Phnom Penh – between the “Pearl of the Orient” and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge

Phnom Penh

I had quite contradictory feelings before going to Phnom Penh. I was excited to see the combination of big French boulevards and promenades next to Buddhist temples, and in the same time, I was a bit nervous reading about how dangerous Cambodia was compared to other Asian countries.

But…one of the best things about traveling alone is meeting people. And I am really happy to have met so many interesting and special people along the way. They made the whole experience even better! Therefore having a travel buddy at least in my first day in Phnom Penh helped the excitement take over the anxiety.

For the first time in my trip I didn’t fly to the next destination but instead I took the bus, not just any bus of course, but the VIP of the bus companies operating on this route 😉 . The trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh took about 7.5 hours (including visa and lunch time) and the Giantibis bus was very comfortable even on the bumpiest road ever! I heard of trips with other bus companies that took 12 hours in horrible conditions on the same route!

Taking the bus was a very good decision giving me the opportunity to see the change in scenery as we were leaving Vietnam behind and entering Cambodia. The overall feeling was that of traveling back in time. Imagine then how I felt when I flew from Cambodia to Japan…

But back to PP before I get carried away with all the other exciting destinations 🙂

Introducing Phnom Phenh

Phnom Penh is not a top spot on the tourist map and some people do not even  include it in their route.  Instead they jump straight to “the big one” (aka Angkor Wat). It is a pity because I find that the capital city has a lot to offer. It is a charming mix of French and Khmer architecture with plenty of sights to visit. And although the horrors of the Khmer Rouge seem to dominate the city and their remnants can still be noticed today, the city is striving to overcome that and to show why it was once called “The Pearl of the Orient”. It felt as if  the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge almost gave a human feel to Phnom Penh, similar to a person that has been beaten to death, fell down but stood up again and again and again and somehow managed to survive. You cannot help but empathise with this!

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Today, the eclectic mix of old and new, Khmer and French influence visible in temples and modern hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants, clubs, luxury cars and tuk-tuk’s, monks, fashionable teenagers, local people of all levels, expats, tourists, modern malls next to traditional markets, big boulevards and promenades and so on, make Phnom Penh a very an intriguing mix that cannot but enchant the eye. 

See/do in Phnom Penh

There are plenty on offer but the most striking sight for me, not only in Phnom Penh but in the whole SE Asia, was the Killing fields (Choeung Ek). Phnom Penh has a long history, going as far as the 14th century when the city also got its name, but the most infamous has to be the period of the Khmer Rouge terror domination starting in April 1975 until the liberation by the Vietnamese army in 1979. During this time, under the command of Pol Pot (prime minister at that time) it is believed that nearly 2 million people (the figure is very estimative) were killed, either by execution or simply died of starvation. Some 17.000 men, women and children were  tortured and executed only in Choeung Ek , where they were also buried in common graves. 129 graves were discovered  there, out of which 49 have still been left intact. A visit to this communal graveyard will have a strong emotional impact on everybody (to say the least) and it definitely gives you the chills. Taking the audio guide will make this experience a lot more powerful. Imagine when you will hear to be careful not to step on fragments of human bones!

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The memorial stupa

The stupa was built in the memory of the people killed and buried there and it houses over 8000 skulls, fragments of bones and pieces of clothes arranged by age and sex behind glass walls. A somber proof of the atrocities that took place not longer than 35 years ago!! Incredible!

Mass grave

Mass grave

After this experience I couldn’t handle anything similar so I had to skip the visit to Tuol Sleng Prison or Genocide Museum (S21). Plus I had my share of prisons and genocide museums in Vietnam and I was still recovering from that…

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So, to try and shake off the impact of the Killing fields, a far more pleasant sight was the Royal Palace and its Silver Pagoda right in the heart of the city. At night, when the Royal Palace is lit, many people gather on the grass in front of it chilling in the cooler air as if in a huge urban picnic.

The National Museum is also an interesting place to visit, not only to cool down from the burning heat of the street (37 degrees at the time of my visit and humid!) but also for the impressive building itself set in a lush tropical garden and hosting quite a collection of Khmer sculptures and other artefacts.

And being in a Buddhist country (Theravada school of Buddhism just like Laos), let’s not forget the temples (wats) as there is no shortage in the capital city. The most important and the headquarter of the Buddhist order (sangha) in Cambodia is Wat Ounalom situated next  to the Royal Palace and just off the main boulevard Sisowath Quai. Another famous temple is Wat Phnom situated on a small hill in the northern part of the city and it is the temple that gave the city its name. Close to Wat Phnom is also one of the landmarks of the city: the imposing Raffles hotel whose Elephant bar gets quite busy with (mostly) expats at the “aperitif” time 😉 .

There are plenty of other smaller temples that you can find just wondering on the streets and that are worthwhile exploring such as Wat Lang Ka or Wat Prayuvong.

In the middle of the biggest roundabout of the city stands tall the Independence Monument. At sunset you can watch or even participate in a mass exercising consisting in a brisk walk around the park in front of the monument and towards the river. Not far from here in the direction of the Royal Palace another park is buzzing with all sorts of activities:  aerobic classes, dance classes, singing and all kind of games while on the other side is street food heaven. As in this part of the world it gets dark quite early (around 6pm), come 4pm (when the air is also a bit cooler) the streets get flooded with people, food carts, tables and chairs, smells, noises as in a daily fair.

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Independence Monument

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Mass excercising at dusk

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Street food everywhere

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Beautiful sunset over the Independence Monument

And talking about sunsets…one thing that I found extremely popular in Cambodia was the happy hour, yes the “buy-one-get-two” hour, or better yet…hours. And luckily Phnom Penh has plenty of places to enjoy a sunset drink.

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Eat/drink

Phnom Penh is famous for its night life but I admit I did not get to experience it. However I did manage to try a few other places (mostly cafes):

Le moon K-West –  one of my favourites sunset spots. Set atop Amanjaya hotel it offers a beautiful view over the river,  temples and it is an interesting spot to watch the traffic below from a very safe spot 😉

FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) – an institution in Phnom Penh and in fact in Cambodia. This should be on a must do list for any visit to the city. The top floor (out of 3 floors) is the most airy and offers the best view

Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in Phnom Penh

Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC)

Touk – situated just across FCC along the river bank and also occupying 3 floors

Romdeng *– a local restaurant serving local cuisine in a charming decor

Friends* – run by an NGO training former street children. Very nice  courtyard and atmosphere.

*Remember Makpeth restaurant in Vientiane? Romdeng and Friends are part of the same group: the Tree Alliance

The Blue Pumpkin cafe – a beautiful local cafe and bakery offering a mix of asian and fusion cuisine with excellent fruit juices, cafes and ice-cream that can be enjoyed while relaxing on comfortable white beds or simply at a table. Very modern, clean and bright cafe. This is in fact a chain in Cambodia and I was happy to find it in Siem Reap as well

Sleep

I stayed at Fancy Guesthouse – maybe fancy by Cambodian standards….but all in all not a bad place to stay. The best part was in fact the location (5 min to the riverbank full of cafes and restaurants, 5-10 min to National Museum and Royal Palace)

Other

The easiest and best way to go around is by walking or, for further sights, the tuk-tuk which is very cheap as everywhere in Southeast Asia.

Click on an image to see the slideshow

 Phnom Penh

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