After an ultra short flight of 35 minutes, which we had to rebook because our friends of Vietjet let us down for the second time this trip, we arrived in Phnom Penh international airport. Having our e-visa arranged upfront, we were through the whole process of boarder control and customs in 15 minutes. Taking a taxi through Phnom Penh during rush hour showed us how busy the city is and the gap between the rich and the poor in a blink of an eye. People traveling by scooters, busses but also in Mercedes S classes, Rolls Royce and Bentley, the in-equality couldn’t be bigger.
The streets in Phnom Penh are numbered like in the USA. We were in 200thstreet, which seemed not so bad as a starting location to wander around the capital of Cambodia. Since we arrived quite late in the afternoon, we didn’t want to walk too far to find some food, especially not in the dark, so we ended up in a ‘fancy’ Chinese restaurant just at across the street. I’ll try to put it nicely, but it turned out not to be the best choice. Besides the restaurant was full of Chinese, which is not so strange, in a Chinese restaurant, the whole atmosphere was a little ‘weird’. After a while we noticed there were 3 doors close to us each having a private waitress in front of them. Turned out that these were ‘private’ dining rooms for ‘businessmen’. Once in a while the doors would open and we could catch a glimpse of what was happening inside. What struck us the most was the amount of big plates stuffed the most incredible and expensive foods and drinks: whole roasted ducks, big fish, crab, prawns and some other exotic foods, bottles of wine and expensive bottles of whisky. At a certain moment and older man, obviously ‘slightly’ drunk needed to be supported by a guy wearing a military outfit to find his way back up to the first floor. What place did we end up in? Was it real businessmen meeting, or was something else going on here? It was just after the elections, not that I’m suggesting something here, but… Cambodia is ranked at the 161th out of 180 in the list of most corrupted countries.
Whoever thinks about Cambodia immediately thinks about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. So must visit places around Phnom are the S21 prison and interrogation center and at least one of the many ‘Killing Fields’. Even when you think you are well prepared to visit these places, you never really are. When taking the bus tour to the prison and to one of the many killing fields the bus driver showed us a more or less 1-hour documentary on the evolutions late 60ties early 70ties in Cambodia and the role Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge played in that. You simply cannot imagine the cruelties that took place in the 70ties under the Khmer Rouge regime. In Pol Pot’s vision of a new and strong Cambodia, like in the Angkor time, there was no room for cities, private property, money and all what reflected to the individual. All people had to leave the cities to work on farms in the countryside for free and just a handful of rice. More than 2 million Cambodians and some thousands of foreigners were just exterminated in about 4 years time because: they spoke a foreign language, they were wearing glasses, they were too clever or just for no reason at all. Many people also starved to death. The explicit images and the huge piles built out of thousands of skulls and bones that were collected from mass graves after, are silent reminders of this horror, which only happened 40 years ago. The worst thing maybe is that only a handful of the people involved in the coup of the Khmer Rouge were punished for their crimes, some of them are still in politics at this very moment. Pol Pot, he was only sentenced in 1996 by his right hand and number 2 of the Khmer Rouge regime, Ta Mok and not put in prison but grounded for life. After the governmental army took down the last remainders of Khmer Rouge army, Pol Pot officially died from a heart attack, but there is a lot of unanswered questions about his dead as his body was burned on a pile of junk before and official autopsy took place.
The rest of our time we wandered around the city, which is quite a challenge since pedestrian walkways appear to be reserved for scooters, cars, busses and anything else except for pedestrians. Maybe that’s why hundreds of Khmer tuk-tuk drivers offered us a ride at the most crazy (expensive) prices. They just didn’t understand that we just wanted to walk around in a city like Phnom Penh, and honestly, sometimes neither did we. We visited the cities largest pagoda and walked along the riverside, which was nice, to get an impression of the city.
One thing other thing we noticed very quickly, was that food and transportation were way more expensive than in Vietnam, with much less service. With prices for tourist attractions like museums and temples having doubled over the last year or so, we decided not to visit some of them. Maybe it’s because besides the Cambodian Riel, Cambodians prefer USD as a currency. Everyting above 1 USD you pay in USD and the smaller amounts you pay in Cambodian Riel.
After the first day we discovered a nice and affordable small restaurant, which turned out to be owned by a Thai couple. Great food, so we went back a couple of times. They explained us they recently started their business and they too confirmed us that they didn’t understand why food in restaurants was so expensive as the rent, the supplies and the staff were not expensive at all. They told us their waitresses earned 100 USD a month, which was not even the minimum loan.
After 4 days in Phnom Penh, which honestly was a little too long for us, we took the bus to Kampot, a small province near the coast.
- S21 prison also known as the ‘Tuol Sleng Genocide museum’. This museum, which was a high school before it became an interrogation and torture center of the Khmer Rouge shortly after their coup in 1975. Only 7 people survived this. There were between 150 and 200 of these centers in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Tip take a guide in this museum it’s 2USD per person, but really worth it. Often the guides are people that lost family members during the regime.
- Killing fields. Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. An audio guided tour takes you through the area, survivors of the regime tell their story on the Khmer Rouge Regime. The silence in this place is impressive. Still after 40 years the cruelties of the regime are beyond everyone’s imagination.
- Ann Restaurant. This recently opened Thai restaurant has very nice food and is affordable. It serves both Thai and Khmer dishes and is located at the corner of 63rdand 172ndstreet in Phnom Penh, have a word with the owners, they are really friendly.
- The waterfront is a nice area to walk and visit one of the many restaurants or pubs and have an ice-cold Cambodia or Angkor beer. Most of them have some kind of happy hour; your draft beer and some cocktails will be half-priced or have 2+1 free.
- Giant Ibis Transport. Travelling by car or bus in Cambodia is always a bit of an adventure, because the roads are just in a bad state, especially during the raining season. We booked and reserved our seats in the minivan online 2 days before our travel from Phnom Penh to Kampot. We had heard and read a lot of bad cowboy stories, but the reviews on the Giant Ibis Transport Company looked okay. We tried it and had no issue whatever, the bus was reasonably clean, and we received a croissant and a bottle of water and had no issues whatsoever.