An Emotional Experience Exploring Phnom Penh
Arriving in Phnom Penh, the city exuded exactly what you would expect from a capital city in Asia. Thousands of motorbikes, tuk tuks and even more people were running about completing their daily routine. What I naively wasn’t expecting was a city as developed as Phnom Penh. With such a recent turbulent history, I was amazed by the modern facilities. With this being said, there appears to be a divide amongst the people, with an astonishing amount of poverty and a contrasting ostentatious display of wealth.
While I am usually not a fan of big cities, I enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh. We spent 5 nights here, including New Years Eve, which fell while we were exploring the city. After a beautiful dinner, we wandered along the Mekong, heading towards a light show we could see in the distance. Not sure what to expect, we were amazed to find traffic in gridlock and thousands of people streaming into a free countdown concert. Fascinatingly, everyone had driven their scooters straight in. It was similar to a drive-in movie, everyone had secured a position, sitting on their scooters to watch the show! After navigating through the sea of scooters and people, we found ourselves in prime position front of the stage. Two obviously popular artists hosted an extremely entertaining pop concert. While the entire show was in Cambodian, we still managed to enjoy ourselves. Surprisingly, no one in the crowd was dancing. Quite different to anything we had experienced at a concert before. We continued to wander through the carnival before returning to the Mekong to watch the fireworks and welcome the New Year.
With all this said, it’s difficult to comprehend the atrocities that happened here. There is no doubt the development of Phnom Penh was stunted by Khmer Rouge rule; however, you could be forgiven for walking along the peaceful shores of the Mekong River without acknowledging the sordid past. We spent an emotional day at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum. Haunting places, it’s difficult to describe our experiences. An important part of history, but hopefully something that will never happen again.
We spent our time in central north Phnom Penh, with our first two nights at Aura Thematic Hostel. Here we were in a dorm with a set of double bunk beds. We had the room to ourselves the first night and shared with an Irish couple the second. It was a really nice, modern set up; the only downside was the smell. There seemed to be an issue with the sewerage system and there was a strong, lingering smell emanating from the bathroom. The staff were aware of the issue and extremely helpful when we discussed problem with them. For the remaining three nights we stayed at Hometown Hotel. While we didn’t mind the dorm set-up for a few days, you can’t beat a private room. Located along street 172, the central location suited us perfectly. Both were great options for budget accommodation in Phnom Penh.
The food was really enjoyable here, aside from one horrendous curry (I ordered vegetarian curry and it arrived with only onion and pineapple), we were lucky to stumble across some great restaurants. Funnily enough, looking in the Lonely Planet in retrospect, a couple of the restaurants feature. No wonder we enjoyed them!
We had a really enjoyable breakfast at the Laughing Fatman, so good we returned the next day. It was the first place we had been that offered a Khmer rice soup for breakfast. Much more of a soup than the rice porridge I was enjoying in Laos, it was still very enjoyable. Jimmy was also suitably impressed with their omelettes.
This restaurant boasts a new name, the Boston Restaurant used to be the highly regarded Chat n’ Chew. We had a couple of meals here, enjoying both the western breakfast and Khmer options for lunch. A great menu for the budget conscious, there is nothing lacking in the flavoursome meals dished up. Their Khmer coffee is especially nice, it has a lovely chocolate flavour that was completely unexpected.
Q Coffee House
A café just around the corner from the National Museum, we spent a couple of hours escaping the heat of the day and enjoying the long blacks served at Q Coffee House. While the food is quite expensive, it is worth visiting to sit inside with the air conditioning to enjoy a quiet coffee.
Wandering along one afternoon, I was amazed by a man making fresh noodles out the front of David’s Restaurant. Fascinated, we returned later that evening for dinner. They have an incredible way of making noodles. Using quite dense dough, they wet it, progressively kneading, twisting and stretching it until it is the right consistency to form noodles. Instead of feeding it through a pasta maker, the chef somehow manages to twist and pull the dough until it forms noodles. Quite a fascinating process. Our food here was really enjoyable, made better by the show put on when making the noodles.
