Tag Archives: Phnom Penh

Cambodia’s Best Burgers

Here is a story about an American hamburger that traveled to Cambodia and, in roadside diner fashion, set up shop in a gas station. Mike’s tale is as compelling as his burgers, and I’m lucky to have gotten to know and write about him during my time in Cambodia. Read about Mike’s Burger House in Phnom Penh in this A Hamburger Today review, and meet the guy behind the burgers in this AHT Grilled interview.


I’ve never had an In-N-Out burger, but when I do have one, I know I’ll be thinking of Mike.


Cambodia for Obama!

This presidential election, I voted early and often. I sent my election absentee ballot via US diplomat mail pouch at the beginning of October. Apparently part of the ballot didn’t make it, so at the request of the county clerk’s office, I dropped a second ballot at the embassy October 29. In the meantime, another absentee ballot arrived for me at my mom’s house.

Because of the 12-hour time difference with the East Coast, I got to sleep through the stretch of election day, when newscasters just puffed hot air into predictions and gestured at magic boards. Wednesday morning in Cambodia brought the first wave of poll closings in the US. I woke to a Facebook feed filled with posts about getting out the vote and photos of “I voted!” stickers. But there were also rumors of voting machines gone rogue, misprinted ballots, and voting lines so long people were walking away. My election day nerves were magnified by each of the 8,000 miles I am away from home.

My friend Judy and I checked CNN, which had nothing new to report, and went to a TV-free cafe to feed our election anxiety coffee and eggs. Caffeine and protein: we were girding ourselves for a long day. Next stop Meta House, the German cultural center in Phnom Penh, host of an ex-pat election returns watching party.

Meta’s back room was jammed, excited and exciting. Everybody made new friends and jumped into overheard conversations about hometowns, adopted states, and local voting records. We all cheered every time a state’s returns were called. I set up my own mission control, one eye on the TV screen and the other online, switching between The New York Times’s graphics, Nate Silver’s updates, local news from Des Moines, and Facebook. Friends’ commentary streamed through chat.

Iowa, that swingy swing state and the place where Obama started it all at the 2008 caucus and brought it home with Bruce on Monday night, came through for its man.

And then things moved fast. On TV, people were dancing in the streets in Chicago. The top of the Empire State Building was lit blue. CNN called it. Rounds of celebratory beer appeared on our table. The New York Times called it. Facebook and Twitter shouted it. The wi-fi stopped working.

The room got quiet as we waited for our President to make his acceptance speech. Finally, Obama came out. His speech was perfect and made us feel some of that 2008 hope. We applauded and cheered at the TV. Obama sounded like exactly what he needs to be—the President for all of us. Everybody at Meta House looked a little teary.

Tuk-tuk drivers on the street saw our election day buttons and said, “Obama, hooray!”

And then we went out for lunch.

**Vote update: My second ballot was received on November 7. Better late than never.

The king is dead. Long live the king!

When I teach fiction writing workshops, I use this example for the difference between story and plot:

Example 1—
The king died, and then the queen died.
(Story—a series of events told in sequential order.)

Example 2—
The king died, and then the queen died of heartbreak.
(Plot—a series of events told with cause and effect so one event brings about the next.)

This isn’t an original lesson—it came from one of my writing teachers, the wonderful Joshua Henkin. (If you haven’t read Josh’s novels, including The World Without You and Matrimony, you should go do so immediately.)

Some story happened in Cambodia this week. King Norodom Sihanouk, who led Cambodia for great swaths of the 20th century, died. He was 89 and mostly living in Beijing for medical care; he’d stepped down from the throne in 2004. Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Sihamoni, now wears the crown, but Sihanouk, the king father, is still very popular, and his portrait hangs next to the one of the king in many businesses and homes.

The news was announced on Monday morning, October 15, and by Monday afternoon a crowd had gathered outside the Royal Palace. National days of mourning were proclaimed, and the Water Festival, a holiday at the end of November, was cancelled in Phnom Penh, on account of being too festive for a sad time. I was prepared for a combination of the funerals for Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson.

Sihanouk’s body returned to Phnom Penh on Wednesday. Even though the plane wasn’t supposed to land until 3 pm, people started lining up in the streets in early afternoon for the processional from the airport to the Royal Palace. It was hot, 90-something degrees and humid, but only the westerners were sweating.

Traditional mourning clothes are a white shirt and black pants or skirt, and just about every person in the street was wearing this combination. I wore my white shirt and black pants too, and for the first time in six weeks, I felt like I was able to blend in with the crowd. People pinned a black ribbon to their shirts, which reminded me of Jewish shiva badges, ripped to show the tear in your soul. Monks gathered together at a turn in the street.

Some carried Cambodian flags, flowers and portraits of Sihanouk.


The mood was festive. Maybe it’s not so odd—why not be cheerful for a parade and a moment to feel national pride? The motorcade finally arrived, and when it did it passed quickly; there was no lingering, waving, or taking in the crowds. (Which explains why these photos are at odd angles.) The king father’s golden coffin was in a vehicle that looked like a mythic bird; it was followed by a group of monks in a dragon boat. Older women around me cried genuine tears. Were they mouning the king, the end of an era, or did this death remind them of every other person they’ve mourned? I can’t know.

After the cars passed, the crowds dispersed into what felt like one big block party: children played in the still-barricaded streets, adults hung around chatting with family and friends, and vendors sold cotton candy, kettle corn and sweet drinks.

Small, makeshift shrines, with incense sticks, candles and Cambodian flags, popped up at the base of trees. In front of the Royal Palace were larger urns of flowers and incense, and men and women circled around these praying. People were also weeping openly here, and it felt exploitative to take photos, so I didn’t. Sihanouk’s body will lie in state at the palace for three months before being cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony.

Banana quarters

I’ve been seeing the carts around town, but only in passing from a tuk-tuk. There’s a profusion of street meat available in Phnom Penh, and look at the shapes here—it’s easy to see Jimmy Dean-style sausage links and patties. But the other morning the cart was parked right on the street where I was walking and I got a good look at the contents: bananas!

If you’ve ever been camping (we’ll count one weekend at Girl Scout camp in third grade, since that’s about the extent of my experience), or at a bonfire, you know bananas and fire are a great pair. The outside of the fruit caramelizes, and the inside becomes creamy and smoky.

I bought a skewer and the vendor charged me 1000 riels. The big number sounds like a lot, but there’s 4000 riels to the dollar. I realized I spent a quarter on my bananas, the same amount I paid for a banana at the fruit truck on my way to work every morning in New York.

I always made sure I had a quarter for the banana in my pocket before I got off the subway, and some time ago, at some bar, when I was counting out money for drinks and jabbering away to my pal Melissa about making sure I had 25¢ left for the morning, banana quarters became our inside joke.

And just like that, I was back in New York, walking up Lexington Avenue, and my friends on the other side of the world didn’t seem so far away.

Hello, Phnom Penh / Goodbye, Phnom Penh

Four of us AJWS volunteers arrived in Phnom Penh on Friday evening. We spent the weekend learning our way around the city, apartment/guest house hunting, buying SIM cards, and discovering the pleasure of coffee with sweetened condensed milk.

Monday morning, we reported to our NGOs for work. “Welcome!” my NGO director said. “Tomorrow two staff members are traveling to Kratie province for a community forum and a visit with the youth club. We’d like you to go along to learn about our work and interview people.”

My bag is packed. I’m ready to go. We’re traveling to the village by bus, but this view from the back of a tuk-tuk shows you a little street life in Phnom Penh. I’ll see more when I return.