So you want to learn a little something about the city of contradictions, eh? Some Phnom Penh highlights? Well, as I write this I am sitting awkwardly in the back of a Moto Tuk-Tuk, my face half-covered in a surgical mask acting as a barrier against the dirt and grit from the uncovered back streets. Before my travels someone described Phnom Penh to me as ‘raw’; well I’m here to confirm that yes, indeed Phnom Penh is ‘raw’. And then some.
This weird and wacky and sometimes confronting city is raw, but raw in all the right ways. You can literally feel the old jagged Khmer Rouge edges softening into something more malleable…something like play-dough, even. Phnom Penh is the play-dough capital of South East Asia. Maybe not the best tourism slogan but it’s the most fitting, because after little more than a decade of peace following 40 years of war, this city is shaping into an urban explosion of… something. I don’t know what that something is yet (and I don’t think the locals or expats do either), but I’m excited to find out.
Like one of the many half-finished sculptures that dot the city, you don’t know what the final product will be but you just know it will be amazing. When you scour the local markets for 5c coconuts, or pay homage to the underground arts scene at bustling Meta House, or pour over the horrors of the recent Pol Pot regime with a local, or imbibe mouth-party inspiring deep-fried pork spring rolls from a street-vendor or endure the fierce rub of a Khmer-style massage, a strange mix of pleasure and pain – you just get a vibe. You can feel the sticky rawness of a city on the verge of experiencing a storm of urban explosion. I think local hip-hop artist Grant Massey sums it up the best:
“Welcome to the Penh my friend, big city in the kingdom of wonder, where all the streets are numbered and when it rains it thunders, them smiles stay infectious, chaps asleep in their cyclos or pushing a Lexus.”
Phnom Penh Highlights
The Killing Fields
The sight of 8000 human skulls in a glass shrine stunned me into silence. This is one of the most chilling places I have ever experienced. The genocide atrocities committed under the Khmer Rouge happened so recently it’s almost too close to home. It is an eerie and sobering thing when just about everyone alive in Cambodia today had friends of family members killed in the most heinous ways possible. Many guides tell harrowing personal stories of how they escaped execution, usually by fleeing to Thailand.
The plan was simple: wipe out all educated families from their roots and introduce communism into Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers killed 1.7 million Cambodians, or 21 percent of the population, according to Yale University’s Cambodia Genocide Program. The Killing Fields document these deaths. Guides explain that bullets were too expensive to use for executions. Axes, knives and bamboo sticks were far more common. As for children, their murderers simply held them upside down by their ankles and bashed them against trees.
A soccer-field-sized area surrounded by farmland, the killing fields of Cheung Ek (about 14.5km out of Phnom Penh are but one of thousands of other sites around Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide. They contain mass graves, slightly sunken, for perhaps 20,000 Cambodians, many of whom were tortured before being killed. The bordering trees held nooses for hangings. As though visiting the site and witnessing the skulls and mass graves of those who suffered horrific deaths wasn’t enough, but as the seasons change and the earth erodes, bone and cloth fragments continue to reveal themselves on the tourist tracks. I nearly stood on several. The Killing Fields are a dreadful reminder of what human beings are capable of. Thought-provoking and gut-wrenching. Not for the faint-hearted.
On a much more happier note, the Russian markets are busy and full of life. You can easily spend a couple of hours meandering around, bartering with the stall-owners to buy that piece of junk you don’t really need and will no doubt chuck-out when you get home.
There are many, many stalls selling watches and ray-bans that are quote/unquote “real in Cambodia”, as well as Western clothing from Cambodia’s garment factories (lots of Banana Republic, Old Navy, etc.), and Cambodian scarves (kramas) and other fun souvenirs.
The Royal Palace
Inside the Royal Palace there is this pagoda (known as the silver pagoda because it’s lined with around 5000 silver tiles) that houses a dizzying array of gold and silver Buddha’s, diamonds and crystals. There’s also a near life size Maitreya Buddha-woman encrusted with 9584 diamonds, including one 50 carat diamond, sitting proudly in the middle of the room. She will have you exercising mental acrobatics for days just trying to arrive at her total sum. Let me give you a ballpark: the entire room would probably be greater than the Cambodian economy. Get a personal guide at the entrance ($8US) otherwise it’ll just be a bunch of big beautiful buildings that don’t really mean much to you.
This beautifully restored and modernised French-colonial style hotel is easily one of Phnom Penh’s highlights. The US Embassy in a previous life, the building is located on street 240, a rather upscale and expat-friendly spot in Phnom Penh. It is truly a gem tucked-away from the bustle of the busy city and located south of popular attractions including Sisowath Quay, Psar Chaa Market, and the National Museum and north of the Russian Market and S-21/Tuol Sleng. The rooms are elegantly appointed and very generous in size, but the staff (and the most adorable hotel dog) are the real winners here. A textbook example of Cambodian hospitality, they are very helpful, warm and eager to please. They were saying “g’day mate” in no time.
Rate: $80US for a Double-Room
Room/Hotel Facilities: Pool, Spa, Restaurant, Comprehensive Breakfast Included, Good WiFi reception, all the mod cons you can expect from a 4-star boutique hotel.
Foreign Correspondence Club Phnom Penh
As one of South-East Asia’s most legendary watering holes, the cream walls of the Foreign Correspondents Club speak volumes, its folklore embedded in bricks and mortar. Its history is palpable, the ghosts of war correspondents past lingering in the shadows, whispering of turmoil, coups and dictators, of breaking stories and deadlines. It is one of the very few clubs of this ilk that let non-members within their walls. With great views over the Mekong River it’s a must when you’re in the capital.
Just outside of the Russian Markets is a clump of shops and this little hole in the wall café. Not only does it serve one of the best Papaya Salads in the city, all of the girls that work here are survivors of abuse. After they have been through rehabilitation programs, Yejj Café helps to recruit them in order to give them an income. So by eating here you’ll be stimulating your taste-buds and your social-conscience.