taken from the riverfront in phnom penh
Looking at the Royal Palace Park from the riverfront, Phnom Penh, 2016.

Whenever I asked my colleagues or students what they thought of Phnom Penh, most replied, “I don’t like it.” But I knew I had to go to Cambodia’s capital to get my passport renewed, so I decided, why not make a little holiday of it, and judge for myself.

Phnom Penh, once known as the Pearl of Asia, is a large, dirty, fire-breathing beast  with a ripe body odor problem. It’s noisy with honking horns, under construction and overwhelming with traffic moving in all directions. It’s a proper city known for its dark history, poverty and crime.

When we first started to research moving to Cambodia I found the stories frightening – lots of bag snatching, scams and such. Then, the b/f decided to do some comparisons on places we know like in Thailand and we found the same scary stories. It’s not as if they aren’t true, it’s just these kinds of things get spotlighted, and expat forums…yeah, let’s not get started on those.

In any case, we decided to be as situationally-aware as we could and should be, and really, that’s the best we could do without making ourselves crazy. Overall, I felt fine. We did notice that the tuk tuks in PP have a bit of a cage setup to prevent motos from snatching your belongings while innocent passengers sit in the carriage.

A moto, a cyclo and a tuk tuk are crossing the street…stop me if you’ve heard this one.

When we were at the riverfront, a tuk tuk driver cautioned me against wearing my gold necklace. I touched it, suddenly self-conscious and wondered why this man was making me feel vulnerable (because it didn’t feel like friendly advice). He also told us that the nearby temple was closed and asked us where we wanted to go (a popular scam). My b/f pointed out that people were going in the temple. I thanked the driver and we went to the temple anyway.

All roads lead to the buffalo [at Wat Ounalom]
All roads lead to the buffalo [at Wat Ounalom].
It’s a city riddled with poverty though, and while I’ve seen poverty before, in PP, it’s much more present. People walk up to you and ask for handouts. Young (homeless?) children are unsupervised on street corners. Not like Bangkok where the slums are relegated to an area like near the train tracks and beggars are amidst blinking lights, middle class shoppers and luxury cars, Phnom Penh is truly developing, and it’s crushing to see too many trying to keep up.

Unfortunately, like many SE Asian cities, Phnom Penh has that rotting sewage smell and a great disregard for the environment.

There are pockets of hope, trees and opulence though. Unlike Bangkok, Phnom Penh has retained some of its green spaces. (Bangkok, actually, has the least amount of parks and trees of any city its size.) Near the US Embassy and Wat Phnom, it was shady, clean and cared for. Of course, there were other areas like the waterfront, and at the city center, but peeking down random streets I could still see tall old trees providing relief and beauty.

My eyes were hungry all the time in this fascinating city. I tried to look around rather than experience Asia’s gem solely through my camera phone. I think I succeeded, I hope I did. And so with a kiss of paranoia, we saw the sights of PP.

The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace complex is a lot like Bangkok’s and the latter is grander. It was the high heat of the day when we were there. #misery

We arrived in PP in the afternoon, so after grabbing some lunch and checking in at our hotel (we stayed at the Monsoon Boutique – great location by the river and surrounded by ‘hostess’ bars #bonus), we went to the Royal Palace where we promptly burst into flames.

Then we went to Aeon Mall for some serious air conditioning. We had to, really. Apparently, as soon as I entered the cool humidity-free building, I said, “Ahhh, finally, civilization.” My b/f laughed and when I asked him what was so funny, he repeated what I said. He thought it was amusing considering we just came from the Royal Palace. Hmmm.

I like photographing hanging laundry. I don’t know why. The boy in the shot was by chance.

The next day we got up early to go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Security Prison 21 or S-21) and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. To be honest, I debated going because I’m quite sensitive. I get misty-eyed over anything from cartoons to cheesy movies. But it felt like my duty to go, so we went.

The museum is essentially a high school where the Khmer Rouge took people to be interrogated and tortured, before being killed at Choeung Ek. It was quite horrific to be in that space. People who don’t believe places have energy clearly have not been anywhere – or here.

