TL;DR for our Phnom Penh Post:
We flew direct from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Phnom Penh, and I’ll admit I was expecting the change from one of the richest countries in SE Asia to one of the poorest to be more of a culture shock. I’m not exactly sure what I expected, but being greeted by the city’s beautiful architecture like the Royal Palace, National Museum and many temples was a delight.
We’d rank Khmer style architecture as our favorite on the trip and were continually surprised by the number of buildings throughout the city that seemed so grand. Another surprise was some of the infrastructure in Phnom Penh: closed sewers (in Georgetown, Malaysia you often eat at a table on the street with the sewer running near your feet), speedy internet, and continuous electricity (unlike India and Nepal where there are regular rolling blackouts).
There are also a surprising number of expats living in Cambodia, and less surprising, world aid workers. And in addition to expats, many locals spoke English quite well. Despite the infrastructure in some cities it’s still a very poor country with an average annual salary of just $800. While we found western-style toilets everywhere we visited, having any toilet at all for most rural Cambodians is a luxury. The government currently has a campaign for a “Toilet in Every Home” by 2025.
What to do in Phnom Penh
Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields, while I’d hardly call them an attraction are an experience and educational opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. They are pretty sobering and you should allow yourself enough time to really experience them and not feel rushed. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was one of at least 150 torture and execution sites during the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia from 1975-79. This site converted a former high school into Security Prison 21 (S-21) where as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed. These detainees were tortured and killed nearly always for made-up crimes. Given how recent in history this was, the small prison cells and torture chambers are all still intact.
The museum also shares current information on the trials of the top four living leaders of the Khmer Rouge, which are underway now in 2013. Despite how horrific it is to see the photos from this time and the areas where people were tortured and killed, I have such appreciation and respect for what they are trying to accomplish at this site. In addition to foreigners, there are local school children and adults who visit, sometimes to learn about loved ones who suffered during this time. But you also get a sense that this is about a country that is still healing and wanting to educate others so that such atrocities never happen again.
The Killing Fields near Phnom Penh are again just one of 20,000 mass grave sites, which have been mapped and analyzed. Out of roughly 8 million in population in 1975, an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 died under the Khmer Rouge reign. The mass grave sites are visible at the fields and while many of the bones have been dug up and placed in a memorial, others are in areas where this is difficult to do.
I visited just after the main flood season and bone fragments were revealing themselves even on the walking paths of the site. An unexpected theme found at both of these places was the first person accounts from the locals that ultimately ended up working for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, either as farmers, soldiers or other civilian workers in the camps. These individuals all shared a sense of not having had a choice in helping the Khmer Rouge and had no sense of remorse about their actions. From what we read it certainly seemed true that you were damned if you joined them or not, but even more surprising is that survivors from that time and family members of those killed don’t seem to hold much ill will towards Cambodians that helped the Khmer Rouge. One of our tuk tuk drivers proudly told the story of a former Khmer Rouge soldier who was instrumental in starting the movement to remove the majority of the land mines in Cambodia.
While the above sites are important to visit for insight on Cambodia’s recent history, the National Museum has a cultural and archaeological emphasis, with a collection of 14,000 items from prehistoric times to after the Khmer Empire.
Located just a couple of blocks from the Royal Palace, these two sites are easy to see in the same day. We first tried to visit the palace on the King’s birthday, and with much of the palace grounds unavailable to tour we decided to return another day. The palace is a large complex of buildings built from 1866 on, some of which serve as the royal residence.
The Palace is the home of the Silver Pagoda, which houses many national treasures including a 90kg gold Buddha and a life-sized gold Buddha (decorated with nearly 9600 diamonds– including one that is 25 carats!). The Pagoda gets its name from the 5000 silver tiles that make up its floor. I’m sure Buddha would be pleased.
You can also take in a dance or theatre event at the National Museum in the evening depicting local customs and traditions.
As is the case with much of Cambodia, there are several temples to visit in the area, some walkable depending on where you stay or a tuk tuk ride away. I enjoyed walking along the Sisowath Quay, a riverside park area along the Mekong with flags from around the world.
Where to eat
Looking for something different, we found the first truly authentic Mexican food of our trip at Taqueria Corona. From the moment we walked in and smelled the aromas from the kitchen we knew it would be great. The food was solid and the margaritas/sangria were outstanding.
Wanting to try some traditional Cambodian cuisine we went to highly rated Romdeng. While we found the tarantula appetizer tastier than you might imagine, we much preferred their sister restaurant, Friends, which had excellent food and the best service we have received anywhere on our trip. Both restaurants are training restaurants providing on the job skills training for local youth.
Would we go back to Phnom Penh?
While we’d certainly recommend a visit for the architecture and history, it’s got a seedy side, too. Get a half a mile from the palace and you can see piles of trash on the sidewalks and a healthy number of the “creepy old white dude with young Asian girl/boy” couples lounging around… This is something you have to get used to in Southeast Asia. Despite that, it’s worth a visit on the way to Angkor Wat/Siem Reap!