Phnom Penh: A Dark History and Bright Future

by Sasha Savinov

Many visitors to Cambodia simply hit the temples of Angkor for a few days and then head out of the country. We didn’t know a whole lot about Cambodia before we made this long trip, but we figured it had a bit more to offer. Instead of a quick jaunt, we decided to take advantage of the 30-day visa and use every single one of them. With such a long stint in the country, we figured we should at least spend a few days in the capital and try to get to know it a bit. After spending Christmas on Koh Rong, we headed to Phnom Penh for four nights to ring in the new year. Here’s a collection of our pictures, thoughts, and tips on visiting the Cambodian capital.

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The Mad Monkey

Home for a few nights - the Mad Monkey.

Home for a few nights – the Mad Monkey.

When you’re backpacking for an extensive period of time, all of the moving around can really wear you down. Navigating bus and train systems in a foreign country, haggling with local cab drivers, and getting lost can drive you crazy after long enough. That’s why it’s important to find a good place to stay – after that long journey, it’s nice to kick back and feel at home, if only for a few days. Our ideal place is a good mix of hostel and hotel – we like the social aspect of hostels but prefer a private room to crowded dorms. The Mad Monkey in Phnom Penh was a perfect spot for these Gypsies, as it has one building that functions as a hostel and another that has big private rooms, a balcony, and a shared living room. We enjoyed a few good meals in their restaurant, had drinks in the rooftop bar, played pool with fellow travelers, and got a good night’s sleep in our room free of snoring, stumbling backpackers. It also turned out to be a great place to pre-game for the NYE festivities, and we ended up with a huge group of people heading out to say goodbye to 2013 (more on that later).

A Sleepy Capital

Having grown accustomed to the chaos of Beijing, and having previously visited Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, and Hanoi, we were used to fast paced, crowded, bustling mega-cities when it comes to Asian capitals. Phnom Penh is a far cry from those places, and we found it a nice change of pace. The traffic isn’t bad at all, there aren’t wall-to-wall people, and there aren’t massive skyscrapers everywhere you look. After a quick tuk-tuk ride from the Mad Monkey, we spent a day wandering around the central part of the city. We strolled through a large square with plenty of green space and past a few temples and monuments on our way to the city’s notable attractions.

A nice stroll in Phnom Penh.

A nice stroll in Phnom Penh.

From there, we walked along Sisowath Quay, the main boulevard that runs along the riverfront. The city is actually located on the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, and river cruises are a popular tourist attraction here. Along the boulevard, there are plenty of shops, restaurants and bars, including the fancy FCC (Foreign Correspondent’s Club).

Some scenes from a walk around the riverfront.

Some scenes from a walk around the riverfront.

As we were balling on a budget, places like the FCC were not on our radar. Instead, we continued our stroll until we found the night market setting up. Thankfully some of the food stalls were already up and running, so we sat down on some mats and enjoyed a few plates of tasty street food. Near the market, we couldn’t help but notice huge crowds and what looked like a massive rally. We meandered through the crowd, oblivious as to what was going on thanks to our total lack of Khmer. Later on, we found out that there were actually huge strikes going on with factory workers in and around the city. A few days after we left it turned really ugly, as five workers were shot dead during protests.

Enjoying the local life of Phnom Penh.

Enjoying the local life of Phnom Penh.

 

The Palace, Temple, and Museum

When it comes to sightseeing in the center of Phnom Penh, there are three main attractions – the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, and the National Museum. Our first stop was the palace – a grand complex built in the 1860s for the kings of Cambodia. It managed to survive the tumultuous recent past of the country and the Khmer Rouge, and it truly is a stunning place. While aimlessly wandering the grounds and staring at the beautifully intricate designs, I couldn’t help but feeling like I was in a dream. Although you can’t explore all of the various buildings, it’s well worth a visit.

The Royal Paalce

The Royal Palace

No guns or pets in the palace.

No guns or pets in the palace.

A closer look at some of the buildings.

A closer look at some of the buildings.

Next up was Wat Phnom, a hilltop temple with a park surrounding it. This is obviously a popular local hangout, as we saw tons of people gathered here to eat, drink, and socialize. As is the case far too often in Asia, however, people throw their trash everywhere – not exactly a scenic place to walk around. This is one aspect of culture shock that we just can’t get over. It’s hard to understand why people would carelessly trash their public spaces, especially when they are few and far between. The temple itself was nice to see for a few minutes, but after so many temples they all start to look the same.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

With a few days to spend in the city, we saved the museum for another day and were able to spend most of an afternoon checking out the artifacts on display. The museum itself was probably the highlight – the beautiful building, its courtyard, and the well kept garden were almost more impressive than the collection. That’s not selling the exhibitions short, though, as you can certainly learn a lot about Cambodia, its culture and history by exploring the grounds. Photos are not allowed in the rooms, but you can get some nice shots in the courtyard.

The stunning National Museum.

The stunning National Museum.

In the courtyard of the museum.

In the courtyard of the museum.

