Phnom Penh is for most visitors to Cambodia an inevitable stop, but often only used as a transfer hub to other, more exciting destinations.
How to get there
Phnom Penh was our first stop in Cambodia and we traveled there from Vientiane by plane. We initially thought we’d travel on to Southern Laos, but decided against it, because we were a bit tired of Laos. It would have been possible to travel into Cambodia by bus, crossing the boarder over land, but we had read and heard many stories of hour-long waits, corruption and other unpleasantries. So, we opted to enter Cambodia by air.
The entry formalities were over quickly and managed by a row of immigration officers, handing each passport down a line. We had to fill out 3 almost identical forms, pay 35 USD and then each received the visa on arrival. We tried to get Cambodian Riel at the airport, but found out that you can only get USD from ATMs. You won’t need any Riel when traveling in Cambodia, as almost everything is priced in USD anyway and you’ll only get Riel for small change, or if they run out of USD. So don’t bother getting any if you travel to Cambodia.
From the airport to the city: We had read that there is a train running from the airport to the in the railway station in the center of the city (The Royal Railway Airport Shuttle), but it currently runs only every 90 minutes and we had just missed one. We ended up getting a Tuk Tuk for $9, which we prepaid at the airport counter. In retrospect, I’d recommend getting a Taxi because it’s safer (more on that topic later) and you won’t be inhaling all the exhaust from Phnom Penh traffic.
What to see and do
What I liked about Phnom Penh is its myriad of NGO-run programs. From training restaurants to nail spas or souvenir shops, it’s all there within walkable distance. We had probably the best avocado sandwich at Connecting Hands Training Cafe, which also offered excellent service. All programs are aimed towards getting people off the street, providing them with training and work opportunities. I’d recommend doing a little research on those places and go check them out.
While Phnom Penh lacks of the sublime temples of the Siem Reap area, it has some sights like the Royal Palace (haven’t been there) and a couple of temples and markets. The majority of people will have come to the city for mainly two reasons anyway: The Tuol-Sleng Genozide Museum and the Cheung Ek Killing Fields, its history and displays of the unbelievable cruelties and horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. You can’t travel to Cambodia without learning at least the basics about the Khmer Rouge regime, because about every Cambodian you’ll meet has been affected of the regime to some extent.
Allow me to give you a very brief overview of the events in a bit. Feel free to skip this next section if you’re not interested, and if you’d like to learn more, I’d recommend reading the book «A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S21» by Vann Nath, who was one of a handful surviving prisoners at Tuol Sleng or «Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in The Khmer Rouge Genocide» by Chum Mey. Mr. Chum Mey was was actually one of two survivors, selling their books personally at the museum. I thought this was kind of odd, given it was the place where he was tortured. Our guide told us that they were selling their books there to earn money, because they don’t get any support from the government.
A little history: From 1975 to 1979, a murderous communist regime called the Khmer Rouge killed 21% of Cambodia’s population. Their leader was a privileged guy that called himself Pol Pot and was also known as Brother Nr. 1 (his real name was Saloth Sar) and his goal was to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia founded on communist principles. For some reason he thought it an excellent idea, to focus on agriculture and throw the country back a century. The cities were evacuated, factories and schools were closed, and currency and private property was abolished. Whoever refused to leave or obey by the new rules, was killed instantly. Workers on the farms soon began suffering from the effects of overwork and lack of food. Hundreds of thousands died from disease, starvation or abuse. Pol Pot’s regime also executed thousands of people it had deemed as enemies of the state. Those seen as intellectuals, or potential leaders of a revolutionary movement, were also executed. You wore glasses? You were killed. You had soft hands? You were killed. You were able to speak a foreign language? Same scenario. This was even more ridiculous, regarding the fact that Pol Pot himself was an intellectual and teacher. As part of this effort, hundreds of thousands of the educated Cambodians were tortured and executed in special centers established in the cities – the most infamous of which was Tuol Sleng jail in Phnom Penh, where nearly 17’000 men, women and even children were imprisoned during the regime’s four years in power. The country eventually was liberated by Vietnamese troops, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retreated back into the jungle. Pol Pot died in 1998 without having spent one single day in jail.
Tuol Sleng: Tuol Sleng or Prison S-21 used to be an ordinary school, which the Khmer Rouge turned into a torture chamber and prison for «higher prisoners», from whom they hoped to get more names of class enemies. Tuol Sleng was turned into a genozide museum, offering the public a view into the Khmer Rouge doings. You can chose to either rent an audio guide or a personal guide to lead you through the terrors of this place. I recommend getting a personal guide, because you will get more insights and personal stories from the guide leading you through as an audio guide can give you. Our guide was a lady, who has lost her father, her brother and two sisters during the Khmer Rouge regime and only survived, because she was able to flee to Vietnam with her mother, when she was a girl.
