UNVEILED 10 Masthead
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Adventure is Out There*

Ros Hull

 *Just remember to take hand sanitiser, commonsense … and your conscience!

In the last edition of Magazine, Cambodia was noted as one of the top 10 budget travel destinations. I absolutely agree, it has temple complexes, rice paddies, riverine life and French colonial architecture to offer. I love it.

Our family lived in Phnom Penh in 1996-97, when the girls were only five and eight years old. If anyone ever wants hints on dealing with completely freaked out, heat-fatigued children, call me, I have wine.

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We did come to love the country and especially the people and still return regularly. Every trip back is taken with keen eyes on development and the lives of our friends. I won’t discuss politics but I will say I am (very) cautiously optimistic on both fronts.

The rate of construction in Phnom Penh (PP) is phenomenal – and yes, a bit disruptive. However, less beggars and more businesses make for an exciting city – and one where lots of French and Australian tourists feel comfortable enough visiting to be seen wheeling prams and walking toddlers.

Direct flights from Canberra to Singapore (just bliss avoiding Sydney or Melbourne airports) mean that this emerging nation is an achievable holiday destination for us – leave Canberra just after midnight, walk out of Pochentong Airport (Phnom Penh) at 8.30am ( four hours time difference). I literally packed after work on Friday and had coffee in PP on Saturday morning.

If you decide on an adventure to the ‘Kingdom of Wonder’ be careful (just as you would anywhere) as there are thieves on motorbikes. Be mildly cautious too. I still refuse to eat at some of the food stands my husband assures me are safe … and I heft the hand sanitizer everywhere. But I have a great time.

Our recent trip was in January, the coolest month, although ‘cool’ is a relative term. 28 – 31°C is much more comfortable than the heat wave Canberra went through at the same time but it is always summer in Cambodia. Dress light and dress relaxed – I live in singlets and beach pants or shorts the whole time I’m there.

Phnom Phen

I think Cambodia is the most laid back of the South East Asian countries. Possibly because when these wonderful people had nothing left but their Buddhist decency and delight in being alive, it was the Aussies who were on the ground with our corresponding chilled attitude. 20 years ago I saw kids with just one pair of thongs for shoes laugh when one broke and use the remaining one to play a modified game of soccer on a dusty road. Their attitude is a lot worldlier now but they still love life.

Crucially, that recent Aussie influence has extended to the coffee too. I don’t really like the French-influenced coffee in Vietnam but in PP there is a Khmer owned chain of coffee shops making lattes to an Australian level of deliciousness.

Brown Coffee–thank you from the bottom of my caffeine-addicted heart! This chain also employs and trains wait staff and baristas, giving young Khmers skills they can use for steady employment. Blooms Café is another business doing a fantastic job of training Khmer women as baristas and (amazing) cake decorators. Huffington Post published a brief article on them.

There are so many good restaurants serving any and every world cuisine you can imagine, including their own. There are also ones with a bigger agenda. Friends rehabilitates former street kids, has a training restaurant and a shop (with useful and gorgeous items made from recycled rice bags, newspaper and car tyres) and has expanded into a nail bar as well. I call $5 for a manicure a bargain – and the sense of pride the young woman showed when I told her she had done a good job was priceless.

Another charity, Daughters of Cambodia, rescues girls (and sometimes boys) from human trafficking and trains them to earn an independent living making beautiful craft items or beautiful food. There are many organisations doing good work that we can support by shopping, eating or enjoying ourselves. Watthan Artisans Cambodia is run by, and for, Khmer people with a disability. Fashion at fair trade prices – everybody wins!

Please don’t get the idea that everything has to be worthy to be enjoyable though.

Rosshoes

There is a bar I like that does not have a happy hour, it has an ecstatic hour that runs for THREE hours and cocktails are only $4. An average meal can be as little as $6 and you can get leather shoes tailor made for just $30.

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You can rent a scooter for $7 per day (including the fetching helmets) but excluding any sort of comfortable suspension! You can stay in a lovely beach hotel at the old French-era resort of Kep for less than $50 per day, for two, including breakfast. And best of all, you can ride around PP in a Khmer tuk-tuk, so much better than any other, and feel like a queen. At just $2 per ride I love it, whilst injecting more dollars into the growing Cambodian economy.

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It is very easy to be cynical about progress in a society that has come from the wilderness of Year Zero into the 21st century in less than one lifetime (key events are listed here). There is still so much to be done – but it is being done with an eye to creating a good life as well.

Yes, the division between the haves and have-nots is still enormous but a middle class is emerging who want a good life. One of our closest friends described his delight at seeing the first garden centres open for business a few years ago – his people no longer had to focus on plants for food but could enjoy their beauty too. This from a man who ate grass to survive, during the Pol Pot era.

All photos remain the property of Roslyn Hull.

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Ros Hull

Roslyn is a writer and storyteller who loves all things Canberra, her family, sci fi and movies – but not in that order. She has worked in museum education since 2001 and has a passion for imparting knowledge to others. Writing is her happy place, particularly if there is a dog at her feet and a coffee in her hand. More about the Author

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