Five Days in Phnom Penh

Looking back on my time in Phnom Penh, I have very mixed feelings about the city. I think this reflects the experiences I had there.

After a comfortable and hassle-free six hour journey from Saigon (as advertised), we arrived in Phnom Penh. We hopped off the bus before its final stop because our guest house looked close on the map.

Walking down Norodom boulevard with the Independence monument behind us, we were initially impressed. The roads were clear the pavements wide and the area was generally clean.

Turning towards the river front, the next set of streets were a different story. Rubbish was piled high every few steps which resulted in an unholy smell and the area was generally dirty and run down. After reading that the river front had undergone renovation this came as a shock.

Our guesthouse was clean and functional but we felt it was overpriced. Vietnam had spoiled us! We decided to reserve judgment on this city until we had seen it in daylight and more detail.

Our first day in Phnom Penh we gathered up our laundry and headed off for breakfast. A helpful man sitting in reception told us that laundry could be done for $1.50 a kilo. After being told at several places laundry was $2 a kilo, we gave up and went to sit by the river to eat.

Satisfactorily fed and watered, our next task was to find a sim card. Some more helpful information pointed us in the direction of the Independence monument yet again. We set off at a brisk pace, keen to get on with some sight seeing.

Twenty minutes later in the 40 degree heat we were feeling delirious and like a mirage in the desert, an ice cream parlour appeared at the side of the road. A sign also claimed that it was 2-4-1 Friday. Feeling the cold blast of AC as we stepped through the glass doors confirmed we weren’t dreaming.

An hour later and slightly jittery from overly sweet ice-cream sundaes, we had purchased a sim card and could get to know Phnom Penh. All of this had been achieved while still carrying 3 kilos of dirty washing.

Day two was more enjoyable. After checking in to a nearby hotel (breakfast included, laundry done on-site) we walked along the river front towards Wat Phnom. At the southern end of the promenade, the Tonle Sap river meets the Mekong. There the confluence is so wide it is like looking at the sea. During our stay in Phnom Penh, Hugh and I spent hours by the river watching the boats bobbing about and the locals wading in to cast their fishing nets.

Reaching Wat Phnom was like finding the eye of the storm. At the top of the hill stood a brilliantly white stupa. The curving lines of the stupa and prayer flags gently flapping in the breeze created an air of calm. Choosing a bench under a tree, we sat and watched the world go by, appreciating the quiet of the temple grounds

On our walk about the city we happened across a mall. In need of some AC and a cold drink, we went in to investigate. In the middle of a capital city on a Saturday afternoon, the mall was empty.

On each level there were benches and on these benches, in groups, sat the shop workers. They were chatting, eating, texting and embroidering. It was a surreal experience and I suggested we move on.

Our tour of the city then took us to some eclectic little side streets filled with welcoming looking eateries. In one such place, we had the pleasure of watching a thunderstorm. They are occurring regularly now but sitting by an open door listening to the rain and watching the lightning draw patterns on the sky is relaxing.

Three days in, Hugh and I felt it was time to visit the genocide museums. First up was Tuol Sleng detention centre. This building was a school used by the Khmer Rouge to detain and torture people they thought were acting against their regime.

Former classrooms had been turned into cells or interrogation rooms and seemingly innocent objects had been turned into items of torture.  Other rooms contained make-shift cells, hastily constructed out of bricks or wooden planks.

In every room there was evidence of incarceration. Rows of numbers on walls to demarcate prisoners, marks on the floor showing where partitions had once stood and metal hoops cemented to the tiles that once held chains or shackles. Rusted, barbed wire mesh covered the open terraces; designed to stop prisoners jumping to their deaths.

An upstairs row of classrooms contained statements written under duress by prisoners and finally there were statements documenting what had happened in Tuol Sleng by the few people that had survived.

One block of classrooms contained seemingly endless boards of black and white photographs. Every person that passed through here was documented. They would all eventually be taken to the killing fields.

Further exploration of the city took us along the riverfront to the royal palace and then out to the killing fields. After several days of focusing on the country’s dark history coupled with our disappointment in Phnom Penh, we decided it was time to move on and discover what else Cambodia had to offer.