Phnom Penh is the vibrant capital of Cambodia and sits at the crossing of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. It was a hub for both the Khmer Empire and French colonialists which is reflected in its rich and mixed architecture.
The opulent Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and the National Museum is situated off the large Sisowath boulevard on the riverfront. Running along the boulevard lies large parks housing ornate monuments and a large central market.
The inner city Genocide Museum and Killing Fields memorial on the outskirts are a sobering reminder of the history under the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime and the atrocities committed against the nation.
We arrived in Phnom Penh in the late afternoon after a long and very hot ride from Shinokville. We checked in to our hotel, the very comfortable New Midtown Hotel, showered up and then headed straight to the rooftop pool to cool down and watch the sunset. After the pool we took a short ten minute stroll to Alma Cafe for a delicious Mexican feast.
The next day we decided to visit the genocide museum via tuk-tuk instead of our bikes (we left our bikes at a mechanic for a service and tyre change). The lady driver took us on a ten minute trip to the museum and then waited for us for two hours and brought us back to our hotel, all for the bargain price of US $6 – I’m sure we could have haggled to less but it was a roasting hot day and frankly she deserved it!
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
When we arrived at the ticket booth we decided to pay a little extra for the audio guide and take our time to absorb what had happened. We spent two hours listening to the guide as we walked around the grounds and got a very harrowing account of the barbaric regime – as we walked we learned so much about the humanity of the victims and what they endured, a few facts include:
- Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21). This was the Khmer Rouge‘s largest centre of detention and torture in the country
- From 1975 – 1978 more than 17,000+ people held at S-21 were taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek
- In 1977, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day
- The Khmer Rouge documented everything – each of the 17,000+ prisoners were photographed, almost as trophies
- Prisoners were tortured and forced to sign false confessions of conspiracy against the regime.
The tour is not for the faint hearted and as we walked around through the rooms I found that I had to leave some very quickly, it was overwhelming.
After the tour we took our tuk-tuk back to the hotel and spent the afternoon in a bit of a reflective state trying to grapple with what we had seen.
We then had to collect our bikes from the mechanic (with fancy new tyres, woohoo!) and took them for a bit of a spin to the large and rather fancy mall where we parked up and took a walk around in the cool aircon. On the way out, Eddie managed to lose his bikes parking ticket which resulted in our first bribe of the trip – US $1 to leave without a ticket… we feel really great about the security at the car parks now, pick a bike and it’s a dollar to exit, oh my!
For dinner we went to a fantastic tapas restaurant close by called Tipico – not really budget friendly but a fantastic night out for a treat. We can highly recommend the sangria and every dish we ordered was delicious. The owners were there and they took time to individually come and chat with us, a very nice touch.
Walking Around Phnom Penh
The following day our heads were a little sore from the easy drinking at Tipico. We decided that the best cure would be a nice long walk to the royal palace in the city, which was about 7km away. We walked from our hotel in the south up past the Russian Market and it was a meandering north/east zig-zag to our destination. As we walked we passed the large Independence Monument, followed shortly by the statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, and finally the Cambodia-Vietnam Freindship Monument. At this point of the day the sun was very hot, Eddie noticed a sign for “Cambodia’s first microbrewery” a place called Munich beer, so it was time for a cool soothe of the blonde and dark beers.
After a beer and some much needed aircon we carried on up towards the royal palace and it’s not until we get there that we notice that its closed on Sundays! Never the less we continued our walk toward the palace and see swarms of locals gathered in the park opposite the palace and a few food stalls. The locals were all sat around and socialising, the children playing with toys or riding on electric cars. We bought an ice cream and enjoyed walking through the crowd and people-watching, being left along aside from the occasional “hello” as we passed.
We then crossed the road and took a right turn up Sisowath Quay Boulevard. The boulevard got quieter as we walked away from the palace and we walked past a docking for boarder control and a lot of huge construction sites. On one of the sites we saw a family that were living in small wooden containers that looked as if it was constructed from wooden pallets, a young toddler was playing with an old paint roller by a rubbish heap, rolling it along as if it were a toy car; the opulence of the palace just a mere 100 metres away.
That day we walked over 15kms and truly shook off our hangover! For dinner we found a delicious Italian restaurant called Pizzeria Matteo, where we enjoyed a superb meatball gnocchi and beer. By the time we had eaten it was dark so we then took a tuk-tuk back to our hotel for the last couple of kilometers.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, Phnom Penh
For our final morning in Phnom Penh we finally got to the royal palace and silver pagoda. We woke extra early and took a tuk-tuk to the palace. When we arrived we noticed that many tourists weren’t following the requested dress code (shoulders covered and leg covered to below the knee) but we’re glad to keep the code, there’s nothing more fearful than an angry South East Asian guard, they are no-nonsense and live by the rules!
As we entered the palace we were struck by the beautifully kept gardens and palace buildings. The roof tiles had a snake scale appearance and looked very striking.
We entered a few of the buildings and admired the many artifacts that had been gathered from around around the country – to name a few, there were myriad jewel encrusted Buddhas, old coins, thrones, muriels and paintings, all from the rich Khmer ancestry.
Some of the main buildings were under heavy reconstruction and so we were unable to enter, as with parts of the gardens that were cornered off.
All in all we were very glad to have made it back to see inside the place before we left. We then took our tuk-tuk to the Russian market where I bought a fake pair of converse runners for US $9 and Eddie bought a pair of black light-weight trousers to lounge around in.
After the market it was a short stroll back to the hotel where we were packed up and hit the road by midday, ready for our next destination, Pursat.