Phnom Penh is definitely a city most people can’t find on a map. However, it’s the capital of Cambodia; the reason it’s so obscure is because the entire city can be swallowed in a weekend. And this is exactly what we did.
Most travelers who know of or have been to Cambodia have visited Angkor Wat, the world famous Hindu temple and largest religious monument in the world. That very well traveled area is in Siem Reap. Phnom Penh is “that city you fly through to get to Angkor Wat.”
However, Phnom Penh is rich in culture. There’s so much of the Khmer culture to explore in Phnom Penh, a lot of it cheerful and lively, and a lot of it reminiscent of the tragic genocides committed by the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia is the closest to a third world country that I will explore during my trip, and that is because of the oppressive dictatorship that tore the region apart in the mid seventies.
Regardless, we managed to hit every place on our list in the three days we spent there, and we even got to sleep in.
There’s a few things you should know about Cambodia. Now that I’m back home safely, I don’t mind telling you that Cambodia is a pretty dangerous country. They have a lot of crime. You might have noticed that I have less pictures from this trip than from the last trip; this is because it is common for electronics to be snatched out of your hands when walking down the street. Whenever I had my phone out, locals all around me would tell me to watch out, to hold on tight, or even warn me to put it away. We passed by some children playing in the street that shot me a warning as I walked through them trying to navigate on Google maps (although it did feel nice that the locals had our backs). I only felt comfortable taking my camera out when we were in touristy places, like the Royal Palace or the museum, or in a restaurant. All other times, even my phone was tucked out of reach.
Although the country is dangerous, you never have to walk. Ever. Because in Cambodia, there’s tuktuks.
What is a tuktuk, you ask? A tuktuk is a little cart attached the the back of a motorcycle which then goes 60mph (or more) down crowded streets and in between cars. They are the best way to travel around Cambodia; the cheapest, the fastest, and certainly the most unique. And you will NEVER be without one. Everytime you leave somewhere, any time you are ever walking EVER, a tuktuk driver will find you and ask you…. “Tuktuk?”
The best story to describe it is when we were walking back to the hotel. There are no sidewalks in Phnom Penh, so no stoplights or crosswalks, but everything is kind of a clusterfuck anyways, so you kind of just go for it. We were crossing the road and a tuktuk had to stop to let us pass. We were on our way and he was on his. Regardless, he shouted, from his moving vehicle: “Tuktuk?”
Also: their currency is witchcraft. I was told via google that Cambodia accepts Riels (their currency) as well as USD, which made me personally very happy, since I could use those green bills tucked away in my drawer. I assumed that you could just use both interchangeably, and I wasn’t technically wrong. When we got off the plane, I bought a snack at the airport, which the lady told me was $4.90. I pulled out a US$5 bill and gave it to her, and she in turn gave me $400 riel.
It took us the entire trip to figure this out. $1 USD = $4000 riels. $4000. And these aren’t coins either; these are bills, the most common of which are $100 and $500. What I managed to deduce is that the country almost entirely uses USD, but they don’t have access to US coins, so instead use their own currency like pocket change. This lead to a big visit to the 7/11 at the end of the trip to spend away all of our stacks and fistfuls of riels, which ended up getting us a popsicle each.
Within this weird world, we had a lot of interesting trips! We visited the Royal Palace, which is where the king of Cambodia currently resides. We went to a few local eateries that were really amazing, and fairly cheap (food, especially beer, is very cheap in Cambodia). We also went to the National Museum at the end of the trip to fill up some time before our flight. But the two big highlights were the Cambodian Traditional Dance Show and the Choenung Ek Genocidal Center.
I’ll do the fun one first. The National Museum puts on a dance show every night that uses live music, traditional outfits, and wonderful local dancers! The organization is a non-profit looking to remember the distinctive Khmer culture and pass it on to the next generation. It was fun, informative, and beautiful!
Afterwords I got to go up on stage and take a picture next to them, and the dancers were so short! I towered over them like a lumbering giant, and I consider myself to be average height. Everything was so beautiful, graceful, and elegant: if you ever go to Phnom Penh, GO HERE!
And then there’s the sad part. One of the big draws to Phnom Penh is the Choenung Ek Genocidal Center, otherwise known as the Killing Fields. This area, far away from the noise of the city, is a peaceful memorial to those who lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s.
In 1975, Cambodia was overtaken by Pol Pot and his communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge. The country was completely overtaken until 1979, and during that time the Khmer Rouge killed over a million people in a mass genocide of anyone deemed as a “danger” to the new government: mostly professionals and intellectuals, or anyone not ethnically Cambodian. Choenung Ek served as a killing center and mass grave during the period of genocide, and is the largest, with nearly 9,000 bodies having been discovered there. Since then, the field has turned into a place of healing and remembrance, with the mass graves in the ground still sunken into the earth, the trees they were beaten on still standing, and bones still being uncovered from the soil.
We spent the entire afternoon there, and you easily can. When you enter, you are given an audio guide of your preferred language, and a victim narrates to you the horrors that went on as you navigate through the field. In the very center, there stands a monument. In Buddhist tradition (as the guide told me) it is common to display the dead as a symbol of respect. As a result, the monument in the center is a Buddhist stupa, that houses and maintains over 5,000 human skulls and other bones. These are preserved as historical artifacts and are displayed out of respect for the lives they lived.
I only took one photo here. I didn’t want to, out of respect, but this seemed like something I should remember, and something I should show to people back home. The one photo I took was of the skulls in the monument. I’m not going to post it here, but if you want to see it, I can show it to you when I get home. You can also find it fairly easily on Google images.
The biggest thing that I noticed about Cambodia was their openness to tourism. From the locals warning me to hide my phone, to their encouraging of foreigners to come visit the Traditional Dance Show, and even the Killing Fields. Cambodia is a country torn by war, and they are trying to get back on their feet, slowly but surely. Every little bit helps, and tourism certainly does. So if you’re ever in that part of the world, take a visit. It’s dirty and crime ridden, but it’s rich in culture, and excited to teach you everything it knows.
As always, find the photos from the trip in it’s gallery. And keep an eye on the blog: I leave for Tokyo in 4 hours 😉