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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next stop, the Killing Fields!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you been to Phnom Penh? What do you think of big cities?