Phnom Penh

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February 18th 2008
Published: May 4th 2009
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Phnom Penh was an extremely confronting city. It has come a long way since the Khmer Rouge took over the city on April 17, 1975, but still has a long way to go. The poverty is the most extreme that we have witnessed during all of our travels - it seems that everywhere you look there are street children begging and gesturing at their mouths for food.

We struggled to find a half decent hotel, and eventually settled for one which was only just within our price range but looked as if we could have rented it by the hour. After a quick nap in our windowless, dank room we walked to the riverfront in search of somewhere slightly nicer to spend the following few nights. Luckily we managed to find a place which even included two breakfasts instead of one for slightly less than our by the hour place so we booked the room for the following two nights and then chose a restaurant for dinner.

The riverfront area provides a fair few choices of restaurants; some even served traditional Cambodian food instead of western cuisine. We settled on a Cambodian place and grabbed a table out the front and watched the group of street kids grow. By the time we had finished eating there were about 8 children watching us hungrily. The second we stood up to leave they rushed in and devoured every single scrap we had left on our plates before they were chased away by the restaurant owner. This was very depressing and confronting and we decided that we were no longer in the mood for enjoying the night so headed back home to bed.

The following morning we changed hotels and then set out on the obligatory Choeung Ek - Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum tour. First stop was Choeung Ek , better known as the killing fields. There is now a Buddhist monument at the site which consists of a massive stupa filled with approximately 8000 skulls belonging to some of the Cambodians who were killed there during Pol Pots reign. It was quite confronting and surreal, but definitely a must see. We walked around the killing fields for about an hour and were shocked to see that there were still some human limbs scattered around.

From Choeung Ek, our tuk-tuk driver suggested that we go to the shooting range because it was nearby. We originally hadn’t planned on doing the whole shooting thing on the same day as the Khmer Rouge tour however it was quite a distance from Phnom Penh so we agreed. The shooting range was actually on a Cambodian Special Forces base so we drove past soldiers training before we arrived at the range. We selected an AK-47 and spent about 20 minutes shooting all of our bullets. It didn’t quite have the same atmosphere as Vietnam, but how many Aussies can say they have shot an AK-47…twice? We headed back to the tuk-tuk, roused our driver from his nap and headed back to central Phnom Penh to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Tuol Sleng was a completely surreal experience. You could still see blood stains on the floors and walls of the former high school but it just didn’t feel like you were in the place. We tagged along behind a tour guide who pointed out all the horrible things the prisoners experienced under the hands of the Khumer Rouge. The museum includes a display of the mug shots of some of the 17000 prisoners who spent time there - of which only 12 are known to have survived.

After the museum we asked our tuk-tuk driver to drop us off at the central market as we wanted to try and take our minds off the horrible stories we had been listening to all day. We ended up spending quite a bit of money on DVD’s at the market and only left because we had run out of money. That night we chose a different Cambodian restaurant along the river front and grabbed a seat inside. Following dinner we had a drink at one of the bars along the strip.

The following day we slept in as we had seen most of what we wanted to in Phnom Penh. We finally set out to explore the city at about 2pm. First stop was the Royal Palace…which is entirely underwhelming, especially in comparison to the Thai palace. The buildings were nice, but not particularly impressive and we worked our way around the palace pretty quickly. Following the palace we set out on the Lonely Planet walking tour of the city, but gave up about half way as we were both hot and lazy.

That night we decided to make the most of our last night in the country and head to the ‘Friends’ restaurant. ‘Friends’ is part of a training initiative of the Cambodian government in conjunction with various NGO’s. They train former street kids in valuable skills such as hospitality and sewing and house them while they learn. The food was absolutely delicious and their menu is structured like ‘tapas’ so you get a chance to try quite a few dishes. We ended up buying the recipe book so we could recreate some of the delicious dishes at home. We can both highly recommend the cocktails! This was a brilliant end to our time in Cambodia.

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