Let Down in Phnom Penh

After failing to sleep on a six-hour long bus ride from Sihanoukville during which the driver mercilessly blared Khmer pop music at top-volume, I was thrilled to reach Phnom Penh.

And after being charmed by Siem Reap, I was expecting to adore Cambodia’s capital city.

But I didn’t care for Phnom Penh. To be honest, I don’t really see how anyone could.

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I found it a filthy, scattered city lacking memorable architecture as well as a discernible center. Phnom Penh struck me merely as an unending sprawl of squalor.

But regardless of how I felt about the city, Phnom Penh was a huge highlight of the trip when everything just fell into place, due in no small part to finally turning a corner in Koh Rong.

Here are a few of the things I did in Phnom Penh, some of which impressed me and others not so much.

 

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S-21

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In a tuktuk driving on Phnom Penh’s dusty roads, heading to both S-21 and the Killing Fields.

S-21, also known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is a former high school turned torture center used by the Khmer Rouge from 1971 – 1975. One of many execution centers in Cambodia, more than 15,000 Cambodians were detained, tortured and killed at S-21.

As I walked the hallways I peered into the classrooms cum prison cells and tried to imagine detainment in such dark, crudely made wooden cells, eating only rice gruel for months. As usual, my imagination failed me- I have never experienced anything remotely similar to that level of suffering.

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At left, one of the hallways leading to the prison cells, at right, basins in which victims were tortured by being dunked into water repeatedly. IMG_0143

A haunting display of Tuol Sleng’s prisoners.

The Killing Fields

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The Killing Fields, or Choeung Ek, were used as a burial site and execution spot for thousands of the Khmer Rouge’s victims. They are now a memorial and education center.

Pol Pot, Cambodia’s deluded socialist dictator, envisioned a radically agrarian state in which the majority of the population worked as field-laborers. I975 the Khmer Rouge imprisoned all educated Cambodians. Some were imprisoned just for wearing glasses.

During the Khmer Rouge regime bullets were a precious commodity so prisoners were murdered by being bludgeoned to death, often with farm tools. The atrocities committed at the Killing Fields were truly nightmarish.

It’s hard to put some of the things I saw at the Killing Fields into print: Teeth, bones and bits of clothing poking up from the earth, a tower filled with human skulls, a tree against which executioners bludgeoned babies, a shallow mass grave filled with dead women and children.

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Before visiting S-21 or the Killing Fields, I would highly recommend reading First They Killed My Father, a chilling, beautifully written memoir of a young girl forced to become a child soldier during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Central Market

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On a much lighter note, I also enjoyed some bargain shopping at Central Market. I finally purchased a pair of Ray-Bons (ha) as I hate taking my real ones to the beach. I also snagged a SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT t-shirt that I promise only to sleep in.

My favorite part about the market was actually the building that houses it, an airy, Art-Deco building designed by French architect Louis Chauchon.

Foreign Correspondents Club

To be honest I haven’t figured out why the Foreign Correspondents Club is quite so famous. Aside from the glamorous name, it’s just an over-priced bar.

Side-rant – The FCC is touted as the best place to see the sunset in Phnom Penh but the building faces east (!!!) so you can’t even see the sunset. Quoi?

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But the views over the river and Sisowath Quay are photo-friendly, so come if you can stomach mediocre food and an over-priced menu. IMG_0180

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And feel free to class the place up with a rooftop arm-wrestling contest like we did.

Lack of French Influence

One thing I never managed to find in Cambodia was a significant French influence. Alas, the two examples below are the only remnants of Indochine I discovered in Phnom Penh. IMG_9176

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Lackluster Nightlife

The nightlife in Phnom Penh doesn’t measure up to the nightlife in other Southeast Asia capitals. Though we managed to have a few really great nights out, the clubs in Phnom Penh (such as the cheesy Heart of Darkness club) were kind of lame.

And if you decide to party in Phnom Penh, be aware that many children will hassle you to buy things- and as always, don’t buy anything from them as it just perpetuates the cycle of abuse.

And make sure to never take a tuk-tuk or motor-taxi by yourself- as Adventurous Kate’s post explains, Cambodia has become a lot more dangerous in recent years.

