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A Visit to Cambodia’s Old Capital – Oudong

Oudong is the former capital of Cambodia, it is built on a hill of the same name. Oudong (also spelt Udong) was the capital from 1618 until 1866, when the French convinced King Norodom to move the royal court to Phnom Penh.

Oudong is situated about  40km northwest of Phnom Penh. You can travel there by tuk tuk, local bus, motorbike or taxi, a taxi costs around $20 there and back.


It’s always nice to travel to a tourist site and have the place to yourself. I visited Oudong on a Wednesday and I only came across one other tourist. Apparently it’s popular with locals at the weekends.

Oudong is a series of temples and stupas on a picturesque hillside setting. The hillside location means that there are spectacular views. Don’t forget your camera – Oudong is very picturesque. Get there early as the midday sun made walking up the hills a little tough going.

Oudong is a charming mix of the old and new. There are stupas and shrines to by-gone kings. Many of which were built after Oudong ceased to be Cambodia’s capital. Some of the shrines are deceptively new. Sanchak Mony Chedai, which is surrounded by serpent deities, elephants and lions, was only finished in 2002. What makes this structure particularly revered is that it holds three small pieces of Buddha’s bones. There are also plenty of my personal favourite – gaudy animal statues.

The signs at Oudong aren’t in English. If possible it’s advisable to take information about the site with you. The Cambodia Rough Guide had a decent section on Oudong, outlining the history and routes around the complex. Local children will ask to be your guide. I can’t vouch for how informative they are, but if you don’t want a guide, it’s best to tell them (a polite) no from the outset.

Oudong is not spectacular in the same way as Angkor Wat, but it’s interesting and an easy day or half a day out from Phnom Penh.

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Sandra Hoffman – Co-founder of Villa Paradiso

Sandra Hoffman has lived in Phnom Penh with her husband, Philipp, and their two children for three years now. The family previously lived in Dubai for eleven years.

Sandra is very well travelled and has visited more than 80 countries during her life so far. So what made Sandra and her family choose Phnom Penh as their home town? The answer was definitely surprising to hear, it was all because of an excel spreadsheet.

Sandra explains that after 11 years in Dubai the family was ready to move on to a new country, but they didn’t know where they wanted to go. They listed all the 80 countries they had visited in an excel spreadsheet. She says ‘we made it mathematical, we used the UN safety index, the  cost of living and French school for the kids, the top three countries according to our list were Nicaragua, Argentina and Cambodia. Sandra and her husband then lived in each of these three countries for a month to see which one would fit their family the best. In the end the couple decided to settle down in Phnom Penh, as they thought it would be a good place to open a business.

At the time, Sandra and Philip, felt it was hard to find a quiet and cosy place to stay in Phnom Penh so they decided to open a boutique hotel. Today their boutique hotel, Villa Paradiso, is one of the most popular boutique hotels in Phnom Penh, located on a quiet street in the centre of Phnom Penh.

Sandra really enjoys her life in Phnom Penh but it was not love at first sight. In the beginning the children found it tough to see the Cambodian kids in the street, much more than Sandra thought they would. But as they started to get more connected with the Cambodians and get Cambodian friends they started to like it more. Now they love to play football with our Cambodian night guard. ’Cambodia is a place that grows on you, and it grew on us’. For Sandra it’s the Cambodian people that make the place special.

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Stéph Delaprée – The Happy Painter in Phnom Penh

If you have spent any time in Cambodia, you will probably be familiar with Happy Paintings. Happy Paintings vividly depict scenes of everyday life in Asia. Even the king of Cambodia owns a Happy Painting. The Happy Painting gallery and shop is located on Phnom Penh’s riverside, next to FCC.

Stéph Delaprée is the artists behind Happy Paintings. I caught up with the long-term Phnom Penh resident over a pastis on the riverside, to find out how Happy Paintings came about and what Stéph thinks about life in Phnom Penh.

Stéph tells me he doesn’t like elitism in art, he describes his paintings as being art democratisation,  ‘it’s art for everyone, an art which everyone can understand, Happy Painting is the painting of happiness, an art of feelings and pleasure’.

The name Happy Paintings came around at the time of his first exhibition in Cambodia. ‘I tried to find an easy to remember name, I came up with Happy Painting. After so many years I don’t like so much the name, but it’s a good representation of what I do’.

Stéph hails from Paris originally, but he grew up in Quebec and has travelled extensively. He has lived in Phnom Penh since 1993. He originally moved to Cambodia for a two month job with a human rights NGO, drawing illustrations to make people aware of their rights. He is surprised to find himself living in Cambodia almost 20 years on ‘every day I wake up surprised that I’m still here!’

