Off the rails in Phnom Penh..?

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February 28th 2010
Published: March 18th 2010
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Returning to Cambodia

We first visited Cambodia at the very beginning of 2007...when we crashed a friend's honeymoon in Sihanoukville (the usual reason then..). But after that, during our time in Thailand, we popped over the border quite a lot - largely during visa-runs, but also to visit the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap. Our snapshots of the place from these visits varied from corrupt border officials, muddy undeveloped roads and poverty, to incredible temples, fancy hotels and a fascinating, if often disturbing, history. But then we hadn't been to Cambodia since the end of 2007. And we'd never even been to the capital.

So there we were in Ho Chi Minh City with time to kill and buses leaving every day to Phnom Penh.

We thought - "What the hell..."

Into the capital...

Previously, when we'd crossed into Cambodia overland from Thailand we'd tramped over no-man's land onto muddy ground and had our passport stamped and visa bought at little more than a hut by the road. On the trip to Siem Reap we then hired a taxi from the border to the city and then had to endure a long journey on a completely unmaintained dirt track in a Toyota Camry.

This time was different.

The bus left Ho Chi Minh promptly at 830am and wound its way through the city streets as an attendant distributed water and "breakfast" (a sickly hotdog in a bum topped with sugar- still it's the thought that counts). We noticed the fellow passengers included a few Cambodians (passports sitting on their laps) and also a large group of tourists with the Intrepid tour group and a Cambodian guide. Which was useful because we could earwig on his guiding...without paying. Ha ha.

Anyway, the trip to the border took about 4 hours. Before we got there the attendant lady explained the visa service was $25. We'd heard the fee was $20 so queried what the extra $5 was for. For the service, apparently. She was collecting all the passports together and processing them in one pile. We suggested that maybe we hung on to our passports and just did it ourselves. She suggested this was a really, really bad idea and that the bus couldn't wait for us. We tried anyway. Sure enough, at the border we sailed through with everyone else but paid $5 less each. Ha ha! A principled victory for an unnecessary service...if for a paltry sum.

From the border we headed into the interior and cruised along on tarmacked roads towards Phnom Penh! Much different to our previous experiences. The only similarity was that for much of the journey the road was flanked by ultra-flat land and ultra-green paddy fields stretching off to the horizon.

Two hours later we'd arrived in Phnom Penh, grabbed a tuk tuk and dumped our stuff in a $20 a night hotel room right next to the royal palace. Still time left in the day to explore...

Guns, girls and ganja??

I've read a lot about Cambodia's recent history. Ever since I first visited I wanted to understand more about what happened to the country through the 20th century. From the overflow from the Vietnam War, to the American bombings to the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. I even read the current prime minister's biography. As you can imagine, Phnom Penh features pretty highly in all these historical events, but accounts of it vary. The city seems to have gone from French colonial idyll, to war zone, to deserted genocidal social experiment...and latterly to a den of iniquity full of guns, drugs and prostitution.

At least it was. There's a non-fiction book about some expats in Phnom Penh around 1997 which documents the adventures of a group of English teachers. It's called "Off the rails in Phnom Penh: Into the dark heart of girls, guns and ganja". The title kinda sums up an idea of the place back then. But now?

Well, first things first, after Saigon we thought Phnom Penh felt almost relaxed. First off, there were so many fewer motorbikes (but then can anywhere have more motorbikes than Saigon??) and more cars. Second, down by the river there's a feeling of space and something similar to a seafront promenade with great waterside bars and cafes. We visited several, taking advantage of happy hour and later had a choice of food from Cambodia, Vietnam or well as the ubiquitous western fare. Plus - there are some cool live music venues!

Anyway, in our limited trawl out of the three "g's" in this subtitle - we only encountered the latter - with most tuk tuk drivers offering me a range of mind altering products most evenings. I'm sure if you wanted girls or guns you'd just have to ask, such is local hospitality.

The Royal Palace, the Cambodian Biancaaa and the baking sun

We were only in Phnom Penh for a weekend so we stuck to the main city. Missing out the genocide museum and the killing fields on this visit we stuck to older culture and headed to the Royal Palace to see some finery. On the way there we met a young Cambodian lass selling iced bottles of water. Such is the way...she stuck with us all the way down the road as the sun shone and we sweated and the cold water beckoned. With amazing English she found out about most of our life and told us she wanted to be a lawyer and she went to school half the day and sold water the other half. She clearly learnt a lot of English somewhere as she could even do English, American and Australian accents. I've never had a student who could even tell them apart. Anyway, her English accent was sort of Eastend London and she sounded a lot like Bianca Butcher. Which was vaguely surreal given the setting. Eventually we relented and bought the water and she went off to entertain another tourist.
I hope she really is a lawyer one day...

The Royal Palace is big and glittering and hot. It reminded us a lot of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but on a slightly smaller scale, but it was really beautiful. The gardens were simmering and we purposely tried to get caught in a sprinkler on the lawn as we looked at the temples and golden Buddha images.

After that it was on to the national museum...which was actually equally as hot. In doors, with all the windows open and out of the sun and still the sweat was running down my brow as I looked at impossibly old Buddha statues. When we booked our bus tickets to Phnom Penh from a Vietnamese bloke in Ho Chi Minh he warned us - "Cambodia isn't like Vietnam you know - it's very hot!". Very hot??? We were standing there in the allegedly cool and clement Ho Chi Minh City. Yeah, well known for it's temperate climate right? Well.....funnily enough, it was hotter in Phnom Penh. And standing there in the National Museum I was slowly roasted. Soon a cold Angkor Beer was calling...

See you next time

Phnom Penh was a great place to visit and we really enjoyed it. As we were just making a long weekend of it, all to soon it was time to jump on a bus and go back to Vietnam. Oh well. I'm sure we'll be back for a visit...

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


A stupa next to the Silver PagadoA stupa next to the Silver Pagado
A stupa next to the Silver Pagado

contains the remains of one of the Royal family
Traditional musiciansTraditional musicians
Traditional musicians

I'm not going to buy the album any time soon

18th March 2010

Operation clean up!
Wow the riverside area has been cleaned up a lot even since our last visit in May 2008. Did you manage to get to the FCC for the happy hour cocktails? When do you start work again and are you still based in Haiphong? Happy travels! Donna and Neil
19th March 2010

Yep, happy hour at the FCC is great! Half price gin and tonic? Can't be bad. Moved to Saigon now and start work next week.
19th March 2010

I was there!!!!!!!!!!!!
It´s so nice to see some pictures of places where I have already. Been. I have good memories from Cambodia, mainly Siem Reap and an orphanage I visited once there. Love from Argentina.
9th April 2010

Holy crap your blog is amazing. I will enjoy looking over this when I have the time.
13th April 2010

Do we know you?

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