Holiday in Cambodia, Christmas in Phnom Penh

Back in the late 70’s and 80’s, Cambodia was NOT a place you went on a holiday, as the Dead Kennedys song “Holiday in Cambodia” attested.

People did, as they today go to Afghanistan and Iraq, but anyone who has been to Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh can tell you that whities too were tortured and executed. Some possibly NGO’s, others possibly tourists in the wrong place and the wrong time.

But now is a different story. Tourists have been flocking back to Cambodia for some years now, with both good and bad consequences. As I mentioned in earlier posts, I was last there 5 years ago on my honeymoon, and I was keen to see what has changed.

I had an extremely long and tiring journey getting there. I’d done a 12 hour night shift on Christmas Eve, and got home at 6am to finish packing before heading off to the airport at 7.30am to fly out at 10am. I managed only a very short snooze on the flight and so was still feeling exhausted when we had to transit in Bangkok airport.

And then – oh joy – the plane was delayed. What should have been a 3 hour stopover stretched to 5 hours!! My eyes were falling out of my head. We were determined, however, to still go out in Phnom Penh that night, despite now not being able to hit the town until 11pm. By the time I finally slept (plane snooze notwithstanding), I’d been awake for just under 40 hours. Oi veh.

To cut to the chase. We booked into our hotel on the river, the “River Star” and headed forthwith to the Foreign Correspondents Club. The FCC was as glamorous as ever with its colonial feel; the huge fans swooping lazily overhead a welcome respite from the stifling heat. We had our first Christmas night beers of Angkor and Beer Lao, and watched life going on below.

The FCC was closing at midnight, so we hopped on a tuktuk to go to Heart of Darkness, Howies bar and the Walkabout. These are all in the same part of town, and on the street corners nearby was all manner of street food…but this would have to wait.

The Heart of Darkness used to be a lawless kind of place, where gangsters packing guns would hang out. Last time we were there, there had been a recent shooting and stabbing. And single women had at times been attacked on their way home, their tuktuks being ambushed by guys who’d followed from the club.

Now, there’s a big security presence. As we rocked up, the place was no longer dark, but lit up like a Christmas tree (fittingly!). Several staff on the door checked our person and bags for weapons before we were allowed through. And when we got in…we found a busily packed disco with buddhist icon backdrop.

There are lovely buddha sculptures everywhere, and bas reliefs of apsaras on the walls. The crowd was a mix of Khmer and western, and young Cambodians obviously went there to have a good time. It felt safe and fun. The only problem for us was the hideous urban/ r & b / hiphop music. So after one drink, we legged it to Howies.

Wow, what a change! Howies was playing indie and rock music like Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Beatles. More our type of place. The staff were fabulously friendly, and this really made the night for us. When you’re missing your mates in a far off country, it’s nice to connect with someone in conversation, and for us, this was it.

One of the girls asked us to play Connect 4 and Dom agreed, knowing he would probably lose miserably. She said she’d buy us drinks if he won, but we’d have to buy her a drink if he lost. Best of five was the winner.

The picture says it all. She let Dom win the first few, but in the end, she won. Ah well, it was a bit of fun.

After this we checked out the Walkabout, against our better judgement. I say this because we hate Aussie theme bars – they are generally sooo cheesy. But the music seemed ok, so we went in. Well, we hadn’t been there long when a girl came up and started giving Dom a shoulder massage and then wanting money. Uh-oh. We finished up one drink, paid her a dollar, and then decided to get some food.

We’d had so much fun in Howies that we decided to go back for a few more drinks. All in all, quite a “Merry” Christmas, despite the long lead-up to it. Now 3am, a tuktuk home and a few zzz’s were in order.

Unfortunately, Boxing Day started all too early, with jackhammering ripping me from my sleep at 8am – DOH! Sleep dep would continue for another day, through the busride to Sihanoukville and beyond. But that is a post for another day – read more tomorrow.


  1. the heart of darkness sounds cool~ i was with mum and i took her to the FCC, but that was it 🙂

  2. Awesome! Awww, I haven't been there in so long! Drunkenly watching the geckos chase each other around the wall of the FCC and bite each other on the bum was probably the highlight of Phnom Penh.

  3. Kitty, I knew you'd enjoy this one. Beer Lao and geckos…heaven, eh?

    Steph, if you like/can handle urban music, you'd probably like it. The decor was lovely.