Stéph has created many paintings about the positive side of Cambodian life. His paintings typically show smiling women washing clothes by a river, people working in rice fields and families on bicycles. Stéph says ‘Phnom Penh is a good city, it’s living, it’s like a heart beating, boom boom boom, now it’s more like vroom vroom vroom with all the car engines’.

I asked Stéph about his plans for the future, he said ‘at the beginning I travelled a lot in Cambodia. I’m ready to travel and meet people again, I’m ready to be re-born in work and life’.  Stéph has exciting commissions coming up for a Tokyo Gallery and a church in France. It looks like there’s no shortage of demand for Stéph and his Happy Paintings.


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A Traditional Cambodian Makeover and Photo-shoot

Having a traditional Cambodian makeover and photo shoot had been on my Phnom Penh ‘to do’ list for some time.There are makeover shops throughout the city. I went to a shop on Monivong Boulevard.

Cambodian couples often have their photo taken at these shops before their wedding day. They pose together in traditional costumes and the photo is displayed at their wedding ceremony. Cambodian people also have these makeovers for fun. Khmerphoto-shoots are becoming increasingly popular with expats. I’d definitely recommend it as a fun afternoon out.

Two women worked on my makeover. The proceeding started with selecting my outfit. I opted for a red sequined number. Then we moved on to my make-up. The women painted layer upon layer of thick foundation on to my skin. My eye make-up, lipstick and blusher were similarly heavy. I wasn’t surprised to end up looking like a drag queen, but I liked my new look. I was particularly taken with my thick painted eyebrows.

The women crimped my bangs into a quiff and the rest of my hair was styled into a side ponytail. I hadn’t expected to get an eighties hair-do, so that was a bonus. I was then weighted down with armbands, bracelets, necklaces and tiaras. My transformation was complete!

I was taken to a separate room with a photographer. He gave me advice on how to pose and was very patient about my blinking eyes.

I kept my thick make-up on for the rest of the day. I gave my face a bit of a wash before going out in the evening, but I still had considerably more make-up on than I have ever worn before in my life.

I have just received my makeover photos back. They have been heavily PhotoShopped. My freckles and moles are a thing of the past. I’ve also been super imposed on to a room full of teak. I like the photos so much, that I’m choosing one to be my ‘Your Phnom Penh’ profile picture.

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Cambodian Mask Making

Cambodia has a long history of dance and theatre. Performances of ‘the Reamker’ date back to the 13th century. The Reamker is a Khmer version of the classic Indian Ramayan. It is an epic poem, exploring themes of good and evil, through encounters with monkeys, giants, princes and mermaids.

Mask making and the theatre are intrinsically linked in Cambodia. The masks transform the performers into their characters. In the past it was common for artists to make their masks and perform. The finished theatre masks are sacred and are treated with respect.

Mask making requires technical skill and patience. Most contemporary mask makers have studied at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Finished theatre masks are considered as works of art.

En Sokha is a Phnom Penh based mask maker. He’s part of Sovanna Phum art association, a network of 120 artists. En Sokha works predominantly with the theatre, making traditional masks such as monkeys and giants. He tells me that he doesn’t come from a family of mask makers. En Sokha was a creative child and went on to study fine art at university, he finds his work very satisfying. En Sokha uses clay moulds to make his papier mache masks.  It takes between 5-7 days to complete a mask.

The best place to see these impressive masks, is at the theatre. Sovanna Phum host performances every Friday and Saturday. There’s a performance fusing modern and traditional drumming on 9th and 10th of March.  Entrance is $5 for foreigners, and $3 for Cambodians.


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Cambodian Film Making

Last week, I had the privilege of photographing an Oscars party in Phnom Penh. Actors and directors from the Sixties, the ‘golden age’ of Cambodian cinema, attended the event. In the Sixties, even King Sihanouk was a renowned film maker. The Cambodian film industry, like the arts in general, was severely set back by the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian film industry still hasn’t recovered its former glory.

At the Oscars party, there was a flurry of excitement when Dy Saveth arrived.  Dy Saveth starred in several films throughout the Sixties and was the first Miss Cambodia. She moved to France when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Dy Saveth returned to Cambodia in 1993. She still stars in Cambodian films. 

Photographing the event got me thinking about the Cambodian film industry. I spoke to Reaksmey, who works for the Cambodian Oscar Selection Committee. Reaksmey would like to see Cambodia putting forward films for the foreign language category at the Oscars. The problem is at the moment, the majority of films are low budget ghost/love stories, which are popular with teenagers. Reaksmey would like to see Cambodian actors receive better training, in order to improve the quality of films. He mentions Lost Loves (about the Khmer Rouge) and 25 Year-Old Girl (about a woman with amnesia) as standout Cambodian films.

