Phnom Penh was the first stop on the first trip that I ever took; it opened up my sheltered eyes to a vibrant and foreign culture, introduced me to a poverty that I had never seen before and boldly burst my bubble. It is the first place where I ever experienced the aftermath of a country damaged by war and the destruction of a generation; but it’s also the first place that I could clearly see the hope and inspiration of a country rebuilding and rising from tragedy.
Cambodia was the first country where I really connected with the history of its borders and the people that live there and as my first backpacking experience where I learnt how to take and enjoy each day as it comes. It is a relatively small country, but big in heart and spirit, and their culture shines across Phnom Penh in the cities most revered monuments, the opulent Silver Pagoda, the ancient National Museum and the complex Royal Palace, (all worth checking out.)
There are many positive things to appreciate about Cambodia but there are also a few heavy experiences that you have to have while you’re here and visiting the The Killing Fields in Choeung Ek village and spending half a day at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum are two of them. Both make for long and draining days and while a lot of tours are set up to do both in one day, (they are very near each other) I would recommend taking two so that you have more time to absorb all of the information. Both of these places aren’t to be taken lightly and if you can’t offer them the amount of time and respect that they deserve, it’s probably better to skip them.
At the Killing Fields, you can take an audio or self-guided tour around the haunting memorial site – the fields mark the location of where thousands upon thousands of Cambodians were murdered and disposed of during Pol Pots genocide just thirty years ago. At Tuol Sleng, you will wander through an old high school turned prison turned museum, hear the stories of the men, women and children that were tortured there and gain an invaluable education of life under the Khmer Rouge.
I remember emailing my father in tears after a long day at Tuol Sleng, both fascinated and disgusted that a genocide could take place in the 1980’s when my parents were in their thirties and that I’d never heard about it. My dad responded with sincerity and explained that while Canadians were aware of the ongoing genocide, information and access, aviation and travel weren’t like they are now and the ability to bring awareness or intervention was limited.
The sad thing is, that even as I type these words genocides are taking place across the world, lives are being thrown away and countries are being ruined by a mad man, a twisted ideology and a violent agenda. I still feel limited in my ability to bring intervention, though awareness is something that we should shout from the mountain top of every media channel possible.
Sihanoukville is a lovely little beach town about a four hour drive from Phnom Penh, you can relax on the beach and eat shroomie pizza (so I’ve heard). It’s a good place to escape from the city and one of the only obvious choices from Phnom Penh, though if you’ve already been to Thailand you will probably be disappointed by the sand here. There’s a lot of poverty and beggars on the beach, which I found pretty difficult to ignore and tourism is just barely beginning to flourish here compared to Thailand.
The worst sun burn I’ve ever had came from Sihanoukville – my sister and I burned so badly that we should have gone to the hospital but instead overpaid for aloe vera (they could have charged us anything) and sat paralyzed in pain for a few days until it subsided. We laughed, we cried, and we learned our lessons: having a blister that consumes your whole forehead and looks like a perfect Angkor Watt when it peels, plus a sister squealing in pain on a long bumpy bus ride will do that for you.
need to know Phnom Penh
the Weather – the sun in South East Asia burns very hot, but I think that my sunburn could have been attributed to being a rookie traveller and a dumb Canadian. Make sure you wear sunscreen! but also don’t be intimidated. Expect dry and hot weather from November to January, hot and humid from February to April and a monsoonal rainy season from May-September.
the Stay – the cheapest hostel that I have ever stayed in anywhere was in Phnom Penh, it’s called Okay Guesthouse and cost 2$ for a bunk bed with dirty mosquito netting (and no, I did not feel like a princess). I slept in a room full of bunks and random men, with no door to lock, spooning my backpack and using a quick-dry travellers towel as a duvet. The experience, while memorable, was very short lived as my sister and I quickly upgraded the next morning to a 6$ private room with “ensuite”, giving ourselves a much better chance at sleep and survival. I really would though, recommend this hostel – it had a great location in the city, a delicious in-house kitchen and very friendly staff. Check out Okay Guesthouse www.hostelworld.com for a fine place to stay.
Asia Tune Hotels are a great and budget friendly option if you’re looking for something familiar across South East Asia, they offer clean, comfortable rooms for approximately 65$ USD and feel like a luxurious option to enjoy some air conditioning, a hot shower and to recharge your hostel spent batteries. www.asiatunehotel.com
the Food – in Cambodia is heavily influenced by its neighbouring South East Asian countries; they are known for velvety curries and fragrant rice, fresh salad rolls and seafood stir frys. Some of my favourite meals in Cambodia are: spring rolls, fried or fresh these little snacks can be vegetarian or filled with pork or prawns, Khmer red curry, a spicy chicken dish served with plain rice and Lap Khamer, a lime marinated cold beef salad.
One of the best parts about travelling in Cambodia is the absence of many Western Food chains, so it’s easy to find your favourite mom and pop restaurants along the way. When in Phnom Penh though, be sure to have a meal at one of the locations for Friends-International Restaurant, an innovative and affective organization that takes At-Risk youths off the streets and teaches them the skills and stability to work in a restaurant. The food here is great, the message powerful and giving your money to an NGO for a great meal is so much more rewarding than to KFC.
the Messy Details – the streets in Phnom Penh are like all other South East Asian cities, absolutely packed with motorbikes and bodies, vehicles weaving around each other, tuk tuks flying by and pedestrians selling their wares. But crossing the road here isn’t as scary as it looks, Cambodians are some of the best drivers in the world and know how to avoid you so just keep going.
Shopping in Cambodia is wonderful, they have markets that are full of mayhem and merchandise, everything from silk nighties to fried fish, crowded with thousands of merchants and shoppers. Try the Central Market for silk scarves and chopsticks, paintings and little elephants that make great souvenirs for home.
Volunteering – in Phnom Penh was easy (see feature titled: Volunteer, because you can) and asking the locals for a nearby orphanage worked when we were there. Some appreciated items to bring with you are: big bags of rice, books and hacky sacks, materials for crafts, anything edible and water.
Kate and I, Feb 2009: our first tuk tuk and our first five minutes in Cambodia x (thank god I had you!)