After the museum, we headed back to the riverfront to try out a rooftop restaurant. We had a tasty platter of local food, plus our first taste of Kingdom – Cambodia’s only craft beer.

An awesome lunch on the riverfront.

An awesome lunch on the riverfront.

Cambodia's best beer.

Cambodia’s best beer.

S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields

From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge were in control of Cambodia. Their ruthless leader, Pol Pot, lead a campaign not dissimilar from Hitler or Mao and sought to cleanse the country of all people associated with the former government or foreign nations, along with professionals and intellectuals. During these few short years, millions of people were imprisoned, tortured, and brutally murdered. Visitors to Phnom Penh can learn about this recent tragedy firsthand, as there are two museums built in remembrance of the horrors that occurred under the Khmer Rouge. A school was turned into a prison in 1975, and over 14,000 people were tortured here before being executed in the Killing Fields. This is S-21 Prison – the Genocide Museum. Here, you can see the awful conditions that prisoners were kept in, read their stories, and learn more about what exactly happened during the years of the Khmer Rouge.

S-21 Prison

S-21 Prison

While a visit to S-21 is certainly a sobering experience, the next stop is even worse. Prisoners were blindfolded, loaded into trucks, and told they were being transferred to another location. Instead, they were driven out to one of many “killing fields,” where they were brutally executed and dumped into mass graves. As bullets were expensive, executions were carried out by blunt objects, bamboo sticks, or poison. In order to prevent children from growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ death, their heads were smashed against a tree. It seems impossible that something like this actually happened, but it did, and not too long ago for that matter. One of the bigger sites is open as a museum, and all visitors are given a free audio tour. You hear the stories of the killing fields and the victims, and even some firsthand accounts from people. There is a monument in the center of the site that contains thousands of the victim’s skulls. It’s an emotional roller coaster and a very, very somber experience. While all of this can seem incredibly depressing and morbid, it’s important to understand the recent past of Cambodia and the horrendous genocide it experienced, if anything to prevent this from happening again.

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields

Ringing in the New Year

After S-21 and the Killing Fields, it’s hard to bounce back to your normal travel routine. We took a night to stay in and reflect on the experiences, and then we got ready to try and perk up for some fun to end the year. Our NYE bash started out in the Mad Monkey bar, where there was a BBQ, beer pong, and cheap drinks.

NYE in Phnom Penh.

NYE in Phnom Penh.

It wasn’t hard to gather up a large group of people to head down to the riverfront, where we enjoyed street beers and took in the fireworks display. While it wasn’t anything to write home about, it was pretty good considering that January 1st isn’t even the New Year in Cambodia (it’s in April). There was a big party going on at some rooftop bar, so we all headed there to check it out. After a few minutes there, we realized that we had had enough fun and headed home to get a few hours of sleep before streaming the Phish show from New York. After celebrating the new year again thanks to the magic of the Internets, we had to pack up our bags yet again and head out for our next destination – Battambang.

Traveling tuk-tuk party.

Traveling tuk-tuk party.

Phnom Penh Summary

More shots of the Royal Palace.

More shots of the Royal Palace.

Transportation: As it’s the capital, Phnom Penh is very accessible. The country’s main airport is here, and you can fly in from many places around the world. From within the country, there are tons of buses that go to and from here. We got in from Sihanoukville on a bus for about $6 each.

Getting Around: There are tuk-tuks all over the place, and all of the drivers seem to speak decent enough English. They’re all ready and willing to take you out to the main tourist sites and wait around for you, so it’s quite practical to stick with the same driver for a whole day. For the sites in the city center, it’s also pretty easy to just walk around.

Accommodation: It’s a big city, so there are tons of options. We loved our stay at the Mad Monkey, which is part hostel and part mid-range hotel. It’s a little hike from the riverfront, but we didn’t mind. Our nice, big private room was $30 a night – a little out of our budget but we were splurging for New Year’s.

Activities: Walk along the riverfront or take a cruise, see the Royal Palace, climb up to Wat Phnom, and walk through the National Museum. Visit the S-21 Prison and Killing Fields for a somber lesson in recent Cambodian history. You can find good movie theaters here, which we took advantage of to see “The Hobbit.”

Food/Drink: It’s easy to find super cheap local street food, and you can also dine in fancy foreign clubs. It all depends on your budget and what you’re in the mood for. There are plenty of choices along the riverfront, which seems to be the main hangout for tourists and expats. Even if you don’t stay in the Mad Monkey, it’s worth a visit there just to hit the restaurant and/or bar.

Tasty grub at the Mad Monkey.

Tasty grub at the Mad Monkey.

Recommended Time: We thought four nights was just right for Phnom Penh. It gave us time to leisurely see the sights in the city, spend a day doing the prison and killing fields, and then have a day to unwind and celebrate NYE. If you have more time, you could probably work in some other interesting day trips.

Total Cost: Our 4-night stay here cost us about $350 total. This includes our bus tickets in from Sihanoukville. As mentioned above, we went pretty far over our budget for a room by spending $30 a night, but it was worth it. Plus, it’s the biggest city in the country and we were there for NYE – of course we had a little fun!

 

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