After a prisoner committed suicide from the 3rd story, the Khmer Rouge covered the building in wire to prevent others from ending their suffering.
After a prisoner committed suicide from the 3rd story, the Khmer Rouge covered the building in wire to prevent others from ending their suffering.

We did the guided audio tour and I strongly recommend that you do the same. I skipped some of the more difficult rooms and audios. It was just too much. I think we were there for 3 hours. I had to take breaks outside, fight back tears and at one point, I felt physically sick. I reminded myself that being sensitive is a good thing.

I’m glad we did it though. At the end of tour, two of the surviors were there answering questions. A reminder that this nightmare took place not too long ago.

Messages from visitors of S-21 on a barred window.
Messages from visitors of S-21 on a barred window.

Next stop, the Killing Fields!

The road to Choeung Ek was under construction, stinky and very unpleasant.
The roads to Choeung Ek were under construction, stinky and very unpleasant. Our driver gave us masks to wear.


I really hope those are not dogs.

After S-21, Choeung Ek was easier on the heart and mind. I realize how odd that must sound, but this Killing Field was more of a resting place, nature was abundant, there is a memorial and the graves have either been excavated or left untouched. It had a very different energy that the prison.

Bracelets left by visitors at one of the mass grave sites.
Bracelets left by visitors at one of the mass grave sites.

Despite there being restaurants nearby, we decided to head back into town and eat there. It reminded me of when my brother went to Auschwitz in Poland for Thanksgiving (that’s my brother!) and how he said people were eating, eating for fuck’s sake, at the camp while on the tour. Can you imagine? Anyway, despite being very hungry, we held off to get away from the area.

If you follow me on Instagram you might have noticed that I hashtagged, please dress appropriately on my Killing Fields photo. By now, I’ve gotten used to seeing tourists scantily dressed at temples, but I couldn’t believe the amount of ass I saw hanging out of a young woman’s shorts at Choeung Ek.

The selfie was also weird to witness. I mean, a selfie? Here?

I guess I’m just too old and too much of a prude. If’I’m like this now, I can only imagine what I’ll be like when I’m 50+…hopefully, I won’t be one of those old birds that has a permanent frown on her face.

For the rest of the day, we took it easy (had to), walking along the riverfront and getting a massage. I think we also took a massive nap that day. We might have napped everyday, I don’t remember. Traveling + sightseeing + the blistering heat takes it out of you, ya know?

The next morning, we went shopping. We hit the Central Market and the Russian Market.


Central Market is an Art Deco building that is uniquely cool and well-ventilated.

But having lived in SE Asia for like, forever, it wasn’t really anything exciting (except the building was quite nice). So we went to the Russian Market and I must say, it was much more interesting, despite offering similar objects that I’ve seen in Siem Reap.

At the Russian Market, which has nothing to do with Russians and everything to do with the nationality that used to live there.

Of course, being me, I didn’t buy anything, but a world map which is something I’ve been wanting for a time now.

After the markets, we made a mad stressful dash back to the hotel for my passport application and after getting that taken care of, we wandered into the Vattanac Capital Tower which I had dubbed the “toenail clipper” because it of its odd shape. Plus, it’s ugly. I’ll have to take a picture of it next time.

There we serendipitously ran into one of my coworkers (What are the chances? Have I mentioned how big this city is?), lunched together then headed off to Wat Phnom for our last bit of touristic sightseeing.


You probably can't tell, but we are melting [at Wat Phnom].
You probably can’t tell, but we are melting [at Wat Phnom].
Out exploring and getting lost…and hotter.

So, did I like PP? Actually, I did. It’s an interesting city. If you have money, you can stay away from the unsavory bits. Supposedly, it has a crazy night life, too. It has everything, like a city and it has a story to tell. But I only was there for 3 days and when I return in two weeks, I imagine I’ll gain another impression and if and when I go back, another.


Looking at the National Museum, something for next time…

Have you been to Phnom Penh? What do you think of big cities?

