Phnom Penh

10 Apr

With its poor population and rubbish-strewn streets, Phnom Penh is a hard city to love, but crucial to visit if you want to understand Cambodia.

The poverty of Cambodia relative to neighbouring Vietnam is apparent almost as soon as you cross the Bavet / Moc Bai Border that separates these countries. The caramel-coloured cows and grey water buffalo visible from the bus window are noticeably thinner on the Cambodian side of the Border. Piles of household and other waste gathers on the sides of unsealed roads, waiting to be burned. In rural areas Cambodian houses are small, often simple thatch structures on stilts, which I doubt are connected to running water or electricity. It is sad but not surprising that Cambodia has the highest infant and under-five mortality rates in the region.

Two of Phnom Penh’s most famous tourist attractions give some insight into the origins of this Nation’s poverty. Security Prison 21 operated as a high school until 17 April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh victorious in Civil War and emptied the City of people. S-21 then became a gaol where thousands of Cambodians, mainly from the middle and upper classes of society, were starved and tortured. The buildings at the site and the evidence of genocide they contain have been preserved as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Most haunting are the photographs of former prisoners that line the walls of former classrooms, telling us that many victims of the Khmer Rouge were only babies or young children.

The infamous ‘Killing Fields’ at Choeung Ek are roughly 15km from the centre of Phnom Penh. Over 20,000 people were killed here by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79, mostly prisoners from S-21. When we visited our guide explained that before the War this site was a private Chinese cemetery located on the City outskirts behind a rice field; a perfect place to kill and then bury the dead away from prying eyes. The guide also told us that the killing was done at night as music blared to muffle the victim’s screams.

As you wander across the Killing Field you cannot ignore the tattered remains of the victims’ clothing that is gradually being rejected from the earth, as if the land does not want to hold on to the Khmer Rouge’s dirty secrets. Treading on these shreds of cloth forces you to recognise the grisly reality of what happened here not so long ago.

In the 1980s a Stupa was erected to house the skulls and bones of some of the people murdered here. From some distance, seeing so many skulls lying together can make them seem less human, like a sanitised exhibit at a museum, or a photograph in a textbook. But visitors may come so close to these remains that they can see how each individual they belonged to was killed; themajority had their skulls smashed with heavy bamboo poles or rocks in order to conserve expensive bullets. The Stupa is a place to respectfully remember that each skull on display belonged to a person who had a family and friends that loved them. At such an intimate distance you can feel the victims’ collective horror, woe, and deep sense on injustice at at having lived and died as they did.

Tragically Choeung Ek is only one of over four hundred execution and mass grave sites that has been discovered across Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge were removed from power. It is believed that between 1.5 million and 2 million Cambodians died under this Regime. Wealthy and educated citizens were targeted as the Khmer Rouge sought to abolish the elite so that all Cambodians would be equal. Understanding that Cambodia lost an entire generation of professionals; doctors, teachers, government workers, and business leaders, helps the foreigner to comprehend Cambodia’s current poverty.

You do wonder how such a regime comes to and manages to sustain power, and how individuals can be capable of acting without humanity. Surely the heavy bombing that the USA subjected Cambodia to at the end of the Vietnam War, and the great inequality that persisted between rich and poor last Century which is still apparent today, had a lot to do with this twisted outcome.

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda offer visitors insight into a very different Cambodia. This official residence of the Cambodian Monarch was built late in the nineteenth century. These beautiful buildings demonstrate the lasting cultural influence of Indian Hinduism on Khmer architecture and traditions of faith. Here the large mythical bird-like creature Garuda supports the roofs, and representations of Naga the Serpent God of Agriculture are prominent. Elaborate murals decorate the inner walls of the silver pagoda complex depicting Hindu legends. The gardens are also beautiful and peaceful.

I wondered if it is right for the Cambodian Government to spend monies maintaining such impressive but unproductive structures when outside the Palace’s grand gates its poor citizens are struggling to survive? I figure at a cost of $USD 8 a pop, entry tickets sold to foreigners could fund the ongoing restoration and maintenance works carried out here. Perhaps such beautiful national buildings may also give the local people something to be collectively proud of and give hope that if Cambodia can build such amazing structures that attract tourists from all over the world, the Country has a bright future.

Dining in Phnom Penh

The FCC was our favourite bar in Phnom Penh. The building has a rich history and views over the River front from its second and third floor balconies are impressive. With draft beer sold for 50 cents and cocktails half price during daily happy hours (5pm – 7pm), the FCC is hard to beat as a venue for a pre-dinner drink.

The cosy Paris Bistro, also on the River front, was our favourite restaurant in Phnom Penh. While the large photographs of the Eiffel tour on the Restaurant’s walls were a little on the tacky side, the wooden furniture was comfortable and attractive. Soft lighting and French music gently played in the background give the Paris Bistro a romantic ambience. The service was outstanding and the salads here are very good, especially the Banana Leaf salad with just enough chilli to give it punch.