Cambodian-made documentaries have received more investment and attention than feature films. Meta House regularly shows Cambodian-made documentaries. Several documentaries are being shown throughout March. Bophana also hosts weekly documentary screenings, many of which are Cambodian-made. Visitors can also search through Bophana’s extensive film archives. There’s fascinating footage from the twenties to the present day. You can even watch films directed by King Sihanouk himself. An understanding of Khmer or French is helpful when viewing the archives. The videos are fascinating, whether or not you can follow what people are saying.

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Meet the Bears outside of Phnom Penh

Free the Bears is a bear sanctuary, situated 40km outside of Phnom Penh, off National Road 2. The sanctuary is part of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, the entrance is $5 for foreigners and $3 for Cambodians. There isn’t much in the way of public transport to the centre, so it’s best to make your own way there via motorbike, tuk-tuk or rent a taxi.

Free the Bears was founded in 1993 by an Australian called Mary Hutton. There is clearly still a need for the sanctuary as they currently house 118 sun bears and Asiatic black bears. I was shown around by Chuon Vuthy , the Cambodian Programme Manager. He told me that some people buy bears as cubs, and abandon them as they grow into full size bears. The sanctuary also houses bears who have been injured by animal traps.

I also chatted to Emma Gatehouse, who is the Volunteer Coordinator and Technical Expert. Emma tells me Fortnam’s story (pictured in the Hammock). Fortnam is a sun bear cub, he arrived at Free the Bears six months ago. He had been kept as a pet and was in a bad way when he arrived. His fur was balding and brown – a sign of malnutrition in sun bears. Since arriving at the sanctuary, Fortnam’s coat has got darker, but he still needs to put on weight.  Emma tells me that the hammock is Fortnam’s favourite spot, he can often be found there fast asleep.

I had an agenda behind organising my visit to Free the Bears – my agenda being wanting to photograph sun bear cubs. Fortnam and his friends don’t disappoint. The cubs are either, wrestling, eating ants or napping in hammocks.  I had naively imagined being able to get closer to the cubs, but the staff explained that they bears would try and wrestle with me, so I reluctantly Iet the idea go.

Lonely Planet’s website erroneously states that visitors can wash bear cubs as part of the ‘bear keeper for a day’ programme. I must confess to liking the idea of washing bear cubs, but Emma and Chuon Vuthy explained that it would be bad for the bear cubs to have a series of tourist washing them. It’s generally important to manage how much human contact the bear cubs have. Where possible the sanctuary will introduce a rescued cub to a group of similar aged bears. If this is not possible, trained members of staff help the cubs learn bear behaviour, such as how to climb trees and catch ants.

I generally have reservations about zoos, but these bears aren’t kept for our entertainment. They are rescued bears. It wouldn’t be possible to release these bears into the wild. The bears seem content wrestling and eating in their large enclosures.

The sanctuary does offer a ‘bear keeper for the day’ programme (without bear cub washing). They also welcome volunteers from between 1 week – 8 weeks.  The Free the Bears team are really friendly and passionate about the bears’ welfare. If you like bears, I think it would be a great experience.

Read more about volunteering at Free the Bears on their website:

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Nerd Night in Phnom penh

Nerd Night (sometimes known as Nerd Nite) is an international movement, where people get together for presentations and drinks. Phnom Penh’s Nerd Night is based on the principles of Pecha Kucha presentations. Pecha Kucha presentations are short. Presenters are allowed 20 slides, with 20 seconds for each slide. Phnom Penh’s Nerd Night takes place twice a month and the venue changes each time. Check out the events to see where and when the next Nerd Night will take place.

Nerd Night was founded in Phnom Penh, by Yi Wei, just over one year ago.  I asked Yi about her all-time favourite Nerd Night presentations. She tells me about the time when local artists Chhan Dina, painted ten portraits, during her Nerd Night slot. Another guy wrote a song. He got the lyrics, music and melody from the audience and created a Nerd Night ditty. It seems like there are endless presentation possibilities.

Last Monday (Feb the 20th) Nerd Night took place in Score Sports Bar. This was my first Nerd Night and I was surprised at how packed Score Bar was. It was at it’s capacity with around 200-300 people in the bar. It’s amazing that such a large crowd wants to watch five Phnom Penh residents talk about random topics.

The topics included cadavers, BuckHunger (a children’s soup kitchen), wine, acupuncture, and things expats need to get used to about Cambodia. Yi introduced Mara Harris, who kicks off the proceedings with her presentation on cadavers.  Mara HarrisMara says she isn’t an expert on dead bodies, but she read an interesting book on cadavers and wanted to do a presentation.

