Expat tales: Vibrant Phnom Penh

EXPAT: Zyanya White loves getting the "Khmer Princess" makeover for just $15.
EXPAT: Zyanya White loves getting the "Khmer Princess" makeover for just $15.

Why did you move to Cambodia?

I moved to Phnom Penh to take up an internship with the United Nations, at the joint Cambodian-United Nations court which was set up to try high-level Khmer Rouge leaders.

What do you do there?

PRAYER TIME: Monks gathered in Phnom Penh.
PRAYER TIME: Monks gathered in Phnom Penh.

I assisted with the prosecution of the Khmer Rouge leaders.

What do you like or dislike about life there?

Phnom Penh is a loud, busy, full-on city so there is so much to love, but it does have its downsides. The noise is inescapable, whether that be the wild cats fighting, the constant construction of new buildings (almost entirely done by hand) or the music, which ranges from Gangnam Style on repeat to traditional Khmer music for weddings, which take place on the street from about 5am.

But the people are amazingly kind and open, especially considering the country's past. I love my neighbour's kids, who immediately befriended me with their eight words of English (Hello, how are you? I am fine. Mango!).

I love the river front or Olympic Stadium at sunrise, with the old men and women working out by dancing en masse to 80s aerobics tunes. I love the parties and markets that take over the street, Santa Claus in a tuktuk and the smell of seafood cooking over an open fire.

Phnom Penh is full of lovely wats (temples) including Wat Lanka which has free meditation classes for foreigners once a week.

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand?

Everything is significantly cheaper. You can buy a fresh coconut on the side of the road for less than a dollar. You can get a simple dinner and a beer for two or three dollars quite easily. Try the noodles at Chinese Noodle on Monivong, its $1.50 for a huge plate and they make the noodles right there and then before frying them. I love watching the guy stretch out the batter into delicious noodles.

What do you do on weekends?

There are many gorgeous places to visit outside the city, and it is nice to escape the heat and the noise to a river or the seaside. In the city, there are always festivals or street parties, and there is a night market on the riverside with live music.

What do you think of the food/what's your favourite thing to eat there?

You can have deep-fried tarantula if you wish, or crickets covered in salt and spices to eat like peanuts (I recommend removing the wings first as they get stuck in your teeth). But there is also incredible French food.

You also cannot go past an amok curry. Traditionally a seafood dish cooked with coconut and wrapped in leaves, I love the vegetarian versions that you can buy everywhere. Dragon fruit is also a must-try.

What's the best way to get around?

Tuktuk is basically the only way to get around. There are no buses or trains and taxis only frequent the airport and expensive hotels. You can get a tuktuk (or a motorbike taxi: "motos") on almost any street corner. But there are almost no street signs and the street numbering makes no sense, so you learn quickly to recognise where to turn based on the colour of the umbrella outside.

Make sure you agree a price with your driver before you get in. Bring a helmet if you are planning on taking motos, one will not be provided and accidents are not uncommon.

What's the shopping like?

Shopping is almost exclusively in markets and its lots of fun! Bring your patience, bargaining skills and water - it is hot and noisy work!

What's the nightlife like?

Phnom Penh nightlife is a little bit crazy. The city is full of bars, karaoke joints and clubs. The riverside is where all of the tourist bars are.

What is your favourite part of the city?

The alley my house is on: it's only just wide enough for one tuktuk to pass, but it's usually filled with children, or washing drying, or food cooking over coals or fish spread out to dry on big mats in the sunshine.

The kids like to dance, and they have one set of roller skates that about 10 of them share so they are careering all over the place. They see me and they scream out 'hello'. It's the best.

What time of year is best to visit?

I personally love the wet season. I love getting caught in the rain on the back of a moto and getting home so drenched that I look like I got in the shower fully clothed. But if you are only there for a few days, you may wish to avoid May to September.

What's your must-do thing for visitors?

The top tourist attractions are generally Khmer Rouge-related. These are important to get an understanding of what Cambodia has been through, but make sure you do not let them be the only thing you do.

Oudong Hill is a gorgeous series of temples and ruins which are only about 45 minutes by tuktuk out of the city. It was once the capital of Cambodia and it is definitely worth a look.

Go to Central Market and wander around the food sections, go to Russian market for knock-off clothes and tourist paraphernalia, visit Royal Palace (make sure you cover yourself appropriately or you will not be allowed in!) and just wander the streets, away from all the tourists - that is where the real beauty is.

What are your top tips for tourists?

Be careful of your purse - do not carry anything you are not happy to have stolen. Violent crime is not generally a problem for tourists but your iPhone is more than most people will ever be able to afford so do not flash it around, or it will not still be in your bag when you get back to your hotel. Do not buy drugs or sex; it's not safe for you or the victims of the trafficking rings which supply such things.

For about US$15, you can get a "Khmer princess makeover" which entails makeup, fake hair, traditional costumes, so much jewellery you can barely stand up straight and a photo shoot.

It is the single most hilarious thing you will ever do - they order you how to stand, even physically move you if you are in the wrong position, and then superimpose your (highly Photoshopped!) picture on to various backgrounds.

Guys, you can choose to be bare-chested explorers climbing up waterfalls, or stately kings in full ceremonial dress, sitting on a throne. They take it very seriously and the resulting pictures are the best souvenir you could ever take home.

How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?

It's only a short flight to Bangkok or Singapore and from there a direct flight home. Air Asia is amazing for low-cost flights around Asia, they seem to go almost everywhere for very little.

If you know an expat who wants to share the inside knowledge on their home away from home, email escape@star-times.co.nz with Expat in the subject line.

Sunday Star Times