We also enjoyed eating at Friends restaurant which trains local street children in hospitality. The food and drinks served here were of a high quality. Although the prices are a little steep for the tightarse traveler, it is good to support the positive work carried out here. The NGO that manages the training restaurant also supports a beauty parlor next door.

We found that food served in cafes and restaurants was generally cheap and of a decent quality. Unlike in Vietnam it didn’t prove any cheaper to eat at local street set-ups in Phnom Penh where prices are inflated for foreigners (really on one occasion a waitress told us that she reviewed the prices on the menu everyday and made them up as we ordered!).


Where to stay in Phnom Penh is largely a question of riverside or lakeside.

Wanting to conserve travel funds we chose to stay lakeside at the Grandview Guesthouse on our first visit to Phnom Penh as the alleys bordering the Boeung Kak Lake are home to the City’s cheapest budget rooms. Our tiny $5 room on the hotel’s third floor was very basic featuring two large single beds, a ceiling fan, an ensuite with a cold water shower and views of the Lake. The restaurant and chillout space on the Grandview’s rooftop was this hotel’s redeeming feature. Being the tallest building in the area, views from the roof extend across the Lake to one side and over the crowded side streets and rooftops to the other. The Khmer food served in the restaurant was also cheap and tasty; we enjoyed curries and rice for $2USD, and great fresh lemon ice teas for 75 cents. The other small bars and restaurants located in the lake area were similarly cheap, making Lakeside a good option for the budget traveller. I think some travelers’ critical assessments of the Lakeside are unfair and inaccurate.

Sadly the Boeung Kak Lake is gradually being filled in to make way for new development. It may not be so pleasant to stay Lakeside when lake views are no longer involved and you wake each morning to the sound of jack hammers. Also we quickly realised that Phnom Penh is not a small city, and in the extreme heat and humidity of Phnom Penh late in the dry season, Lakeside is more than a walk away from the action closer to the action. Tuk tuks are cheap at roughly $1.00 from anywhere in the City to anywhere else, though a few trips back and forth from your Lakeside room to the main tourist attractions and popular bars and restaurants, all located Riverside, soon add up.

After visiting Siem Reap we spent one last night in Phnom Penh before traveling to Ho Chi Minh City. This time we stayed Riverside at the Mekong Palace Hotel, the second hotel we looked at after arriving in the City. We paid $15 for a medium-sized air-conditioned room, with an en suite, hot water shower, and cable TV. It seems that air-conditioning adds between $3 and $5 to the price of a room as energy is relatively expensive in Cambodia.

Was aircon worth the extra $5? It was nice to relax with a movie (Juno was playing) in a cool room, but I still believe it is always healthier to sleep under a fan. I woke with a sniffle after sleeping under the aircon all night.

Was it better staying Riverside? You are certainly closer to the main tourist attractions (National Museum, Silver Pagoda and S-21) here. We enjoyed walking along the slightly stinky River front, eating ice cream and watching the world pass by. Yet we discovered the Riverside with its beautiful people and five star restaurants has an ugly underbelly. Numerous bars and nightclubs clearly doubled as brothels. As we lunched at a pub in the afternoon we had the pleasure of watching two young local hookers make themselves up for the evening, and a policeman drop in to make a collection Soprano style. The Phnom Penh indi news bulletin that I was reading at the time reported the Government was cracking down on prostitution, closing down a number of red light karaoke joints like the one we were apparently sitting in in recent weeks. The journalist correctly predicted that those that could afford the bribes would stay in business. Riverside is no less a slum then Lakeside.

We’ve posted some photos from Phnom Penh here.

Getting here and away

Bus to PP from HCMC will cost you about $10 for a ‘VIP’ bus; ie one with aircon, a toilet on board, and free water and a snack included. Tickets should be cheaper on a local bus. Your inner-child will be happy to know that the journey includes riding on a ferry across the Mekong.

3 Responses to “Phnom Penh”

  1. Kim Flannery April 11, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    Hi Kristie,
    Sorry I missed your call. I was at the football on the Central Coast.
    Your photos are really good and your comments on Phnom Penh are moving. Makes us realise just how lucky we are and that all our whingeing is much ado about nothing.

    Love Mum

  2. Marilyn Woods April 16, 2010 at 1:51 am #

    HI Kristie,
    Your writing and photos are fantastic. I can’t wait to read more of your adventures.
    Keep well, love to ou both

  3. Reinaldo Bravo April 17, 2010 at 4:31 am #

    This post is very moving and at times confrontational. You are a very good writer Kristie. Thanks for keeping us informed of your travels. I’ve spent the last half hour reading every post and have enjoyed every moment. Your descriptions allow us to imagine being there. For instance, I’m now starving to eat Asian food! You guys are lucky, hope you enjoy the rest of your time in Asia. And don’t stop writing, I’m looking forward to every post from now on.

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