Chilly Noodle House
Walking home from David’s Restaurant, we noticed a man just around the corner using the same process to make noodles. I was amazed that we had walked past both these places countless times and hadn’t noticed either of them! We returned but unfortunately found the Chilly Noodle House not as enjoyable as David’s Restaurant. This may have been due to poor menu choice on our behalf though. I think the best dish is the noodle soup. It was incredible watching the noodles being made again and worth heading there for that experience alone.
On the Corner
We enjoyed dinner on New Years Eve at On the Corner. Splashing out, we both enjoyed the western menu on offer here. In particular, my fish wrapped in tinfoil was incredible. A great meal to end 2015 with.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
As with Siem Reap, the places we visited in Phnom Penh gave us a snapshot into the historic background of Cambodia. Quite the contrast to the serenity found at ancient Angkor, some of the places we visited were the scenes of some of the most horrific parts of history.
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
I have dreaded the moment I would write about our experiences at Choeung Ek, just thinking of the atrocities that occurred within the confines of those walls and I feel on the verge of tears and physically ill. After the Khmer Rouge lost power, 129 mass graves were discovered at Choeung Ek, containing the bodies of about 20,000 victims. While there were hundreds of killing fields throughout Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule, Choeung Ek was the largest and has been transformed into a National Memorial Centre to honour the spirits of the victims. In 1989 a memorial stupa was completed. It contains the 8,985 skulls and thousands of other bones found in one of the 86 mass graves that have been excavated. Today Cheoung Ek is a well-known attraction, however, the use of the word ‘attraction’ seems almost disrespectful.
An audio tour has been developed, allowing visitors to walk throughout the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre whilst listening to accounts of the horrendous things that occurred at the grounds. While I felt overwhelmed by the heavy nature of what was being discussed, there was also an airy peacefulness that seems somewhat misplaced at Choeung Ek. We visited on a beautiful day, with the sun glaring and casting a bright light throughout the grounds. It didn’t seem right; a dark, stormy day would have reflected a more appropriate mood.
As a killing field, the audio tour told us of the brutal executions that occurred at Choeung Ek and the various other killing fields throughout Cambodia. Bullets were precious and expensive; consequently people were beaten to death with tools commonly used in farming practices. We were taken to the tree where small children and babies were beaten against before being tossed into a mass grave. All killings occurred at night, with loud music playing to drown out the cries of the people. Chemicals were poured over the bodies, both to dampen the smell of the decaying bodies and to kill those who were still alive. A chilling experience, words cannot begin to detail the emotions I felt as we walked through the grounds of Choeung Ek. The centre aims to educate and prevent history repeating itself, a goal I truly hope they achieve.
Tuol Sleng Museum
A seemingly innocent name, this museum was just as haunting as Choeung Ek. Code-named S-21, this former school was a secret prison where up to 30,000 people were tortured before being killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today, Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide has an audio tour to guide visitors through the grounds of S-21, which remain much the same, as they were when it was discovered. Some classrooms had been converted into makeshift cells, with brick partitions built to separate prisoners. In other rooms, prisoners were forced to lie shoulder to shoulder with their hands and feet shackled to iron poles. As we continued to progress through the museum the displays became more gruesome, with the various torture devices utilised in S-21 included in the exhibition. I found this quite sickening, especially as I listened to the audio giving detailed explanations of how the devices were used.
Fastidious record keepers, the Khmer Rouge photographed their prisoners when they arrived at S-21. Photographs were also often taken after torture to accompany detailed written records. Some of these gruesome pictures line the walls of the old classrooms. While it is believed up to 30,000 people entered the gates, detailed records tell of 14,000 prisoners being held and tortured at S-21. Of these, only seven survived. The torture conducted at S-21 was designed to get prisoners to confess to crimes they had been charged with.
Both Jimmy and I found Tuol Sleng extremely overwhelming and struggled to listen to the audio. While visits to Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng are a horrifying, emotional experience, I am glad we went. I had completed some research on the torture and executions that occurred during Khmer Rouge rule, however, being confronted with the stories of survivors while visiting two sites is incomparable to anything you could ever read.
