Phnom Penh Travel Guide
Introduction to Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh, though more than 30 years removed from the ravages of civil war, still remains as bit of a Wild Wild East experience. Chaotic traffic abounds. Barbed wire surrounds the compounds of the rich and well-connected, while the poverty of a nation languishes outside. The youth of the nation exudes a hopeful spirit of optimism, yet the horrific crimes of the recent past lurk around every corner, with many of those who committed atrocities in that period still walking free.
Despite all these edgy aspects to this city, Phnom Penh is still a remarkable and largely a safe place for travelers to visit, and the economy of late has been booming, as the frames of constructed skyscrapers shoot up into the sky almost everywhere you look. Value for money in this part of the world is also exceptional, as many well-appointed guesthouses will only run you $15-20 a night, and dorm beds can be had for $5 or less. Food and drink is much the same way, as beer and spirits cost a fraction of what they do in the West, and local cuisine and even foreign food can be had for a song (this author had two draft beer and three stuffed tacos for $5 – where else in the world can you find such value?).
While this capital can be intimidating considering its reputation, you might find that this place will grow on you if you spend any significant time here, as the friendly people, their optimistic energy, and the dirt cheap cost of living makes it a very alluring place for a long-term base.
Cultural Experiences in Phnom Penh
If you are staying in the northern part of Phnom Penh, begin your sightseeing with a visit to Wat Phnom. This temple was built on the site where Lady Penh found two Buddha idols laying underneath a tree, leading to the eventual rise of the city that became Cambodia’s capital. Enjoy the murals painted inside the inner sanctum, and take time to woo and stroke the resident cats, but be wary of monkeys, as they will not hesitate to liberate you of any food and drinks that are unattended.
Next, be sure to pay a visit to the Royal Palace. Housing the Silver Pagoda and the temple of the Emerald Buddha, this complex was one of the few that were spared the destruction that marked much of the latter half of the 20th century in Cambodia. Admission costs $5-6, dependant of whether you are taking pictures or not.
Though many artifacts of the past were destroyed during the short-lived but regressive reign of the Khmer Rouge, the National Museum of Cambodia has done an outstanding job of collecting them and showcasing them on their premises. Admission is $3, and NO photography is permitted on the grounds.
After a long afternoon of Cambodian culture hunting, refresh yourself at a restaurant and/or bar on Sisowath Quay, also known as Riverside. There are many choices available for your discerning palate, from the local cuisine to French, American, Italian, and even Mexican. In the evening time, occupy a prime spot in a sidewalk café, while local residents perform jazz aerobics or play football on the stone promenade opposite the shops and restaurants of Sisowath Quay.
Cambodian War/Genocide Remnants in Phnom Penh
While it is unfortunate that most people think of the dark ages of Cambodian history when Phnom Penh is mentioned, it is a necessary experience for those new to the country and this city. Begin your sombre tour at S-21 (Tuol Sleng Prison) in Southern Phnom Penh, where tens of thousands of Cambodians were tortured over the five years of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. See the numerous rooms where subjects were tied to metal bedframes and systematically brutalized in order to cough up information on other potential enemies of the regime. Sadly, very few people made it out of this place alive, as only 21 people were alive when the prison was taken by Vietnamese forces in 1979. 14 people died of their injuries later on, leaving only 7 survivors to tell the tragic story of this hellhole on Earth.
Round out your contemplations of the dark side of human nature at the Killing Fields, 14 kilometres south of the city. Listen to an audio recording as you wander the site, as you observe scraps of clothing from victims, places where mass graves were dug up, and a stupa filled with the skulls of 8,000 people murdered in cold blood.
Markets in Phnom Penh
After all that focus on suffering and death, you could use something to take your mind off the brutality that you just witnessed. Head to the nearby Russian Market, which sells everything from pirated DVD’s to fake underwear to weed whackers, and you’ll be in a better mood in no time!
Heading back to the centre of the city, and close by to many bus stations heading to other places in Cambodia, is the beautiful Central Market. Designed in the 1930’s in the Art Deco style, the complex is a piece of art in its own right, but today, you can pick up a souvenir, a t-shirt, or a bite to eat before heading off to the beaches of the Southwest Coast, or the temples at Angkor Wat.