On the surface Phnom Penh is much like any other Asian capital, busy, noisy, smelly. But it has a real rough charm that we loved.
I first visited 5 years ago and felt the same about it then, so while it has of course changed and developed a lot (for example there is a giant high end mall about to open – for Cambodia that is unheard of), it still retains a lot of that roughness. I can only imagine what it was like 20 years ago when it was first opened up to tourists. That goes a long way to explain why it lags behind – most other cities have had a huge head start.
A few minutes walk from the tourist restaurants on the quay front and you can find yourself in a local fish market or a street full of motorbike repair shops. Buildings are shabby French colonial era . There are almost zero foreign chain stores. Motorbikes whizz past in every direction, occasionally followed by a brand new Range Rover to remind you of the disparity between rich and poor. In some ways it’s similar to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, but in many ways it’s light years behind.
I’ve read a lot recently about it actually becoming more dangerous…whether this is true or not I have no idea. It felt exactly the same as it did 5 years ago – safe enough. When I say it’s rough, I don’t mean dangerous, more a lack of infrastructure. Of course, if you are careless with your valuables someone may relieve you of them, but that happens everywhere. More than anything, it’s hard to feel in danger when everyone is so friendly.
Anyway, this is what we got upto while we were there:
Wat Phnom is one of the city’s main sights, and it’s namesake. It’s a temple on a hill. The temple itself is nice enough but the view and relaxing in the surrounding grounds are the best part. And it has a giant clock!
The Royal Palace is beautiful, though somewhat disappointing when you get inside and realise that you cannot go inside most of the buildings. But just looking at the opulence from outside is worth it.
Most of what you can go inside at the palace is towards the end, in the galleries. Here, cabinet after cabinet of identical gold ornaments with no real explanation are displayed. And there is an entire room of royal elephant seats, which is delightfully bizarre.
We went to the S21 Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng). This is one of 2 Khmer Rouge sights that everyone sees when in Phnom Penh, the other being the Killing Fields. I had seen both before and Katy decided that she had seen enough after the Killing Cave in Battambang. So we didn’t got to the Killing Fields. I thought she should see S21 though.
I suspect most reading this know the story of S21 but for those who don’t, before the Khmer Rouge came to power, it was a high school. When Phnom Penh was emptied, they took over the school to use as a prison. Classrooms were converted into cells with hastily erected walls, some into torture rooms. Anyone who was suspected of being against the Khmer Rouge, or simply just educated, or any number of made up reasons would be brought here, forced to sign a confession, and tortured to give information about family or friends. Out of 17-20,000 prisoners, only 12 survived, and that was just because they were there when the Vietnamese liberated the prison.
It’s an utterly depressing and harrowing place, with torture implements and plenty of blood stains still present. However, it is, along with the Killing Fields, the best way to bring home to a visitor how barbaric the Khmer Rouge were.
Phnom Penh is a great city for a foodie. Loads of local street food but also restaurants catering to every cuisine imaginable. My favourite street food was a heavily buttered grilled baguette with skewers of fatty pork to put inside. Unhealthy but delicious. We were also recommended a couple of restaurants which were incredible – Irrawaddi, a Burmese restaurant (which gave me my first taste of a delicous tea leaf salad) and Warum Bali, an excellent Indonesian which did a great beef rendang. Oh and I ate a charcoal bun burger:
An obligatory activity is visiting the Foreign Correspondants Club for a sunset cocktail. No matter how touristy it is, if cocktails are involved, I’m in! I thought I had been here before, but as soon as we got in I realised it must have been a different place. The FCC offers a great view of the river and a great place to people watch.
Interesting fact about the FCC – it only opened in 1993. From the name and the way it is talked about, most people (me included) think it was a hangout for journalists in between filing Vietnam war reports. It wasn’t.
We took a trip to the cinema which was an experience. Unlike the plush shopping malls in Thailand or Philippines, the one we visited in Phnom Penh was, like everything in Cambodia, a bit…different. To even get to the cinema you needed to walk through a bizarre department store to get upstairs, once up there you walk through a giant pirate DVD stall, probably selling the same film you’re about to see!
It summed up Phnom Penh, raw and still developing, but fascinating.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Tea House, a boutique hotel. Not our usual standard of accommodation. Even with a deal on, this was right at the top of our budget at $33 a night. It was worth it though, with an incredible included breakfast buffet, a swimming pool (essential in the summer heat) and an amazingly comfortable bed. Great value.