Tag Archives: Cambodia

Phnom Penh’s IPAs

This post is about Southeast Asian cuisine but it’s not what you’re expecting.

Yes, we ate some great meals during our recent trip to Southeast Asia, like at this outdoor market in Laos and a riverside fish lunch in Vietnam.

We saw exotic foods like these fried insects.

We learned to cook Pad Thai, red curry and other traditional Thai dishes.

And we saw bountiful markets, like this one in Ho Chi Minh City.

But those are all things you’d expect in a post about Southeast Asian cuisine.

Well, how about craft beer in Cambodia?

That’s what my friend, Mitch, and I discovered at Prince Brewing in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Their modern brewpub beside Wat Botum Park was a revelation, offering IPAs, Belgian wheat, porter, lager and other beers.

Their taps and cans had beautiful designs. They had a pool table and a foosball table. Their menu offered everything from burgers to fried snake fish. Outside in the park, local teenagers danced to rap music on a boom box.

It was definitely not what we were expecting in Cambodia.

It was only slightly stranger than the craft beer place we tried a few days earlier in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. That’s Mitch with the owner of Shanti, a bar specializing in Vietnamese craft bottles.

Unfortunately, the owner told us he was about to close his business because he could not compete with neighboring bars selling cheaper mainstream beers. We tried some of those, too, in Vietnam and elsewhere, and he was right: They were fine but not as distinctive as the ones at his bar or in Phnom Penh.

I hope Prince Brewing proves more successful than Shanti. Craft beer is still too expensive for most customers in this part of the world but its emergence felt to me like a frothy symbol of changing times, even though I don’t usually drink much beer.

As an American who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, I’d associated Vietnam and Cambodia with war and genocide, not with IPAs. I was glad to update my perspective.

If I go back, though, I’m still not asking for the fried insects. 

Lasting Images

Beautiful temples. Historic treasures. Iridescent rice fields. Those are not the only scenes we’ll remember from our recent trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Some less-expected images will also stick in our minds, such as the dozen shown below:

This monk in Vientiane, Laos, is holding a string attached to a car. Why? Because he’s blessing the car for its new owners, the family in front of him.

Wait, are those bongs? Yes indeed, along with other paraphernalia featured at the Opium Museum near Chiang Rai, Thailand. It’s in the Golden Triangle, where opium has been cultivated for centuries.

If you need a ride or want to order food in this part of the world, you’ll probably use Grab, a Singapore-based smartphone app similar to Uber. The drivers, like these in Hanoi, wear green jackets.

Do this tree and temple look familiar? Angelina Jolie filmed scenes from Tomb Raider here in Cambodia. We watched the movie after we returned home and, sure enough, it’s the same spot.

This modest Hanoi restaurant serves bun cha, a traditional Vietnamese pork dish. President Obama dined here with Anthony Bourdain in 2016, as shown in the photo above the table. We tried it, too. Delicious.

Maison Centrale was the gatehouse to the “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain and other Americans were held for years. It’s now a museum.

This statue at the National Museum of Cambodia made me think of Vlad the Impaler, whose home we visited in Romania. Probably not what they had in mind.

We were finishing a quiet dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Hue when these diners began singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. They asked us to join them. We did and they ordered us a round of drinks.

These are two of five photos posted above the urinals in a men’s bathroom at a riverside restaurant in Vietnam. They all amused me.

These farming implements had an evil purpose. The Khmer Rouge used them to beat and hack people to death in the killing fields, which we visited near Phnom Penh.

This drag show in Chiang Mai was advertised across the street from a boxing match, offering a range of evening entertainment options.

Finally, a photo of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s not “unexpected,” but the site was too spectacular to leave out. We felt privileged to visit it.

Coming next: A post on the region’s food.

Vietnam for Real

“Vietnam” meant “the Vietnam War” when I was growing up. The Vietnamese had a different name for the conflict: “the American War.”

What surprised me when Champa and I visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand this past month wasn’t the nomenclature but how infrequently people spoke about the war. They were too busy making money and living their lives. They all greeted us warmly, including some former soldiers we met, like the man in the photo below. Most people, like the students you see visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex in Hanoi, were born after the war ended.

The war is hardly forgotten. In Ho Chi Minh City — formerly Saigon — we visited a museum that highlighted acts of American brutality, such as the My Lai massacre, and the ongoing devastation caused by unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.

In Phnom Penh, we saw piles of human skulls at a memorial to victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Walking in the killing fields, where so many people were murdered, reminded me of visiting Auschwitz in Poland. The evil was palpable and overwhelming.

Our guides told us personal stories about relatives and friends who suffered and died. One guide began weeping. Another stared away for several moments.

Yet they and others seemed genuinely happy we were there and not only because we were bringing them business after the pandemic. They were proud of their history, their culture and their progress. They wanted us to know they are more than the place where America fought a misguided war. Much more.

Champa and I traveled across Southeast Asia with two old friends, Mitch and Chiyoko. We planned everything with a Hanoi company that prepared a custom itinerary and arranged for guides, drivers and accommodations at every stop. They did a great job for much less than we would have paid a Western company for a group tour.

We started in Hanoi, took a cruise along the breathtaking Halong Bay (above), then flew to Hoi An — a very pleasant place — and Ho Chi Minh City. From Vietnam we went to Cambodia, where we visited Angkor Wat, a floating village and several temples in Siem Reap. Next was Phnom Penh to see the killing fields, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and more. 

Our third country was Laos, where we spent a day in the capital, Vientiane, then took a newly opened train to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautiful temples and a waterfall park that resembles the set of Avatar.

From there we took a boat up the Mekong River for two days to the border with Thailand, visiting a cave and villages along the way and stopping overnight for a hillside sunset and dinner. Our first stop in Thailand was Chiang Rai, where we visited the Golden Triangle and the White Temple, then drove to Chiang Mai to savor its spectacular temples and take a Thai cooking class. Finally we flew to Bangkok, where we explored everything from a floating market to an organic farm, along with still more temples.

It was a busy itinerary — too busy, perhaps — but we came home with a new appreciation for a part of the world I’d misunderstood and done my best to avoid when I was younger. 

I plan to post additional stories that highlight the most memorable things we saw. If you want to update your own understanding of this extraordinary region, I invite you to stick around.