Our introduction to Cambodia started in the capital of Phnom Penh. We boarded a bus from Vietnam, said goodbye to cheap beer and even cheaper sandwiches, and took a deep breath for starting the next leg of our adventure. Our guard was up from the minute we arrived, mostly because we had become used to this way of thinking in Vietnam: “people will try and scam you,” warned other travel bloggers, “so don’t get too comfortable.” However, we slowly realized that Cambodian people are some of the most genuinely nice individuals you will ever meet. People waved without coming up and asking for money, and tuk-tuk drivers usually only charged a modest three or four dollars for a ride within the capital.
That being said, there are other concerns for travelers here: mostly crime. Cambodia is very poor, which is clear from the homeless children on the side of the street, as well as the shoddy infrastructure throughout the country. The first thing we were told when jumping in a Tuk-Tuk was to hold our bags tight, as there are people who zip by on motorbikes, snatching whatever they can. I also would not feel 100% safe walking by myself at night.
Phnom Penh introduced us to the main theme of Cambodia: a land of contrasts. One minute you would walk down a street filled with Lexus cars and BMWs, and the next we were covering our noses due to the sewage and garbage being dumped into the street. Child beggars would wait outside 5-star resorts, and minutes away from a high-class restaurant stood a ramshackle hut housing a family of ten. Other than making money off tourists, it’s hard to comprehend how anyone in this country makes money – like I said before, the infrastructure just isn’t there. This also makes one wonder apprehensively, “what the heck did you do to buy that BMW?”
For those going to Cambodia, don’t expect to have jam-packed days filled with activities. Other than Angkor Wat, we spent much of our time just chilling out. Below are the stops/attractions we would recommend when visiting Phnom Penh.
There are a number of great restaurants in Phnom Penh. If you’re a backpacker and missing out on the comforts of home, this is a city where you will find amazing western-style food. One place that we would highly recommend for a stellar bagel burger is Mr. Grill (NO. 23, street 188, Boueng Keng Kang1), just around the corner from the White Rabbit hostel (also a decent hostel for your money).
Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21 Prison)
Out of the 17,000 prisoners that were tortured and held here during the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s, it is said that less than ten made it out alive. The prison is now a museum, showing the instruments used for torture with chilling photos on the walls of the final victims found here. Looking from the picture of the last victim to the very bed-frame and room he was tortured and killed in will haunt my thoughts for a long time to come. Blood still stains the floor in most rooms.
The Killing Fields
Located about 12km from the city and a $15 Tuk-Tuk ride away, The Killing Fields are where prisoners were taken during the genocide to be executed in a brutal manner. It’s surreal to walk around this area and imagine what happened all those years ago. When the rains come, the grounds still surface teeth, bones and old clothes of the victims.
Drinks by the River
Chill out and grab a beer overlooking the river in Phnom Penh. The night-market also opens at 7:30 for something to do.
Other than the food and drinks aspect of Phnom Penh I realize I’ve outlined a couple very depressing sightseeing options here. While difficult to stomach, I believe these stops are necessary to learn about the history of this country. The Cambodian people have been through a lot, which makes one appreciate their kindness even more (except when it comes to crime of course).
Logistic to note: The official currency in Cambodia is Riel, but all bank machines dispense American dollars. You will pay in American money everywhere you go, and only currency under a dollar will be returned in Riel.