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One street vendor walked around with a scale and charged partiers to weight themselves on it. I have to admit- I went for it!

Despite not really caring for the city, I had a great time in Phnom Penh. Whether I was savoring beef loklak at a local restaurant or sipping Angkor poolside at the wonderful Eighty8 hostel, I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh. And as always in Cambodia, we had a lot of fun partying – from waking up to Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat to taking a few too many tequila shots.

And to be fair, I didn’t end up visiting a lot of the attractions I wanted to see. The downside of traveling in a group of eight people is that it’s hard to get things done; sadly I never munched on popcorn and watched retro movies at The Flicks Community Movie House or donned a Khmer head-dress at a Cambodian photo shoot.

Also all my friends ate fried tarantula and I opted not to do it. Stupid me.

Have you ever been to Phnom Penh? Did you like it more than I did?

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Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is an American travel blogger and freelance writer who moved to Paris at 21 and has been traveling the world ever since. She's usually in pursuit of yoga, languages and perfectly ripe cheese and her writing has been featured in National Geographic, Viator and Jetstar Australia.
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29 Comments

  1. I really liked Phnom Penh, but yes, I do remember stepping off that bus (just in the middle of nowhere, there seemed to be no such thing as a bus station!) and straight away, a rat ran over my foot. Not exactly the best start! I loved the market and the views of town, and the fact that everyone hung out near the Royal Palace at sunset – I love cities that actually use their parks properly. As for the FCC – I was a complete sucker. It was probably a tourist trap but I loved pretending I was some diplomat in a foreign country!
    Caitlyn recently posted..The sophistication of SofiaMy Profile

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    • Ah, I would’ve died! I hate rats. And I have to admit- even though it was over-priced I also liked pretending to be Graham Greene or a foreign correspondent… it was easy to pretend there!

  2. I holidayed in Cambodia when I lived in Saigon so I had to go through Phnom Penh twice. The first couple of days we did the main sightseeing things (and I second your suggestion of reading ‘First They Killed My Father’ beforehand) but after that we were at a bit of a loss on what to do. Ordinarily I’d call eating a perfectly good past-time but we weren’t impressed with the food.

    For anyone planning to go to Cambodia, I’d still recommend a visit to Phnom Penh if only for the genocide museum.
    Ruth Elisabeth recently posted..An unusual use for google translate: as a spellcheckerMy Profile

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    • I have to agree- I wasn’t impressed with Khmer food over all (now Vietnamese food on the other hand, WOW). And I also agree with that- do visit to see S-21 and the Killing Fields!

  3. I was in PP twice while in Cambodia because one of my best friends at the time was living there. We had a fabulous time, but it was all do to the great company, a very spacious and comfortable apartment and someone to show us around! The foreign restaurants in PP are actually REALLY good. Mexican, dim sum and a classy salad bar restaurant were all separate fantastic (but pricey for SE Asia) meals. I should have sent over those recommendations to you!!

    She is still living there now and really wants to leave, but her boyfriend has a good job and a contract to finish. Even with those restaurants I don’t think I could live there either :/
    Jessica Wray recently posted..Finally Being Honest: The Story of How I Really Feel About KoreaMy Profile

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    • Ugh, I totally would have liked it if I knew there was good Mexican! (Actually there’s an amazing Mexican restaurant here in Ubud… random, right? It’s where we went for Thanksgiving dinner, ha.) And to be honest I don’t think I could live in PP either :(

  4. At least you took some of your time to learn about a places history. That’s more the a lot can say.

    Sharing a place with the right people can make all the difference. I imagine this post would be much different if you were there solo.
    Shaun recently posted..MIG-29 Flight Part 2 – ManoeuvresMy Profile

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    • That’s true- and maybe if I actually had done the things I planned on doing I would’ve liked it more as well!

  5. wow you are traveling with 8 people! that takes a lot of patience. i like when posts like this one give me a history lesson. such a tragedy :(

    the same same but different is huge in india too. my bf has long wavy dark hair and i have long wavy blonde hair. a tout once pointed at our hair and yelled ‘same same but different’ . my bf got a haircut the next day.
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..Where to Stay in BangkokMy Profile

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    • Hahah that’s a great example of “Same Same But Different.” And I’m glad you enjoyed the history lesson, sometimes I worry that no one wants to read about the historical aspect!