47 replies on “A quick visit to Phnom Penh

  1. I don’t really care for Eckhart Tolle — all his spirituality chatter bothers my wonky self — but he mention something called “the pain body.” About how some place retain suffering and a person can feel it. Like Security Prison 21. I’ve felt it in some places. I always wonder how much of it is our projected empathy and how much could be tangible suffering.

    The food and selfies of others make me think it must be in our heads.

    Not that it matters. It was certainly all-too real, once, and should never be forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot (if not all) of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings are not unique to him, they come from spiritual teachings and teachers of India. But I understand what you are saying, are we projecting, imagining the darkness?

      But I really don’t think so. S-21 was truly horrible. One of my colleagues lived near there and said he had to move because of the way he felt – and he didn’t seem like the spiritual/hippie type, if you know what I mean.

      Yeah, respect and how we show it is totally cultural. It seems like there should be and are universal ways of expressing it, but after living in Asia, I don’t think so.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good artists borrow, great artists steal, and Tolle merely appropriates.

        We need an experiment. Blindfold people, take them to Auschwitz, and see if they get the shivers or throw up.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, I think it would work…

        p.s. Has anyone ever accused you of being too smart for your own good? 😉


  2. Oh my god Lani you’re so brave going to S-21 and the killing fields! Like you I’m very sensitive, but I probably would have gone as well (like you said, it’s a must). I do agree with energies, both good and bad. There are times I can feel energy from.. spirits? memories? from both strong human presence and history.

    Speaking of ass hanging out and selfies… yes, I must be a prude too because that’s just RIDICULOUS! I remember when I went to Hiroshima I saw tons of Japanese girls taking photos in front of the A-bomb dome and making the peace sign (typical camera pose for young Japanese). I was aghast. I mean… wha… ugh! Decency, people!

    PP looks like quite a monster of a city. It looks like the hardcore, down and dirty SE Asia few foreigners could probably deal with (I thought Bangkok was a walk in the park.. PP sounds much more rough! But thank god for the trees).

    Reading this also made me remember that my father was actually in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign. I’ll have to ask him if he has any stories… and blog about it, of course.

    Super, super great post Lani. So entertaining! But yes, I think I’ll do Siem Reap first 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mary!

      Yes, I remember hearing another story of teens and selfies and it just seems like they are disconnected from history and what it means. I don’t think they grow up with rules regarding these kinds of things? You know? I don’t think parenting these days covers this, or schooling? Cell phone ettitiqute is now something though.

      It is a monster of a city. You could say that about BKK, but BKK, well, I know it, and don’t find it intimidating. It’s also developed – let’s just say it, Thailand is a developed country. If anyone is talking about roughing it in Thailand, they live in a village or the post is old.

      Please do ask your father, I’d been to keen to hear it. I’m already floored by meeting and working with folks who were able to flee the country before the horrors reached them.


      1. I also wanted to let you know that I was up later than usual for about 1.5 hours reading about Killing Fields, the Khmer Regime and Pol Pot….thanks to this post! I was really disgusted that the United Nations recognized him as a leader for so long (actually, extremely disgusted. what were they thinking!?). I know that everyone deserves a fair trial, but jesus…

        I know, I think kids nowadays are all about getting likes and shares rather than appreciating the true value of what’s in front of them. It’s going to be a really different generation, I can already feel it…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, I was horrified to find out how the US (along with other Western countries) allowed him to go scot-free and really, played a part in the atrocities. I – don’t – understand.

        “all about getting likes and shares” – yeahhhhh, not exactly building blocks for moral and upright citizens, but hey, what do I know?


  3. Sounds fascinating, as cities with bad reputations (like Johannesburg) often are 🙂

    I actually need to google the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields. Other than knowing it was a horrible genocide, I’m not totally clear on what happened there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Killing Fields is actually a very good film if you are up for it. But a quick google search will do. I didn’t want to include it here, but I’m glad to hear that you are willing to research it some more.

      Ah, yes, Johannesburg has a bad reputation for crime as well. But after making S. Af. friends and getting to know you and your blog, I’m hooked. I’d love to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It sounds like you saw quite a bit of PP, the old and new, the good and the ugly. “we went to the Royal Palace where we promptly burst into flames.” That is a very extreme way of describing the fact that the two of you were literally melting. That is a great selfie of the two of you. No red faces!

