Since imperial powers began extending their sovereignty abroad, Third World nations have been ripe for the picking as luxury travel destinations. What the colonial era lacked in wifi facilities and post-Orientalist irony, it made up for with linen suits and mahouts. Any colonising nation with the nous to build a hill station knew that luxury travellers would soon follow, even if those travellers were the bored ruling elite and the tuberculosis-ridden. Late last year, bespoke guide-crafters Luxe City Guides caught onto this hundreds year old trend and released its first truly Third World guide concatenating Laos and Cambodia. What it lacks in directions for Indochina’s best Directly Observed Therapy destinations for TB sufferers, it makes up for in postcolonial drollness for the jaded colonisers.
Luxe is an excellent concept notwithstanding their occasional pretentious wankery. The Luxe model is where travel guides of the future are headed: know your market niche incredibly well and then recommend where to go, as opposed to the Lonely Planet model of encyclopaedic listing and loose attempts at objectivity. People like choice but not too much choice.
The other real beauty of the Luxe City Guides is that somebody who lives in the same city as the guide usually writes them. This one is not, by virtue of covering four urban centres (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Vientiane, Luang Prabang). Author Jo Craig’s home province of Siem Reap receives better coverage than Phnom Penh but I wonder if this is mostly because there is so little choice of anywhere decent to eat, drink or shop in Siem Reap (if you want to avoid the “people who carry their own luggage”, in Luxe’s parlance). The tips for visiting the Angkor complex are so well known that both the free Canby Guides and the Lonely Planet mention all of them, which is not any great surprise given that tourists/invaders have been holidaying/pillaging at Angkor for a few hundred years. Angkor Wat still holds some secrets but the only way that you will find them is with a skilled excavation team.
For Phnom Penh, the recommendations are mostly a taste of the obvious. Shopping in Phnom Penh? Walk along St. 240 and St.178; shop wherever looks like a Western store. I was hoping for a few of the truly excellent local shopping secrets, like the 50s antique warehouses in Stung Meanchey or the best place to commission yourself a hand-painted Khmer road sign before the artists who make them die out. These will stay local shops for local people. The much more obvious omission is Cambodia’s markets. There’s a passing reference to Psar Thmei (Central Market) and the Sorya Mall, but that is all. Every expat in town has a Luxe-ish market secret but they’re obviously being held tightly to their chests.
The other false assumption that I have made is that when people visit Cambodia that they are keen to eat some Cambodian food (Disclosure: I write popular Phnom Penh-based Cambodian food site, Phnomenon). In Phnom Penh, three Khmer restaurants get a mention, preceded with the warning that “you’re unlikely to be swooning over Khmer cuisine”. Swooning guardedly about Cambodian food is my stock in trade but it is difficult for me to take too much umbrage when the top-end of Khmer cuisine in Phnom Penh is still under development.
Maxine’s (Snowy’s) : Laudable bar owner Snowy pulls off a Fiji-sized coup by suddenly being considered an upscale bar instead of a wooden hovel leaning precariously into the Tonle Sap. Possibly the only bar in Luxe’s history to not have running water in the bathroom. Snow, I salute you.
Pop Café: There’s three other great Italian restaurants around Phnom Penh that I’d head to before Pop – Le Duo, Luna D’Autunno, or La Volpaia, probably in that order. Pop does beat all three on convenient location for upmarket travellers (post-Happy Hour stumbling distance from FCC), but that’s about all.
Sugar Palm: Probably gets a guernsey solely by virtue of being located on St.240 and being empty because it’s about five times as expensive as a much better Khmer restaurant anywhere else in town.
Street food vendors: Luxe says: “..be warned, eating street food can have unsettling and explosive consequences”. I guess that it would be unsettling to discover that there are some delicious gems amongst the tasteless tailings.
Cambodians: Apart from Mali’s, the only locals that you’ll see at the restaurants mentioned will be your waitstaff and at a few of them, that may not even be the case. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a business mentioned that is owned by a Cambodian national.
Japanese food: Sure, it’s not like going for a slice of kuromaguro near Tsukiji, but any of the several Japanese restaurants around Phnom Penh would be worth a mention.
FCC: It has become a tired cliché to stick the boot into the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Phnom Penh. Luxe does anyway but for some reason holds back on offering the same criticism of FCC Siem Reap. FCC does good business because they know their market segment: scared tourists and moneyed expats looking to soak up some mock colonial ambiance at a happy hour with a great view. FCC have drifted well outside Luxe’s market, so why bother even mentioning them?
Note: map link sticks a pin in Maxines (Snowy’s) over the bridge (Chruoy changvar)