Kem Monovithya is deputy director-general of public affairs for the Cambodia National Rescue Party and the daughter of CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha. After studying and working abroad, she returned to the Kingdom in 2012 to pursue a career in politics. She sat down with Audrey Wilson this week to talk about the traditional, the new and the in-between in Phnom Penh.
Organic food shop
No matter how many different types of food I’ve enjoyed abroad, Khmer cuisine remains the absolute best. I grew up eating small steamed snails and those sun-cooked baby clams as afternoon snacks, so I’m glad to see they are still around everywhere on the streets. What has changed is that now there are unhealthy chemicals added to enhance their flavour. So I’m also grateful for healthy food shops like the one run by CEDAC in Tuol Kork [#67 Street 230]. They source from their own small farms which don’t use chemicals. About 90 per cent of everything I eat at home is organic, and we get them from CEDAC: vegetables, meat, rice. It is expensive, but CEDAC is a small example – it’s an NGO – of how we should develop our agriculture sector to produce better and more to feed our citizens healthily.
When I’m not eating at home, Kravanh [#112 Sothearos Boulevard] is the only place I go for Khmer food. I would say it’s the only place that has authentic food here. And it has a good range. It’s really high-end, like royal cuisine, and then super street food: the strong smell of prahok, a lot of it. When you walk in, there’s the smell. So you cannot get any more Khmer than that. Even cooking at home, I’m sure is not even as authentic as that. I think the reason they opened this restaurant is to preserve Cambodian culinary arts. Many of the dishes that they offer we can’t even make at home – these things were lost. Many of the things I find on the menu at Kravanh are things that I’ve never taste before, but I knew that they existed.
I’m a skincare fanatic and there are two places I like to go. The first is called Ohui – it’s over in Boeung Keng Kang [#16 Street 57]. I go maybe once a month for maintenance. They use the best Korean product, it’s called WHOO. I’ve replaced all my Western products with this. It’s supposed to be the royal skincare in Korea – used by a legendary Korean queen who never aged. They have everything from 24-karat-gold facial – I haven’t tried that one, I’m not too sure what gold can do to skin – to eyebrow tattoos. The other place is called Megabelle. It’s run by a local Cambodian, and it’s serious stuff. The kind of treatment they offer is the most advanced. It’s not affordable in this context, but if you compare it to the price in Switzerland, it’s like a fraction of the price. They do the vampire facial – where they draw your own blood. Kim Kardashian made it famous.
Sorya shopping centre silk shop
Every Khmer woman loves her houl pamong [traditional patterned silk] – I’m no different. There’s a shop that offers a wide range of them in Sorya shopping centre. My mom introduced me to it. They have the most unique patterns because they source from various makers across the country that we otherwise can’t access. Some patterns are replications of classic designs found in ancient art – these are my favourites – and some are newly created. I take them to a tailor near Central Market – she’s known for making traditional skirts. Khmer women are very picky about how the skirt fits – just a little bit off, it shows the wrong figure. My mom’s been going there since I was a kid, but now I go there too. But even if you don’t wear somput bot [traditional dress], you can still enjoy the beauty of these houl pamoung by using them as table runners, drapes, beddings – or just hanging them on the wall.
I love creative writing. When I first came back to Phnom Penh in my twenties, I was writing for a TV show – that was my first job actually. Now it’s a hobby – sometimes in my free time I just write on my phone. Sonthormok High School will always be a special place to me in Phnom Penh. I was there from seventh grade on as a Khmer literature student, before I studied in the US. I was in a class with other kids who were considered good writers, and I ranked first – the first time I really experienced pride. I can remember some of my essays now word for word. I hope to have the opportunity to contribute back to Sonthormok High School, perhaps something related to Khmer literature or creative writing.