There’s one thing which I will regret while living in Cambodia and that would be my failure to engage more in its rich cultural activities. Recently while having dinner with a friend, I told her that I wished I had seen more traditional performances in Cambodia. I was rather ashamed that I never made the time to do this, especially when I knew how captivating the dances are. The King is a huge patron and fan of the traditional Apsara dances, having mastered it himself.
So anyway, my friend planned a fun evening of dinner at the Khmer-Thai or more famously known as KT Restaurant and later on, traditional performances at the Sovanna Phum. She wanted to make my last few days in Cambodia memorable and indeed it was.
For those who would like to experience a truly fun and enjoyable cultural experience during the weekend in Phnom Penh, I would highly recommend these two places.
KT Restaurant (#26Eo, Street 135, Sangkat Boeung Trabek, Phnom Penh)
This restaurant serves an extensive variety of authentic Thai and Khmer cuisines. On the top level, there is an elegant and yet cozy dining area where you get to dine while sitting on plush silk cushions on the floor. Don’t worry if you think it would be uncomfortable because it’s not. The room is tastefully decorated and air conditioned.
We had the green mango salad (US$3.50/plate)for starter. I would say that it’s the best mango salad I had ever tasted. It came with huge pieces of crunchy salted fish, dried shrimps, cashew nuts and dried chillies. Before eating it, you should crush the salted fish into smaller pieces and mix them together with the green shredded mangoes. The taste was refreshing and slightly sour, sweet, salty and spicy all at the same time. So basically, it leaves a tingling sensation on your palate.
As usual, like most South East Asian dining experience, we had several main dishes to go with the rice. Soup was naturally essential to complement the dry rice, which coincidentally was really fragrant, soft and fluffy. We had the Khmer sweet and sour fish soup (US$4/bowl). A bowl will feed about 3 persons.
The soup was very different from the Thai tomyum soup with less spiciness (hotness) although as equally flavourful due to the generous amount of ingredients such as lemon grass, tamarind and a mixture of local herbs. The fish was fresh and tasty.
We also had the squid in peppercorn sauce (US$4/plate), Thai sausages (US$4/plate) and fried chicken wings (US$3.50/plate). Now, the Thai sausages were the most interesting since I had neither tried nor seen them before.
In the beginning, it was rather strange to see these tiny brown balls (see above right) and I didn’t know they were sausages. They looked like meatballs but with a glazy surface. The pork meat was spiced with some sort of herbs and probably lime, lemon or tamarind juice since they were a bit sour-ish. The sausages were accompanied with raw cabbage, peanuts, chopped up fresh chillies (the small kind and hence very hot. So watch out!), ginger and garlic. I didn’t know how to eat the sausage with these condiments and so I just ate it as it was. It was interesting but I thought the skin was a bit too thick and oily.
The squid was tasty and as usual, peppery and sweet. I noticed that the restaurants here often cooked with real peppercorns which gave it a really strong flavour. What was interesting about the chicken wings was the deep fried pieces of garlic laced with salt. I could eat them as snacks but of course, there won’t be any kissing after!
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to have dessert since we had to catch the performances at 7:30pm.
The Sovanna Phum (#111, Street 360, Phnom Penh)
The Sovanna Phum performances are only available on Friday and Saturday evening, from 7:30pm to 8:30pm. However, the company offers a variety of fun classes such as classical music, Apsara dance and shadow puppet making, especially for children (well, adults will definitely enjoy it too) at other times during the weekdays. Each class usually charges a fee of US$5 per person, depending on the size of the class and complexity of the puppet design. The performances vary every night and charges an entrance fee of US$5 for adult and US$3 for children under the age of 12.
For information on classes and performance programme, you can call +855 (0) 23 221 932 or click on their website at http://www.shadow-puppets.org.
We managed to catch the Hanuman and Giant Drum performance and it was amazing. The musicians played several numbers of drum beats using different kinds of drums, including the giant drum and other percussions. I couldn’t help but move along with the uplifting and harmonious beats of the drums. The dancers were agile and graceful. I could see that such style takes a lot of discipline and training to perfect.
I liked how they incorporated short comedic scenes during the show which sent the audience in stitches. I could see why they are extremely popular with children. Unfortunately, there was only one scene with the Hanumans or monkeys, which disappointed the children, including myself.
The place is rather small with a room to exhibit shadow puppets and a small stage with several rows of wooden benches under a thatched roof. However, I really appreciated the size since you get a good view of the performances and at the same time have some sort of interaction with the performers. Do get there early because it was packed when I was there.
After the performances finished, the audience was asked to go onstage to try out the drums. Ironically, while all the performers had been men, it was the women who were really eager to try out the drums. It was definitely a rambunctious and disorderly affair! Thankfully, the musicians provided some pointers to those who tried their hands on them, much to my ears’ relief!
I managed to take photos during the performances and it was probably the toughest time I ever had, without the help of a tripod and flash. Do make sure that you turn off your flash in order not to distract the performers.
The photos below were the best I could do and I do apologize as they didn’t really do much justice to the whole show.