    Killing Fields sounds and looks like a hauntingly peaceful place. It must be a place where people visit to discover the dark times of history, and if you did shed a tear, if I went I think I’d too.

    It is sad to hear that life in PP isn’t as cushy as other parts of the world. Wearing masks on the way to a destination does say something. I suppose if you lived there long enough, you just put up with it but I don’t think it’s that good for your health.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The mornings were cool, but man, did it heat up quick. It’s actually hotter in Siem Reap, but I’m not usually sightseeing where I live 😛

      Wearing a mask is part of the way of life out here. I hate it, too. It’s already hot and you have to wear something on your face! But it makes sense to protect your health. I hope Asia cleans up its act. It is really discouraging some days.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been to PP! I didn’t feel it was very big, but well, I didn’t go everywhere! I did go to the royal palace, the national museum and s-21 (didn’t have time to go to the killing fields). I agree with you on s-21. That place gave me goosebumps.

    Did you read “First they killed my father”?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Compared to China, I’m sure PP felt like a village! 😛

      But seriously, I haven’t read that book yet. Everyone is telling me I should read it before Angelina Jolie makes it a movie.


  6. I think Phnom Penh like many Asian places can look like a dump in certain places that are either deteriorating or not well maintained or neglected.
    I’m not keen to go back there due to many reasons. One of the reason being is that the place can be very harsh to us foreigners who may have to travel with a small budget. Anyway, it was interesting reading about your short visit to Phnom Penh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think visiting new places depends so much on the time you went and – honestly, luck. I don’t know when you went, but it seems to have expanded to include folks with many types of budgets. But yes, every place, every city, rewards those with money.


      1. Hi Lani,
        Thanks for your reply. Too many Asian places or accommodations that are often run by Asians are not up to standard and they charged quite high. It is not fair for us visitors who have to pay so much and have to put up with their inferior standards. They should at least ensure a basic standard of service and basic standard of cleanliness to visitors with small budget as well. They charged exorbitantly all the time and they tend to cause us visitors discomfort at every turn for visiting or staying at their place.


      2. I also find that they are too obsessed with money and too arrogant to the point of overlooking other factors. They don’t seem to care much about being civilised or service or cleanliness. It is quite typical to see Asian places over exploiting foreigners or visitors. Many of those Asians(e.g. with many cars that can jammed the whole place) are quite rich or very rich but they are only interested to exploit poor, vulnerable visitors with substandard services.
        I hope to see some improvement if I ever go back there again.


      3. It sounds like you had a pretty bad experience. I’ve definitely had my fair share of being ripped off and it is extremely frustrating for many reasons – but I think mainly it has to do with culture. Being from the West, dual pricing is just wrong! But some here see it as being smart and savvy.

        And standards of cleanliness can be very different as well. But trust me, some Asians are very frustrated by the lack of fairness. In Cambodia, if you have the money you can be medically treated over someone who is badly injured and needs immediate help. Corruption cuts both ways.


  7. I have never been there, in fact the only Asian cities I have visited are all in China. Comparing the big cities to the ones in Europe I must say that the ones in China are pure chaos. Everything is wild there and friend I know living there with a driving license always tell me in case I want to survive driving though the city I just need to let my “animal” instincts take over and forget all I know about traffic rules…
    Besides that there can be really dirty/ smelly/ terrible areas in thos cities in China. In xi’an the neighborhood my in laws live in is right in the city center within the city walls, yet it looks like it just recently went through some air raid as nothing is take care for/ maintained, they just let it all fall apart

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been enjoying reading people’s comments – the way with words, describing places. “pure chaos” “everything is wild there” hahahahaha. I totally agree. Trust me, in the US, we don’t drive in any ‘ol direction and make loud construction noises!

      No, don’t let your animal insticts take over. I hate that! We’re supposed to be better than that! What about being higher life forms!

