Frenchman Sebastien Marot has lived in Cambodia since 1994, when he founded child-focused Friends International, one of Cambodia’s best-known NGOs, on a ‘stopover’ en route to a job in Japan. In the intervening years, he’s witnessed the city’s rapid growth and raised a couple kids of his own. This week, he gave Audrey Wilson a rundown of his picks for socially responsible – and kid-friendly – places to escape Phnom Penh’s increasing hustle and bustle
As I became a father, you need to look at what’s fun with kids. Sometimes it’s difficult. The choices [in Phnom Penh] are not that exciting. One hidden secret – and it’s blatant self-promotion, but it’s true that I like it a lot and the kids love it – is Romdeng, one of our [vocational] training restaurants. On weekends, it’s great: it has a swimming pool, we can sit on the side of the swimming pool, eat good food and drinks, and the kids splash in the swimming pool and it’s awesome. There are not too many people, so really for a nice few hours on the weekends, this is a really good place. It’s great even when it rains – makes it a good relaxing afternoon. [Friends] has partner restaurants in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville and related restaurants in Battambang and Kampot. Whenever we travel, we stop at these restaurants. It has great social impact, and all of them have a great area for kids.
Java Café and Gallery
I am very partial for many reasons to Java Café. Because, of course, I have a direct connection to it [wife and owner Dana Langlois]. But beyond that, I find Java the place where . . . it’s the NGO for NGOs. It’s the place where I can go and relax and take it easy. It has great food, great coffee, good sugar – and a playground for the kids. What is especially interesting I find is that Java is giving 10 per cent of their profit to the arts. As such, they are contributing directly to contemporary art in Cambodia. So they have a social component – it’s not very well-known, because they’re pretty discreet about it, but they put a lot of money from the café into the arts.
With kids, finding fun stuff to do is a little more difficult. The mall culture is not exactly what I enjoy. So other places to run around and hide? I love the secondhand Japanese shops around the city. They’re really scattered around town. There are the two major brands: Sakura and Toto. We spend a lot of time there on the weekends. It’s cool because we find some really funky clothes and glasses and – when you’re lucky – some furniture to fill an empty space. And it’s really fun with the kids, because they can pick up some weird Japanese toys that are really cheap, and it makes a fun few hours. I love antiquing, so that’s my compromise for Cambodia.
Noodles and coconut cakes
Much of my life is about food . . . I love to eat. Some of my favourite places to go here have Chinese food. There are many good restaurants near Central Market especially. But the noodle shops on Monivong Boulevard, I will always go to, and my kids love them, too. We also love the coffee at the Russian Market and the coconut cakes that they make there. It’s a satisfying break from the heat and the craziness of the market – it’s good to have a break in there when you go. My kids don’t like the coffee yet, but those coconut cakes . . . it’s a favourite stop. If we don’t stop there, they would be extremely cranky. When the shopping gets too intense, it’s good to stop.
Phnom Penh has changed a lot over the years . . . I don’t think all of the construction [going on now] is giving the city anything. Escape is escape: we like to get out of the city. It’s always good to roam. We like to buy books at the secondhand bookshops here, and we pack our books every time we go on vacation. We usually like to go the beach, outside of Sihanoukville – though [on Otres Beach], construction has changed things dramatically. We really like Monkey Island on Koh Rong. The kids can do things they could not do in Phnom Penh, like riding bicycles or running around. In Paris, you can still send them out on a bike at a certain age, but in Phnom Penh, they hop in a tuk-tuk.