Discovering Phnom Penh with John Wood
The literacy activist—and our newest Rosewood Curator—gives his humanitarian’s perspective on Cambodia’s fascinating capital… and tips us off on the city’s best curry.
John Wood first visited Cambodia in 1994, when the country was under United Nations authority after decades of turmoil, including a civil war and the repressive Khmer Rouge regime. “I wanted to learn the history and experience life in a place that would need to rebuild,” the then-Microsoft executive says. “Once I saw the devastation, especially schools that had been burned down as part of the war against the educated, I knew that one day I would try to come back and help.”
Six years later, he left Microsoft to found Room to Read, an organization devoted to children’s literacy and gender equality in education. It started in Nepal, but has since expanded to fifteen countries across Asia and Africa—including Cambodia—partnering with over 30,000 schools, training more than 20,000 teachers and librarians, and reaching over 16.6 million students along the way. Critically, it has published over 1,600 original new children’s titles in 30 languages, resulting in over 22 million books being available for eager young readers. “We train and incentivize local authors and artists to literally become the J.K. Rowlings and Dr. Seusses of their nations,” Wood explains. Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program has also been wildly successful, and has caught the world’s attention: Michelle Obama visited a Room to Read school in Cambodia to learn about the organization’s community-driven education campaigns after launching her own Let Girls Learn initiative.
A frequent traveler, Wood has continued to return to Cambodia, including its fast-growing capital, Phnom Penh. Here, the Rosewood Curator shares more about Room to Read’s efforts in the country, plus his must-try experiences in Phnom Penh.
The Khmer Rouge regime essentially tried to erase Cambodian culture. Now, various organizations are trying to revive it. How do you see Room to Read as fitting into this movement?
Just as the damage done by the Khmer Rouge was massive and nationwide, it’s best if efforts to rebuild the country are also massive and nationwide. We’ve made a 20-year commitment to Cambodia, because nothing great can get done overnight. We’ve also raised millions of dollars so that our work can scale. Today, over one million students in Cambodia have access to Room to Read programs. We’re proud of that, but want to do even more.
We started our own Khmer-language publishing program in 2005, and have commissioned over 200 original titles, all using local authors and local artists so that the books have cultural relevance to our students.
What strikes you most about Cambodia and its culture?
The resilience. Here are people hit with one of the worst genocides of the last hundred years, and yet they’ve managed to survive, to rebuild, to not be bitter. The people of Cambodia seem to me—based upon 20 years of traveling here—to be looking forward rather than backward.
What do you feel is the best way to get a sense of the soul of a destination?
The food. Dare to embrace the culture you’re visiting by eating like a local.
So where—and what—do you recommend travelers eat in the city?
I love to wander the Central Market’s barbecue stalls, and also into random restaurants, using my wife’s “follow your nose” strategy, and simply asking them what is their best dish.
One favorite discovery is fish amok, a curry dish steamed in banana leaves with coconut cream. But really, any of the spicy curries with pork or chicken and rice—and a cold Angkor Beer.
What has been one of your favorite discoveries in Phnom Penh?
Tuk-tuks are a fun way to get around, but unlike many cities in rapidly-growing Asia, Phnom Penh still has walkable areas, charming streets, and less chaos. On my last trip, my wife and I walked from Rosewood Phnom Penh to the river, then over to the Central Market for lunch, then to our favorite massage place. We did it all on foot, smiling at various vendors we met along the way. You can’t do that in most Asian capitals.
What is one thing a first-time visitor must experience in the city?
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a must-see. Though it’s shocking and depressing to witness the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, it’s almost impossible to understand the history of Cambodia without confronting this face-to-face. Every visitor should add the museum to their itinerary to better grasp not just the history, but also the need to rebuild civil society from the ground up.
Afterwards, you might need a drink. Ask your tuk-tuk driver to take you to the famous Foreign Correspondents Club. Its riverside location has always been a favorite watering hole for journalists, travelers, and anyone else in search of a sundowner with a view.
What do you value most when traveling?
Interacting with the local people, and stopping long enough to look them in the eye, smile, and ask them how their day is going. So few tourists do that.
What’s the one thing you never travel without?
A good book. [Wood, a voracious reader whose subjects span the globe—from European adventures to New Mexico—shared his favorite books with Rosewood Conversations in 2017.]
Sum up your travel philosophy in one word.
One word is too few. My one phrase would be this: Those of us lucky enough to travel should find ways to also help those who are less fortunate.
Phnom Penh Central Market: Kampuchea Krom, Street 128
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Corner of Street 113 & St 350
Foreign Correspondents Club: 363 Sisowath Quay; +855 69-253-222