would be the Royal Palace (Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk; entrance: USD 6.25), a complex of buildings that serve as the royal residence for the Kings of Cambodia since the 1860s.

A remarkable building within the royal palace grounds is the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo), named after silver tiles used to floor the interior. The temples houses numerous national treasures of golden and bejeweled Buddhas and other religious items.

Throne Hall of the Royal Palace
Throne Hall of the Royal Palace Complex, royal residence of the Cambodian king since 1860

 Upon the recommendation of a fellow blogger, we had lunch at Romdeng at #74 Street 174, a restaurant housed in a well-designed colonial villa serving creative Khmer cuisine. The place also provides job opportunities to disadvantaged youth through an NGO called Friends International.

The star of their menu is no other than their crispy tarantulas with lime and pepper sauce, actually a regional specialty from the town of Skuon (aka ‘Spiderville’), 75 km north of Phnom Penh, where these spiders are harvested and farmed. Rural Cambodians are believed to have resorted to eating these arachnids during the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge, with their popularity as a tasty streetside snack starting no earlier than the 1990s. The tarantulas – especially the legs – were crunchy and tasty, and the dipping sauce enhanced the flavor. While the comparison may not necessarily whet the appetites of the uninitiated, they reminded me of the crispy edges of a delectable Filipino appetizer called chicharon bulaklak (deep-fried pork intestines). Less adventurous folk can go for more traditional mains that range from USD 6 to 7.

Don’t miss the cozy gift shop on the second floor. Proceeds support Friends International. I bought some gifts here: a metal water bottle (USD 9), handmade eco-wallet (USD 5.50) and, for my mom, an award-winning creative Cambodian cookbook, From Spiders to Water Lilies (USD 35, soft-bound), which includes the crispy tarantula recipe.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Genocide victims stare back at S-21, a Khmer Rouge prison and interrogation center
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Bullet-ridden skull of a victim

Now for a dose of depression. Our culinary exploits at Romdeng were no match for the visceral experience of our next destination. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (entrance: USD 2), on the other hand, was as hauntingly brutal, as the Royal Palace was beautiful. The now-peaceful grounds belie the unimaginable evils of humanity that’s harder to swallow than a plate of giant spiders.

The museum was a high school converted by the communist Khmer Rouge into a prison and interrogation center called S-21. From 1975 to 1979, over 17,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here, before being taken to “killing fields” in the outskirts of the city to be macabrely executed. Walking through some of the rooms, filled with torture devices and photographs of victims staring blankly back at you, I felt a sickening sadness… The buildings were secured with iron-barred windows and barbed wire; and classrooms were converted into crude prison cells of wood or brick. Only 12 people survived the genocide of S-21.

Tuol Sleng left a knot in our guts, as we lumbered to end our day at Sisowath Quay, a 3 km riverside strip lined with hotels, restaurants and bars at the junction of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap waterways. After a hearty meal of Khmer curry, we headed straight to its most iconic joint, the Foreign Correspondents Club or simply “FCC”, a snazzy hotel bar overlooking the Mekong.

Foreign Correspondents Club
Foreign Correspondents Club, overlooking Sisowath Quay and the Mekong River

We contemplated the experiences of the day over a jug of Angkor Beer (serves four glasses) at USD 8.50  – unsurprisingly the price you pay for great ambience. And concluded, in sum, how no other city provides an emotional roller coaster like Phnom Penh. From royal awesomeness to depressing histories to culinary thrills, Phnom Penh will surely stir you in more ways than one.

 HOW TO GET THERE: By bus, Phnom Penh was six hours from Saigon (USD 10), passing through the Moc Bai-Bavet border crossing and riding a barge to traverse the Mekong river. We bought our tickets from Vietsea Tourist, a friendly travel agency at 181 Pham Ngu Lao – the backpacker street of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
WHERE TO STAY: Courtesy of Roomorama, we stayed at Hotel Nine at #48 Street 9, Tonle Bassac – a boutique accommodation a few minutes walk from the Independence Monument. Double A/C room at USD 55/night, with breakfast.

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