Time to own up. I wasn’t sure what to expect in Cambodia but certainly expected it to be a bit less contemporary than Vietnam where we have just spend a month. Wrong! Phnom Penh is a much more modern city than I expected and is truly very beautiful. What a lovely surprise.
The city itself is dotted with gorgeous golden temples, interesting cafes and very cheap beer (shame I hate the stuff!). There are also some really cool art/ craft NGO’s and the ubiquitous Asian markets to look at. If you are a history buff (and even if you aren’t), going to see S-21 where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured people and the Killing Fields are an absolute must. They are harrowing and thought provoking but well worth the visit.
Lots of people say you only need a day or two in Phnom Penh but we spent four days here and enjoyed every one of them. I don’t think it’s too much of a challenge to fill 4-5 days.
For our first couple of days in Phnom Penh, we hired a tuk tuk to take us to a number of key sites. It is likely to cost $15 USD for a half day and $25 USD for a full day. You shouldn’t pay more than that. We visited the following:
S-21/Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
To understand the recent history of Cambodia, it is essential that you visit this harrowing museum which is the actual site where the genocide occurred. I didn’t realise that the torturing took place at a high school which was converted to imprison people. As a teacher I found this very difficult to visit as it still looks like a high school that you would find in many places in the world.
The museum is outstanding and offers an audio tour in a number of languages, including English. They have tried to leave the site as it was and as a result you can still see how the classrooms were divided up into cells, there are still blood stains on some of the walls and they describe how playground equipment was used to torture people.
It is $6USD to go in. We spent about two hours there – our tuk tuk driver said most people spend about an hour.
A real eye opener and worth visiting.
The Royal Palace
It was interesting to be shown around the palace grounds by a guide. We don’t usually get a guide however we decided to on this occasion and it was worth the 10 USD. Without the guide’s explanation it would have been difficult to understand the different buildings, ceremonies and protocols. The King was in house while we were there ( as shown by the flag flying). Unfortunately he was busy so couldn’t see us!
Entry fee is 10 USD per person.
The Killing Fields
We visited these after S21 so that we had time to process what we had seen. It is a bit of a drive out to the Killing fields and costs 25 USD for a tuk tuk. A word of warning, our tuk tuk driver gave us masks to wear as it is really dusty on the way out. We travelled through villages along non-sealed roads which were pretty bumpy. The highway on the way back feels a bit life threatening too!
The Killing Fields are where the Khmer Rouge took people in the middle of the night to kill them (usually from S21). There is a really good audio tour which explains the horrors of the site. You can still see the mass graves and they have systematically recorded and displayed the skulls and bones that they have found washed up each rainy season. Fragments are still washing to the surface each year.
Worth an hour visit.
Central Market is one of two main markets that tourists might find useful to visit. It is housed in a beautiful domed octagonal building with stalls stretching out of each of the points. The stalls are organised in sections so it is easy to find what you are after. You do need to have your bargaining hat on. We won some and lost some but walking away is a good strategy as you know you are getting the best price.
The Russian Market
The Russian Market is quite different to the one in Vietnam that we visited. Apparently it is named the Russian market because in the 80’s this is where all the Russians came to shop.
It is a huge market which sells everything you can imagine for both locals and tourists alike. If you haven’t been to a wet market, and you can hold your stomach together, this is another place for some good pictures. Souvenirs are a plenty and if you don’t find exactly what you want in one stall it will be somewhere else. Again, you need to bargain hard. Some stall owners start really high so that even 50% starting point is higher than what you would get in town, others are more reasonable. A really worthwhile market to go to. Have your haggling hat on.
Wat Phnom Historical Site
This is a Buddhist temple in the city which is nice to visit. It is the tallest structure in town. Many locals come here to pray for good luck. It is free for locals and there is a small charge for tourists and foreigners.
We were accosted by some children begging and selling bracelets. They can be very charming, have great English and tell you the money is to send them to school. It is recommended that children are not given money for any reason and rather the money is given to organisations that help them. This has a higher hit rate of keeping them in school.
Cambodian National Museum
I am not always a big fan of museums but this one is set in beautiful grounds and has well kept artifacts on display. Definitely worth a visit and you can also get Apsara Dance tickets here. After our big burst of cultural dance activities in Bali, we decided against attending.
Phnom Penh is a lovely city which deserves more time than a day or two. We really liked it and could have stayed for longer.