  6. i have never been to Phnom Penh, however my stepmom has visited several times and did not find it all that appealing. though i am a bit history obsessed, so the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum peaked my interest a bit. it may be worth a short trip!

    happy holidays :)
    Blakeley AeroSea recently posted..falling for parisMy Profile

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    • If you’re a history lover then definitely visit Phnom Penh- S-21 and the Killing Fields were really interesting and moving!

  7. I’m sure Phnom Penh is not for the faint of heart! Another blogger who I follow did come across some great examples of “Indochine” while in PP so that was interesting to read that your experience was different.

    You certainly should be commended for traveling with 8 people! I have hard enough time with 1 :)
    Julie recently posted..(Mini) Restaurant Review: JW Marriott Ihilani’s Ushio-Tei (Oahu, Hawaii)My Profile

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    • I was really hoping to see some traces of Indochine while in Cambodia but I found a much stronger French influence in Vietnam! And yes, traveling with 8 is not for the faint of heart :)

  8. You’re traveling with EIGHT people!? Holy smokes. You’ve got guts girl. I can barely handle traveling with myself sometimes :)

    I giggled at the entrepreneur with the scale…and then realized, hey, how often do you get to get on a scale when you’re traveling for a long time? I would be scared to get on one now…but I’d definitely have done it too!
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..10 Ways That I Know You’re a Tourist and Not an ExpatMy Profile

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    • That’s so true, when you’re traveling long-term you rarely see a scale so it’s nice to double-check that you haven’t gained 15 pounds! Plus, it was only 25 cents :)

  9. Just glad you didn’t spend, much time there.
    Love, Gamma

    Reply
    • Don’t worry, I stayed safe there :). Love, Ashley

  10. I felt the same way about PP. I really enjoyed (in the strangest sense of the word) visiting the S-21 museum and The Killing Fields but the rest of the city left me rather unimpressed.

    I was hoping to do the Khmer photo shoot too but just didn’t have enough time.
    Amanda @ Farsickness recently posted..Escaping the City in CornwallMy Profile

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    • Ugh, me neither! The Khmer photo shoot would’ve been epic :(

  11. old-timey pics of criminals scare the crap out of me

    Reply
  12. Awww, this makes me sad. I took a group of 20 college students to PP and we loved it. Funny, while I enjoyed the temples, I found Siem Reap overly touristy for my taste (though I did love the night market!).
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Diving in Key LargoMy Profile

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    • Ah I forgot to mention the night market! I loved it as well :)

  13. I lived in PP for about 7 months after graduating undergrad, and while I can relate to the initial shock you felt…the city has an amazing way of growing on you if you give it a chance.

    Also to be fair, you really have to take into consideration that Cambodia is the most impoverished country in the region and is just now coming out of 60+ years of civil unrest. So unfortunately you can’t really go into it expecting it to be Bangkok. Also Siem Reap has been so over-developed in the past 5-10 years by Chinese companies, it’s hard to really call it a Cambodian city anymore…
    Cailee Louise recently posted..Hearts without BoundariesMy Profile

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    • That’s so true- I heard about what happened with the lake a few years back, that’s so horrible :(. It’s sad that Cambodian culture is being lost from greedy land developers…

  14. Phnom Penh wasn’t my favourite part of Cambodia but when you look a little closer there are some great quirks to the city and a very important history. I found little curiosities like the sidewalk barbershop outside my guesthouse and the young Cambodian bartenders that taught us a new game enough to remember the city fondly. It’s also the only place I had a stranger ask to weigh me for money!

    Read about my motorbike travels through SE Asia and specifically Phnom Penh! http://jessjohn.ca/travelblog/cambodia/phnompenh

    Reply
    • That’s great you had a good experience there! And we had a stranger ask to weigh us too, so weird!

  15. I’m leaving for PP in two weeks. Have a couple of friends who live there and plan on spending a couple of weeks there. If you were to go back, would you have done anything differently to better the experience?
    Jimmy Dau recently posted..My Travel Photography GearMy Profile

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    • I would’ve done the Khmer royal photo shoot, gone to the Flicks and tried tarantula. To each their own! :)

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