Our stay in Phnom Penh was certainly an enlightening one, as we continued our trip around South-East Asia in Cambodia’s forward-moving capital. The Royal Palace and impressive night markets are worth seeing, but it’s hard to avoid the effects of the Pol Pot regime of 40 years ago that still characterises Cambodia. The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and Killing Fields are difficult visits, but it’s important to see during your visit to Phnom Penh.
Getting to Phnom Penh:
We arrived at Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and coach links between the two capital city’s are frequent(check out my blog on HCMC here!) As soon as you cross the border into Cambodia, the atmosphere is noticeably more rural, but that soon changes in the busy, urban Phnom Penh.
Coaches may drop you off on the outskirts, and a tuk-tuk is needed to get into the city. Make sure you’re clear on a price and destination, because drivers will harass you and take advantage of the language barrier. Be aware that drivers will also attempt to secure your services for the rest of your stay in Phnom Penh, especially if you visit the Killing Fields. This can be helpful, but there’s potential to be ripped off if you change your mind.
Where to Stay:
For backpackers, Central Phnom Penh is home to a number of cheap and popular hostels. We stayed at Eighty8 Backpackers – a reasonably priced option in a decent location.
There’s a lively bar and helpful staff who will arrange further travel, with a range of sleeping options from dorms to personal ‘pod’ beds and individual rooms. I’d recommend booking ahead, because the hostel is popular (we found this out the hard way after booking the wrong day and had to share one of the pods between two of us!)
What to Do:
In Phnom Penh itself is the extravagant Royal Palace and compound, and National Museum of Cambodia. These will show you the rich past and present of Cambodian history, covering Khmer artefacts and architecture.
Nearby the Palace is the Psar Kandal market, with music, food and stalls selling a mix of handmade clothes and trinkets to general tourist rubbish. The market is near the banks of the Mekong, so a night wandering through stalls before a drink by the river is a nice way to relax.
As mentioned though, it is important to visit at least one of the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and Killing Fields. Both are sites where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime brutally tortured and killed their victims, so they’re admittedly difficult places to pay your respects.
For an overview of the Khmer Rouge regime, I found the Cambodia Tribunal – Khmer Rouge History webpage informative.
The Tuol Sleng museum was a former high school where the Khmer Rouge detained and tortured victims in a make-shift prison. There’s hundreds of chilling images of victims, and it’s a graphic reminder of what life was like. Having previously visited the Hoa Loa Prison in Hanoi, this is a much more chilling place.
Outside of Phnom Penh is the Killing Fields. To get there, a tuk-tuk will take you through some very dusty roads. We had the option of going to a tourist gun-range, which turned out to be ridiculously expensive and was a poor choice of activity in hindsight.
The Killing Fields are where the Khmer Rouge brutally executed thousands of Cambodians. The site is strangely peaceful, but the audio guides of survivor stories soon changes that peaceful feeling. The huge memorial stupa with remains of victims shows the extent of the brutality that went on here.
I got a similar feeling at the Killing Fields that I did in Auschwitz in Poland – a strong desire to leave as the graphic scale of the site unfolds, but an even stronger duty to stay and learn exactly how this was allowed to happen.
Learning about the Khmer Rouge regime is not an easy experience, but the Prison Museum and Killing Fields are crucial places to visit. The impact of the regime is still evident today, as most Cambodian families were directly affected. If you’re spending any time in Cambodia, it’s important to learn about the history to understand the rich culture.
Eating and Drinking:
As well as the previously mentioned Psar Kandal Market, Phnom Penh is home to many more street markets with plenty of food options. For restaurants, be aware that Cambodian culture allows diners to drop tissues on the floor throughout their meal. Some places might not clean up between servings, which makes for a rather dirty experience.
Saying that, Cambodian food is flavoursome and spicy – especially alongside a refreshing beer!
As the capital, Phnom Penh is fairly well connected. Popular destinations include Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap (home to the amazing Agkor Wat temples), and Cambodia’s Southern coastal resorts.
After Phnom Penh, we travelled North to Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. I’d been advised to visit, but it wasn’t until I got to Angkor that I realised why.
Find out why Angkor Wat made such an impression on me here, and check out my ‘Top 5’ highlights blog where I look at the best places we visited, stayed, ate and drank over the seven incredible weeks we spent in South-East Asia.