National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia opened in 1920 after George Groslier, a historian and curator, designed the building and sparked a renewed interest in Khmer history and culture. As the Khmer Rouge attempted to destroy all Khmer culture and traditions, the museum was essentially abandoned during their rule. Adding to the neglect, many of the museum staff did not survive this period, making the resurrection of the museum an arduous task. Today, the museum largely consists of sculptures and scriptures from the Angkorian era alongside pieces that depict traditional Khmer arts and culture. Different from what I was expecting, I felt some parts of the exhibition needed slightly more explanation than what was offered. It was a morning well spent and a great way to learn a bit more about the Angkorian history.
Walking tour of the City
We completed our own mini walking tour of central north Phnom Penh. The Royal Palace was built in 1866 and remains the official royal residence today. The grounds are incredibly imposing, a full block in central Phnom Penh. Inside the walls, which are covered in carefully drawn murals, are several enormous buildings, which include the Throne Hall and Silver Pagoda. With various different design features, including faces designed to mimic those seen at Bayon, we enjoyed the opportunity to wander the expansive grounds.
We visited Wat Phnom and Wat Ounalom, enjoying the sites from afar as opposed to touring the grounds. Last on the list, we made a fleeting stop at Psar Themi, the central market. While I openly admit to my minimal interest in markets, I found Psar Themi quite fascinating. It appears to be a one-stop shop, offering everything from gold jewellery to fresh produce. Definitely worth spending some time looking around. After a few hours reprieve in Q coffee house, we ventured out in the early evening to Eclipse Sky Bar. Climbing several flights of stairs after catching the elevator to the 22nd floor, it’s fair to say we had an incredible vantage point to watch the setting sun. While the food and drink were well outside of our budget, we splurged for one round before returning to street 172 to enjoy a budget friendly dinner.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
As Phnom Penh is riddled with tourists, there was an interesting sub-culture of those trying to sell us various things. The tuk tuk drivers were the worst, often following us in attempts to convince us to take a tour with them. A fierce trade, many of the drivers border on harassment with their efforts. On one particular morning, over 10 drivers stopped asking if we wanted a ride within a 400m stretch. It can be truly relentless. Interestingly, if I was walking without Jimmy I was left alone.
Sadly, children are also involved, walking around restaurants trying to sell bracelets. This is well documented in various publications and there are movements to try and protect the children against this kind of exploitation. They are often kept from school and sent out on the streets to sell bracelets among several other things. It is important to refuse to buy from the children as the more money they earn the less likely they are to go to school. At times it’s extremely difficult, the children are relentless and if it were an adult displaying those behaviours it would definitely be considered harassment. One particular boy sat punching Jimmy repetitively trying to coerce him into buying something. He walked off severely disgruntled when we continued to refuse his products. The most difficult part is you have no idea what is driving this kind of behaviour. Perhaps the children are orphans, forced to work and expected to make a certain amount each day. It is obvious is there is some kind of driving force; hopefully a stop will be put on this soon.
We found Phnom Penh to be quite westernised, however, this may have just been the area we were in. Unfortunately this meant the culture we were exposed to I don’t feel accurately represents the true Cambodian culture. It became extremely tiresome being unable to finish a meal without being interrupted by multiple beggars, children and people with disabilities, all trying to get a few dollars out of you. While I understand these people all must have difficulties in their life that I most likely will never experience or understand, there are better way to help them. Organisations such as Friends International run programs for marginalised children with the aim of integrating them successfully into society. This includes providing a transitional home and education as needed. They also run training business which both allow the children to learn important vocational skills as well as earning the organisation a profit. These are the organisations that are making a difference and this is where money should be going.
We are heading south to Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem before heading across to Vietnam. We will have to plan and follow a stricter itinerary in Vietnam, as we need to book a flight into Europe. It’s an incredible feeling to have travelled for three months and while we are still enjoying our travel through Southeast Asia, it’s exciting to be planning the next stage of our journey too.
WHAT WE LEARNT
I’m still learning about Cambodian history and it continues to fascinate me. What occurred in the period between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were in power is mind blowing. Visiting some of the sites around Phnom Penh and listening to the details of what happened is an experience I will never forget.
As I have previously mentioned, accommodation is where we are continually blowing the budget. We have re-adjusted, with a maximum of $20 USD to be spent per night. This gives us $65 USD per day to spend, which should be more manageable.