      Yeah, and “air raid”, it’s amazing (is that the right word) how Asian govts don’t care for its country and people.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In my wife’s hometown they just let those buildings fall apart and then force the families to move to new apartments which are being build…
        My in laws were so shocked when they visited Europe the first time as everyone followed the traffic rules.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I had to snort when you mentioned “expat forums” – the best and worst places sometimes!

    Phnom Penh looks like an interesting city. I was trying to find comparisons between it and Saigon, as it’s the most recently visited SE Asian city I know of, but I can’t think of that many really. Saigon was pretty clean. We explored a fair bit, and while we saw some poverty, there was nothing like the slums seen here. Though other things were fairly similar – big, hot, busy, slightly smelly at times, yep, Saigon was like that.

    Never noticed the railings on tuk tuks before – you’ve reminded me they had the similar cages on tuk tuks in India. Never really thought it was for protection from bag snatchers, just figured it was something to hold on to!

    Oh my the selfies – honestly, I’m right with you. It’s an obsession with some people and at the weirdest places! There were people taking selfies at the War Remnants museum, in the exhibits. While I was walking around trying hard to keep myself together. There’s a time and a place people!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, expat forums are such strange places. Good info, like you said, but really nasty people there, too. I don’t get it. I avoid them like the Black Plague.

      My friend just came back from Vietnam and it sounds like such an interesting place. I’m surprised to hear that its clean!

      India is another place that I’d like to visit. I have to get ready for the poverty though. How was your experience/s?


  9. I can only imagine how you felt at the prison. Reminds me of how after reading a book on child soldiers, sadness and heaviness followed me for three days. Yes, it’s good to be sensitive.

    A picture is worth a thousand words. Thanks for sharing, it gave me a feel of the city. I look forward to seeing other parts of the city,

    It took me a few seconds to realize that this is a metaphor, lol: we went to the Royal Palace where we promptly burst into flames. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah sometimes I wonder about how I convey some things, but I figure taking a risk and throwing it out there is good too, from time to time.

      Books and films can linger and stay with us for days, I agree. And even crop up when we least expect it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post, Lani. You have written it with sensitivity. 😉

    I, too am sensitive to people’s energy, energy in possessions and spaces. My mum commented on my sensitivity as a child but I didn’t understand what she meant. I had similar comments from some adults but I dismissed it till I had my second operation (years ago) and it became profound as I recuperated.

    Yes, it’s good to be sensitive. Sometimes, one has to look deep within oneself and embark on a soul searching moment so as to be the best one could be or produce the best work. I have recently been asked to comment on someone’s creative writing including poems and it spurred me to get the creative juices going again. I’m looking to get my writings published (suggestions of publications are welcome).

    Values are in my view reflected in one’s culture, upbringing and what one upholds. Eg in this Turkish sleepy city, I have heard of educated people passing judgements of an event which happened long before the creation of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century (yes, it was that long), ‘I don’t like Chinese people because a Chinese woman cut off the head of our leader. ‘Why did she do it, I asked?’ ‘ I don’t know, came the reply.’ and calling another race ‘n….r’. The next comment was from my American colleague but I strongly believe it’s his personal values and not of the American people, ‘We don’t give up our seats where I come from. I’ll only give my seat if it’s an old person with a cane. That only happens in the South.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I was able to convey my experience with some sensitivity. Thanks!

      Yeah, I don’t have any suggestions for publications. I’m not a big reader of literary mags. I try to – but they don’t hold my interests. Most require a reading fee which I think is B.S. but I know the bills have to get paid somehow.

      Good luck though. I’ve asked long ago if you had a blog! 🙂


      1. I don’t have a blog yet.

        Two young Turks went through the net what I had posted (including photos posted by others). One of them literally pulled out everything I had blogged. All I could say was OMG.


  11. I couldn’t finish the torture school. Towards the end I had to go outside, sit on a bench under a tree and meditate and breathe deep for 30 minutes. Loved you tour of PP. I did enjoy the city too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sandra. Yeah, intensity all-around. I was watching the guides and wondering how they handle such a job. I almost asked.

