Phnom Penh-ning the perfect blog entry

Trip Start Dec 28, 2006
Trip End Jul 27, 2007

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Friday, March 16, 2007

After another "Air conditioned" bus ride, Anita and John make it to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.  While Siem Reap was filled with perhaps the most spectacular achievements of architecture and art combined on the planet... Phnom Penh is home to some of man's darkest history.  While the country is recovering amazingly well... it is still a bit of a rough town, and Anita's and John's nerves are a little on edge.

After visiting Siem Reap, and seeing some of the pinnacles of man's achievements... it was crazy to next go to Phnom Penh... site of some of our darkest hours.  As a city, Phnom Penh is insane!  Tonnes of traffic and people... scooters on the sidewalks and going both ways in one lane of traffic... vendors everywhere... noise... etc.  There is also a bit of a dark feeling to the place, especially at night, where you don't feel quite as safe as in other cities we have visited.  However, it feels like a place that is rapidly breaking out of the hole that the Khmer Rouge dug for the country.

The two main attractions we saw were: the Tuol Sleung Museum, which was the security prison where thousands of people were detained and tortured; and the Killing Fields of Cheong Ek, where the detainees were taken to be executed.  Both of these sites were quite disturbing... but mainly because they are peaceful now.  You kind of subconsciously think that there will be screaming or wailing there, as they are places of such pain... but the silence, or birds singing, or traffic noises you hear were incongruous to me.  Tuol Sleung housed hundreds of pictures of the people who passed through, included a large number of shots of children.  As with other such exterminations, the Khmer Rouge believed that they needed to eliminate the children of dissidents as they may come back later to challenge their authority.  The rest of the place was essentially empty, with the exception of a few bed frames that still remained, as well as pictures of people who had died in their.  The way the Khmer Rouge documented everything was very bizarre.  The killing fields were similar in their feel.  Almost anticlimactic as I felt the terror was diluted by the day to day noises you hear... but the giant Stupa filled with skulls, and the grave sites... some of which were untouched... gave one a brief glimpse as to the magnitude of the tragedy.  One of the most disturbing sites are pieces of clothing and even bone that stick out of the ground in the pathways at different intervals.  There seems to be no space there that was not filled with the body of someone who had been cruelly executed.  Both sites were deeply disturbing.

Other than that, we found ourselves missing home a bit... so we spent a bunch of time one day watching movies in our hotel room (and escaping the heat).  We managed to find some time to get our Vietnam visas, and also get some shopping in for Anita.

All in all I really quite liked Phnom Penh.  Its chaos was infectious... and even though we were a little uneasy in the dark... the Khmers we saw were all friendly and were filled with smiles.


As John mentions above, Cambodia was an interesting experience. Siem Reap was the town of beautiful & unbelievable history and temples...and Phnom Penh a city overcoming sadness and a different recent history.

I didn't feel safe here at night, maybe because the streets were not all well lit, and we were a little far away from the restaurants or other places we visited...on the other hand we were in the heart of the local busy streets with their craziness in the daytime, so that was nice at least. Another reason I didn't feel safe could be that I just wasn't feeling my best...we weren't exactly jumping for joy as we spent some of the days immersed in learning about the sad and recent history.
Compared to India (in our experience):
-definitely as loud, busy, and dirty minus bathroom run-off
-more beggars on the street than in India
-motorbike riding on sidewalk unlike India
-auto-rickshaws actually smile and take no for an answer, at least in our experience, or maybe we've become experts at handling it?
Other random stuff...
-saw interesting names of bars/ "Nike", "Sony"
-Cambodia seems very flat compared to Laos which seemed very hilly
-overall Cambodian's can be quite smiley once you get over them being a little more aggressive
-a young boy who was selling newspapers on the street approached us when we were at a restaurant patio and obviously lost his focus when he leaned on John's forearm, noticed the big amount of arm hair (especially to an Cambodian), and started caressing it for at least 10-15 seconds. Meanwhile you could still hear that he was repeating his selling pitch, now barely audible, and sounded all mixed up...tee hee!
-they sell all types of fake clothes in their markets, very well done I might add
-the international/tourist restaurants were really sophisticated and advanced here. We actually had wonderful food that did truly seem internationally inspired, some of them all for charity's sake. We suspect these restaurants started to develop during the recent war, with lots of journalists and photographers visiting. In this city, the FCC (Foreign Correspondence Club) was open to the general public, so that was interesting to go to and have dinner. I believe most FCC's in other cities are not open to all.

We visited the old prison (originally a school for kids), and the Killing Fields. We had definitely entered a different world.
We were approached by beggars and amputees near the entrance more so than other places here...though we are trying not to give in and encourage begging, it was tough when one man looked like his entire one side had been burned and I don't know how his eye was piercing through and looking at me when he was asking for money. We didn't know if all of these guys had been through the war, or had issues from other events. (As a side note, we had heard that in Thailand, parents purposely maimed their kids when they were very young to encourage pity from others and become full-time horrible.)

I decided to learn a little more about the history here and bought a book called "First They Killed My Father" (as all of them here, it seems, this was a photocopy, but we purchased it from the Killing Fields so we feel a little better)...though it was sad, it was nice to be reading it after being in Phnom Penh (which ch.1 describes fully, and exactly the way we saw it), then proceeds to talk about this little girls' account of the war and genocide that happened in 1975-79 to Cambodians by their own people. John later read it as well. We have also just read the book "The Killing Fields"....again so horrific but we are in love Dith Pran, the survivor in this story, and want to see the movie. I think we both want to read a little more about this topic, and encourage anyone to read about this.

As we've seen in Thailand and Lao, the Cambodians also sell women's facial products (lotions, cleansers) for whitening or lightening ONLY it seems. And, one girl at the pharmacy told me they favoured leg and arm hair, and sadly showed me how little she had. I proceeded to sadly boast (boast?) about my arm hair. So am I living in the wrong country or what?

I saw too many big "R's" on the street after sun-down, so I was sad that the sun set semi-early (compared to our summers back home). Thank goodness we had no issues in the room, except lots and lots of ants, which we asked to be sprayed away the first night...should have changed rooms but instead inhaled the fumes.

Overall, I realized how much more there is to learn about this least for me.
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