Hidden Jewels of Phnom Pehn
Everything I’d heard and read online had me believing I’d dislike Phnom Penh and want to leave right away. While it wasn’t my favourite city to explore, I am glad I began my time in Cambodia here as it gave me an appreciation for the Khmer (Cambodian) life. I recommend spending 1-3 days in Phnom Penh. No visit to Cambodia is complete without a trip to the Killing Fields, which I’ll talk about later.
I had almost decided on a different place before I read a review that mentioned they’d preferred this location. I’m so glad I changed my mind because I loved Billabong so much I stayed twice! $5-$6 USD per dorm room, great air con, comfy beds, huge rooms, friendly staff and the best salt water pool. Lazy afternoon swims or late night laps when the pool was empty became my favourite way to beat the Cambodian heat.
Restore One Cafe
Our group stopped in here in between the S21 Museum and the Killing Fields, which I highly recommend doing. It would be a bit intense all in one go! With a beautiful atmosphere and vibe, this cafe was the perfect place to debrief on what we’d just seen and heard. Plus the chicken burger was the best I’ve had in Asia!
Krista and I were craving Indian, which led to a late night adventure to Besto. I had my heart set on butter chicken, so was initially crushed when we got there and saw it was vegetarian only. The cashew curry blew my expectations out of the water and tasted way better! Owned by an Indian couple, we had a great night here. They put a deck of cards on our table as soon as we ordered and we ended up staying almost an hour after we were done eating just so I could kick Krista’s butt at rummy.
Daughters of Cambodia
An absolutely must see in Phnom Penh. All proceeds go to victims of sex trafficking and all staff have been rescued from the trade. I almost didn’t go because I was desperate to find a cafe with air con and couldn’t tell from the reviews if they had it or not. Thank goodness I went because I spent 30 minutes pouring over their adorable gifts and souvenirs before heading upstairs to do some work in their air conditioned cafe. Tip: you must get the deep fried cookie dough. It was incredible! Also, come with a budget for gifts. Their selection is so good and it’s such a great cause, I ended up breaking my promise that I wouldn’t buy anything until the last two weeks of my trip.
Barter with the tuk tuk drivers
One of my favourite things about Cambodia is that you see hardly any taxis! Those without scooters or cars get around via tuk tuks. There are 3 price levels… local, expat, and tourist. It took me a while to get comfortable bartering down to “expat” prices. I may look gullible, but I’m not afraid to walk away if a driver won’t budge from his high price.
The general rule of thumb is $1.50 for short trips across town, and usually $1 per km. That said, I also respect the drivers, you can usually tell if what you’re asking for is legitimately too low. Most of the time I won’t argue if it’s within 50 cents to $1 of what I want. I’d always ask around the bus before getting off to find at least one other person to share a tuk tuk with. Saves money for both of you, and it’s a great way to make friends! Looking at you Ruth!
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum & Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre
Colloquially known as the S21 Museum and Killing Fields, most hostels organize group tuk tuks to these locations because this is something you must make the time for. This was the most somber day I’ve had traveling by far. By the end of my day, I was heartbroken, in awe of Khmer resilience, and angry that I hadn’t heard about it in my 18+ years of education. I am finding it tough to try to do it justice, but here’s my history lesson of the day.
When the Americans and Vietnamese left Cambodia after the Vietnam war ended, Pol Pot and his group, known as the Khmer Rouge took over control of the government. At first, the locals were grateful. They cheered. Pol Pot promised an equal society and wanted to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society in which there were no rich people, no poor people, and no exploitation. And then all citizens were forced out of the major cities and sent to work on farms in the countryside. Pol Pot imprisoned anyone who could threaten his new world order.. all the doctors, teachers, celebrities, and previous government officials. They were sent to places like the S21 museum and others to be horrifically tortured until they gave false confessions and were murdered. The school system, any religious practices, traditional Khmer lifestyle… it was all destroyed under Pol Pot’s “leadership.”
Over 2 million people, approximately 1/4th of the population, were murdered or died from horrific conditions between April 17, 1975 and January 1979. Although the Khmer Rouge were officially overthrown in 1979, the trials of the major leaders just completed in 2014.
The history is brutal. The trauma is still very much present. And yet, the Khmer people have been some of the friendliest people I’ve met. I am awed by their resiliency.
If you’re interested in learning more, click here to see a great website. I also highly recommend the novels “First, They Killed My Father” and the sequel “Lucky Child” by Luong Ung. Angelina Jolie is also making a movie out the first book which will be released on Netflix in late 2017.
In Phnom Penh, the S21 Museum and Killing Fields have been preserved as educational sites. At each location, you pay a $6 entrance fee and are given a map and your own headset with pre-recorded stories to listen to as you walk around. The organizers have done such a fantastic job that you are left feeling educated and empowered. Most of the time, I was too engrossed in the stories to take pictures, but here are the few I did take.
Walk along the river
Although not all that impressive, it’s a nice way to explore because you get a bit of a breeze! It’s the main tourist stretch as well so there’s lots of places to grab lunch or a beer.
More than once I’ve been so grateful to have Krista as a travel buddy because we have very similar tastes! Neither one of us wanted to pay the $10 entrance fee, but we enjoyed walking around it and finding a tree to sit under and chat. If it’s your thing, be sure to go in the morning or late afternoon as it’s closed from 11am to 2pm.
See a Movie
I made a second trip to Phnom Penh specifically to see Beauty and the Beast with Krista and I loved it! When I heard it was being released during my trip, I was super upset. It wasn’t until it was almost out of theatres that I realized it might be playing in Cambodia too! I discovered as a major city, there were 3 or 4 places that played the bigger English movies. The Khmer subtitles at the bottom of the screen just added to the experience! Pro tip: bring a sweater or jacket. The air conditioner will be on full blast.
I don’t enjoy being hot and sweaty in a sea of people, so I didn’t go. Open until 4pm, I did hear it was a great place to grab a cheap lunch.
Did I miss any of your favourites?
Tell me about it in the comments!