      Hope you are well 🙂


  12. “a large, dirty, fire-breathing beast with a ripe body odor problem” Great description. Intense post, intense experience. That mound of trash is something, and wow, how powerful is that that survivors were there to supply more answers? You wonder how people can live like that while so much of the world indulges in excess, how the formula works. Hopefully things will turn around.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It felt like an intense post. I suppose that is why I tried to add humor when I could.

      Yeah I don’t know how survivors survive. It’s a miracle and simply living all rolled into one, I guess. I don’t why why others have too much and others too little. I feel like I’ve been wrestling with that question since I started thinking critically.


  13. Sounds like some Asian cities are intense. Lani, I haven’t been to Asia. I just live in my semi-sterilized Canadian life. 🙂 I love big North American cities for their sheer dynamism, cross-intersections of people, art, culure. But yes, even the worst neighbourhoods in North America, they are still quite clean and not as air polluted /traffic chaotic, compared to the photo you showed. I have this feeling this is why my parents didn’t want to return to China: it would disgust and sadden them: disrespect for surroundings, dilapidation for valued things, etc. And my parents have been low income folks in Canada, but came from middle class families in China prior to WW II.

    No, I haven’t been to a genocide memorial yet..though the Canadian native Indians there various areas in Canada where wars were fought between landing colonizers and them in the 1700’s to 1800’s.

    Keep in mind, I’ve lived in 2 Toronto neighbourhoods where there were drug dealing problems, discarded drug needles in local park, some gun shootouts. They were neighbourhoods with known reputations. Interestingly, dominated by immigrant families and non-whites. I even bought a condo in such neighbourhood, lived there over a decade and you know what, it was fine for me. One just takes some precautions very late at night.

    So on scale to what’s there in Asia, it probably is more the dirt and noise that would frustrate me.


    1. Yeah, I don’t feel like the industrialized world can compare to the haphazard development of most of Asia. But I don’t want to compare them, although I understand why you did.

      Coming from a different society, an education that I no longer take for granted and essentially a broader world-view, it’s quite disheartening how “progress” works around here. Corruption is openly rewarded and the govt grossly neglects its people (at least in Cambo). Some days I can’t take it.

      But everyday folks, you know, are wonderful, just like anywhere else.


  14. I guess that’s why we call them “foreign countries”…. this seems so foreign to me I could hardly imagine. Thanks for sharing. Again, I must say you open up the world I will never see you in person. Your detail and your pictures are appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hey Lani when you spoke of the prison and grave sites, I was intrigued by your take on the energy. I have a book about a spiritual center based on the healing of radiation from Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Maybe its possible we release our pain and history when we can be in the moment with these types of things, no longer “carrying” our ancestors and their pain. This could be why you felt better at the grave site? Maybe we can break all chains of conditioning by being present with all that we carried and are willing to release? Thank you for writing such a wonderful rendition.

    getting back to your book soon….much love Robyn

    PS… I resigned from a position (work) that was no longer in my vibrational field (today) I could have turned back and said lets see if “I” can “make” it work again and then eventually get asked to leave, OR walk out after seeing my last patient, I chose to walk out ( at first not so gracefully, (calling him an asshole) (Earth angels do swear…), later, very calmly, letting him know I was no longer willing to work in a Military setting, where what was spoken was dissected into suppression. Glad I was no longer calling in the “need” for Suppression in my life…Even with the awareness of almost all the people I have created to teach me in my life and aware that what I speak is what I believe about myself, I am a HAPPY GIRL, ready for my next adventure. Thanks again for sharing your book as “I” had no idea I would be having an experience “similar to being fired” today. Fire and fired are actually cleansing words if we look deep…
    blessings my friend, making this as insignificant as “I chose” coming from a blank canvass…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Fire” in this context can be a cleansing word. I totally understand and it sounds like you feel better having walked away.

      Yeah, I think the grave site had more “resting” energy, if I can say that or “releasing” as you might say. And in the prison everything felt trapped, very much living in the buildings. Many people were somber, fighting tears and stepping outside for breaks. The things we do to each other…


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