Walking through Tuol Sleng is no walk in the park. It’s a view into human abysses and you won’t come out feeling too great. In fact, you will most probably feel like crap all day and seeing and hearing the stories, will make you want to vomit. I do feel like it’s important to still go, though, because in order to understand a country and culture, you’ll need to understand its history. Accept the fact that you will feel horrible, pay your respect to the millions of lifes lost and try to learn from history.
Killing fields/Choeung Ek: The killing fields are also linked to Cambodias dark past and the Khmer Rouge regime. During the regime, there were several fields where people were killed en masse. The killing fields just outside Phnom Penh are one of the most easily accessible ones and are often combined in tours. We booked a «hop on hop off» bus, which included pick-up and drop-off at our hotel, transport to both sites and a documentary of the Khmer Rouge played on the bus. There are various tour operators offering more or less the same. Admission to the killing fields is 2$ and you will need to rent an audio guide for 4$. I highly recommend getting the audio tour, because there are almost no written explanations and almost all buildings have been torn down.
I’ll be honest with you: Visiting the killing fields is nothing for the highly sensitive and nothing can really prepare you for what you’re about to see. The feeling of walking over mass-graves in ghostly silence, listening to the stories of the Khmer Rouge and their victims over your audio guide, is undescribable and will leave you speechless, at least for a while, unable to put into words what you’ve experienced, heard and saw. If you can bear it, I’d still recommend you to visit and pay your respect to the thousands who lost their lifes there.
Let me start with saying that Cambodians are generally VERY kind-hearted, welcoming and helpful people. Coming from Laos, where people were mostly busy watching some TV shows on Youtube or staring into their mobile phones, Cambodians were a nice change. That said, keep in mind that Cambodia is still a developing country and crime does exist. We learned that the hard way.
How we got robbed in Phnom Penh
On our first night out in Cambodia, we got robbed by two guys on a motorcycle. It was the classical snatch-theft and in a split-second, our things were gone. Our first impulse was to race after them, but of course they were too fast. After the first shock wore off, we were SO mad! At them, but also at us, because that very same day, when we were sitting at the airport at Vientiane in Laos, I had read out loud to Oliver that such snatch-thefts were very common in Phnom Penh and that we should be very carefeul when walking around in the city. We were in fact very careful during the day when walking the streets, always telling each other, that we wouldn’t need the experience of being robbed, after all that’s already happened to us in Laos. But all it took was one careless second and it happened anyway.
What can you do if you get robbed in Cambodia? Try to stay calm and get in touch with your insurance company and check if they really need a police report and explain them where you are. Why not run to the next police station? Well…cambodian policemen belong to some of the most underpaid public employees, which leads them to creating more creative ways of making money. Also known as corruption. Trying to get a police report will cost you A LOT of time, because the police will send you from one department to another and will only file a report, if you pay cash for it. The more things got stolen, the pricier the reports get. That is, if you happen to be lucky enough to get a policeman to write your report. There are countless tales of tourist and police encounters on the internet and not few (including us) walked away without a report. Lucky for us, our insurance company didn’t ask for a report, so that was a huge relief.
But misfortune wasn’t done with us just yet. Hours after the incident happened and we kind of sorted everything out, we tried to go to sleep. But as anyone who had something similar happen to them knows that sleep is not easily found after such a thing. We kept turning on the lights to talk about the robbery and double-check the door lock (in a very weak moment I even barricaded the door with our bags). Little did we know, that our next enemy was already in our room. Bedbugs, AGAIN!!! By then, it was already about 2 in the morning, we were really tired but I couldn’t put up with more bedbug bites. We packed our bags and went down to wake the night doorman. Under many «so sorry brother, so sorry sister», he gave us the keys to a new room, where we yet again tried to sleep. To make sure that this room didn’t have any begbugs, we set the alarm to turn on the light, after about 30 minutes after we’ve turned the light off. Sure enough, the new room was infested with bedbugs as well! By then, we were totally exhausted and we knew this was the last available room in the house. So it was either sleeping on the stone floor or coping with bites. I opted for the latter, left the light on and hopped into my silken sleeping bag, hoping this would hinder the beasts from feasting on me. It did not. To make matters worse, we had to yet again wash everything and take our bags apart. When we informed the hotel about the bedbugs the next day, they gave us a new room, offered a complimentary breakfast and we didn’t have to pay for this night. They later sent in exterminators, who took the rooms apart.
By then, we needed a break from everything and decided to move on to Sihanoukville, to relax at the beach for a couple of days. I’ll say this much to Sihanoukville: If you are looking for a lovely and quiet beach getaway, do not go to Sihanoukville! More about this in my next blogpost.