Cambodia the small palm tree filled country in the middle of South East Asia, full of happy people, ancient wonders and rivers. A place that has captivated everyone from your average soul-searching backpacker to the Hollywood Icon Angelina Jolie. If you are travelling in the region it is a place where taking it slow to absorb everything is a must.
This is the second blog post in a four-part series on things to do, places to see and morsels to sample while exploring this laid-back nation. Part one featured Siem Reap – the launch pad to the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire.
PART 2: Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a city that is throwing all of its energy into finding a way to recover from the atrocities of its past. There is a strange feel about the city, it doesn’t have the comfort and ease of Siem Reap, nor does it have the excitement and energy of Ho Chi Minh – it is hectic, intense, full of colour and the people are friendly and welcoming.
I had a somewhat traumatic time during my stay. I had somehow washed my passport (this is my biggest embarrassment as a backpacker) and so needed to visit the Australian Embassy to get a new one, I also had to visit the Vietnamese Embassy to get new visas for the next stage of our trip. When I wasn’t standing in lines waiting to speak to someone through a tiny window about how stupid I had been (way to compound the humiliation – explain washing your passport to half a dozen officials) I was able to explore the city but when your passport is not in use you tend to feel stressed.
History is the key in a city like Phnom Penh. So much of what you do and see is affected by its recent history. Not reading up on the Khmer Rouge before you go would be like visiting Berlin and not knowing about why the Berlin Wall was erected – and torn down. Spend some time reading books like When the War was Over by Elizabeth Becker, The Gate by Francois Bizot or watch the movie The Killing Fields.
How Long: You could spend as a little as two days in Phnom Penh if history isn’t your thing. I would recommend at LEAST four days as some of the “sights” are rather emotional and if you are like me you may need time for reflection before moving on to the next item on the list.
Things to Do:
The Royal Palace is shrouded with gold gilded roofs and awash with lily ponds, it is an oasis of colour and peace in the middle of the city. Take your time wandering through the many opulent buildings to absorb the serenity that will take you over the longer you stay within this walled palace. It is also the home of the Silver Pagoda – whose floor is covered with five tons of silver. Napoleon even had a house built here in the French style of the time, but he never stayed in it. NOTE: Dress respectfully, covering shoulders and legs.
Tuol Sleng Museam was once upon a time, a highschool, it then became a political prison during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship and it is now a museum. This is where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed any who they considered a threat to their regime, including several international reporters and photographers. The most compelling room contains the pictures of hundreds of victims who passed through this prison – standing in a room that was once used for torture and looking around at the faces of those who experienced it is overwhelming.
A local bite to eat can be had at the main market in the centre of town – which is also known as the Russian Market. It is full of great souvenirs, clothes for every occasion and a great fresh food market. Just to the side of the fresh food market are several stalls that are set up to serve lunch – sit at the stall and chat to the owner and other customers as you slurp down a giant bowl of noodle soup. NOTE: Make a note of opening times and days to not miss out
The Killing Fields are by far one of the most emotionally involved places I have ever been. Located just outside of town you will need to hire a moto driver or catch one of the local buses to get there. I strongly suggest taking advantage of the free guide service that is offered (it is free but please remember to tip, we walked round with another couple who at the end just walked away without tipping – so we tipped double as our guide had been excellent and very attentive to our questions). During the Khmer Rouge regime hundreds of people were killed in this place and others like it throughout Cambodia – their bodies were unceremoniously dumped in these giant mass graves. They can not be identified and returned to their families, instead a giant mausoleum of human skulls has been erected behind glass (photography is not prohibited, and due to the huge number its easy to become detached but please be sensitive)
The Foreign Correspondence Club is one of my favourite places in Phnom Penh. It is situated right up against the river and the decor inside has been lovingly cared for through the years protecting the giant wood bar. The food is somewhat expensive, but if you are a little homesick you can get some quite good renditions of western food and alcohol. This has always been a place where foreign press would meet and connect – their home away from home and, still is. The walls are adorned with the stories of the famous journalists and photographers who have passed through.
Feeling like a curry? Head to Mount Everest – for some deliciously authentic, well priced, huge portioned indian food. It is also one of the oldest indian restaurants in Phnom Penh.
It is easy to wallow in the dark past of a city like Phnom Penh, but spend ten minutes walking the streets and talking to the people and you will see that despite all of the darkness they are a beautiful resilient people who are working hard at healing the past.