Next we move on to Johnny Phillips from BuckHunger, a children’s soup kitchen, who have featured in previous Your Phnom Penh articles. John Schute, then takes to the stage with his presentation – ‘if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving’.  John organises wine tasting events in Phnom Penh. Then we learn about acupuncture with Kimberly GruberKimberly Gruber,. The audience are given tips, such as relieving pain by rubbing the web of skin between the thumb and finger.

The night finishes with a presentation called ‘things expats need to get used to about Cambodia, because they are not going to change’. This presentation could be an article in itself. Sopheak Hoeun talks about how expats need to accept squat toilets, getting charged more than locals, and weddings taking place on the street. We also need to get used to women wearing pyjamas, as they are light colourful and cheap. The audience laugh a lot, because it’s funny and because we know she’s right.

I caught up with Hoeun after her presentation. She claims to have been nervous, which is hard to believe, as she seemed so confident! Hoeun says ‘The reason I decided to make today’s presentation is because I’ve been hearing these kind of complaints, and words from foreigners, and maybe it’s time to put it in public, so they can use my presentation as a mirror’. Hoeun says we should try to live within the Cambodian framework and culture. But Hoeun didn’t want to tell people off, she wanted to get her message across with humour. It was a funny presentation with a serious point, many expats need to ease up on their complaining about life in Cambodia.

At the end of the night, I ask Yi, (one of the Nerd Night team) why she thinks Nerd Night is so popular. She says that ‘one of the reasons people like it is because it’s your friends and peers in the Phnom Penh community, it’s a small town, and the night brings out a side of people you might not usually see in regular conversation’. We end our chat with Yi saying ‘I can’t emphasise enough how much it’s a community event, people need to sign up and show their nerdiness, without the speakers there isn’t an event’. I’m definitely converted. I’m not sure I’ll have the nerve to speak, but it’s a great way to socialise and learn about strange and unexpected topics.

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BuckHunger – Giving hope by giving lunch

It’s 10.45 on a Thursday morning and the queue is forming outside BuckHunger – a soup kitchen near Phnom Penh’s Russian Market. Every day, at 11am, BuckHunger provides free lunches to some of the poorest children of Phnom Penh. For many, this will be their only meal of the day. In the queue I meet a homeless family, carrying their worldly belongings around with them in a cart, which they have decorated for Chinese New Year. The mother tells a member of BuckHunger’s staff, that they are grateful for the daily free meals.

The doors to BuckHunger opened on the 4th of December 2011. The project is the brainchild of Johnny, who is a restauranteur by trade. Johnny established BuckHunger after witnessing young children picking through rubbish dumps, not only in search of cans which they can sell but also looking for food which he says ‘it’s desperation at its worst’.

This is my second visit to BuckHunger and there are even more children here than on my first visit. Kids from a neighbouring orphanage turn up in a giant blue tuk-tuk. The orphanage tuk-tuk even managed to pick up a couple of children on the ride over. The orphanage has limited supplies of food, and meals consist mostly of rice. At BuckHunger, children are served a nutritionally balanced meal of vegetables, rice and meat. Today, for the first time ever, BuckHunger feeds over 300 children.

The majority of BuckHunger customers are children, although there are usually a handful of elderly people. What strikes me most about the place, is the dignity with which everybody is treated. There is a group of four girls sat a table. They could be girls having a lunch and catch-up anywhere in the world. Children are served a hot meal by courteous staff.

BuckHungeralso assists young adults through its restaurant training programme. The soup kitchen is staffed by 15 young people. They all receive on-the-job-training to prepare them for working in the service industry.

After the children have finished their lunches I catch up with Johnny, to find out why the project is so important. Johnny says:

‘The proof in the sight here, come down here at 11 o’clock and see how this thing works, to watch these kids file in here, watch the expressions on their face and the happiness and the joy they feel, it’s phenomenal, to see something being done for these kids other than them sitting on the corner with their hand out, that’s’ how we are used to seeing kids in Phnom Penh, and this situation at BuckHunger is just absolute magic’

BuckHunger desperately needs funding to continue feeding children. Although the soup kitchen is for children, Johnny will arrange adult meals in return for a donation. I’ve eaten a tasty meal here on two occasions. For people wanting to give something back to the children of Cambodia, visiting the soup kitchen could be a good alternative to an orphanage visit.  Johnny also welcomes good old fashioned donations. Donation can be done via the BuckHunger website. It would be ashame to see BuckHunger close its doors to hungry children.