The Complicated History of Phnom Pehn
The following is a post done by Adam, covering our time in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia.
Day 229 (3/13/17): Early in the morning we woke up, packed and left our hostel in Ho Chi Minh. Our hostel, Eco Hostel had been a great place in the heart of the action and had arranged our transport to Phnom Penh by bus for only $12 each. The bus company representative even came to our hostel to walk us to the bus stop!
We boarded a comfortable coach for the 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Along the way we stopped at the border, which was quite a process. Before leaving Vietnam you deboard the bus and go through customs on the Vietnamese side of the border where they make sure to note that your single-entry visa is “used” so you cannot re-enter the country without paying again. Then you get back in the bus and drive a very short distance where you go through customs on the Cambodian side. This is where you get you entry visa, which costs $35. Make sure to bring US dollars as they use a mix of USD and their own currency but want only USD at the border.
Once back on the road we drove through the Cambodian equivalent of Atlantic City. I don’t consider it Vegas since, well, it’s not quite that nice but it’s on the border for a reason. Vietnamese people cross the border to gamble at the many casinos along the border. We stopped for a break just past the casinos and then pressed on the Phnom Penh.
We arrived in Phnom Penh around two or three o’clock and made our way to our hostel via tuk tuk for only $3. Our tuk tuk driver was really nice and offered to pick us up the next day for a tour. Now we’re usually skeptical of this sort of thing but apparently it’s very common to just “rent” a tuk tuk and driver for a whole day for $5 per passenger and they will take you anywhere you want from about 8 am to 5 pm. We got the drivers phone number and after talking it over and looking at the tours offered by our hostel decided to text him that we’d like him to show us around the next day.
After checking in, we went down to a local restaurant recommended by our hostel and tried Cambodian noodles with beef and had a local beer. The food was excellent and very cheap, dinner for two with two beers cost us about $4.50 per couple! After dinner, we went back to our hostel to watch the movie “The Killing Fields” about the genocide that happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1980 as we were headed to the fields the next day.
Day 230 (3/14/17): Bright and early our tuk tuk driver arrived, but it was the brother of our driver the previous day. He messaged me to let me know that he would be late so he sent his brother to guide us around all day. He spoke very good English and we set off to see the Killing Fields first thing to avoid the heat that would rise to over 110 degrees with humidity later in the day.
The Killing Fields that we visited are one of hundreds of similar sites in the country where thousands of people were executed under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. The world has largely ignored this terrible genocide that left millions of Cambodians dead. We visited the mass graves and listened the stories of how they separated families and emptied out entire cities to forced labor camps and execution sites like these. Bones and cloth from the bodies if the dead still turn up in the soil on a regular basis.
One of the most horrific parts of the camp was the mass grave of over 100 mothers and children, many infants, next to a tree that they would throw infants against to kill them. This was the type of place that will reinforce beliefs about the importance of tolerance of those that are different, whether it be culturally, religiously or in any other way because this is what happens when we fail as humans to value all of our brothers and sisters.
In the middle of the fields stands a monument to remind us of the horrors of genocide with over 9,000 skulls stacked 17 ‘stories’ high, marked with causes of death, including cleaning stakes being driven by hammer into the skull. I left feeling sad but with a better understanding of the Cambodian people and their struggles.
Cambodia is a beautiful country but still very impoverished, especially in the rural areas. As you ride through the areas outside Phnom Penh you can see real daily struggle, and yet not far away you will see mansions being built and more Range Rovers than Hondas. It’s a country in dramatic transition but with a huge level of inequality that’s only widening. We rode in our tuk tuk back toward the city to the genocide museum taking in all of the sights and interesting smells of this area of the country.
Once we arrived at the museum we stopped to get a fresh fruit/veggie smoothie for $1. Everyone but me made a great choice but my love of carrots makes me terrible at ordering smoothies. It was baaaaaaaaad! The museum is located in an old prison from the time of the Khmer Rouge which as originally built as a school. The Khmer Rouge were very anti-intellectual, killing professionals and educators early on during the genocide and using this schools as a prison. The museum is a must see as you can visit cells, walk around the grounds and see various exhibits about the war, genocide and the aftermath.
Our next stop was far more uplifting; the Royal Palace! Since the restoration of the constitutional monarchy the reigning King of Cambodia has lived here. The current King has been in power since his father abdicated in 2004 but wields little power compared to the Prime Minister and Parliament. The palace is beautiful and built in the style of the Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok. The ‘Silver Pagoda’ on site is a temple filled with silver, gold and other precious national treasures. After the palace, we made a quick stop at the Central Market which is one of the nicer markets in Southeast Asia we’ve seen, selling everything from clothing, jewelry (lots of jewelry), electronics and even food.
After all this we were exhausted and went back to the hostel to shower, relax, eat dinner and pass out for the night.
Day 231 (3/15/17): After our exhausting and long day in the sweltering heat yesterday, we slept in and decided to do something that Nichi had heard was fun in Phnom Penh: take in a day of movies. Local theaters called “The Flicks Community Theaters” show three or four first-run movies a day and you can pay $3.50 per person for an all-day movie pass! We went and grabbed lunch (some more of those great and cheap Cambodian noodles and cheap beer) then headed to the theater. At the theater, we met the couple working there who were from Cincinnati! They had just quit their jobs to travel as well and were on a workaway for three weeks in Phnom Penh. It truly is a small world!
I stayed for each the first two movies, ‘Alone in Berlin’ and ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ then Nichi and I left as I wasn’t feeling to good, likely dehydrated from the previous day, combined with this days’ beer. Justin and Katie stayed for the next movies (‘Allied’ and ‘Live the Night’). Afterward we went back to prepare for the next journey to the southern coastal town of Sihanoukville in the morning.
Things We Learned:
- Cambodia is less developed than Vietnam or Thailand (this one by far) but it’s capital is not as crowded or touristy and is definitely worth a visit!
- The relatively recent genocide here provided a great history lesson for all of us and left us scratching our heads as to why we didn’t know more about this tragedy.
- Cambodia is not as cheap as parts of Vietnam despite being more impoverished but still extremely cheap compared to most places you will visit. When visiting the palace, we thought for a moment that paying $10 for entry was high but in retrospect it’s far too cheap. The palace in Bangkok is about three times more expensive and if you’ve ever been to a large attraction in Europe, well you get the idea.
- When visiting the Royal Palace, Wear clothes that cover your knees and your shoulders (NO SCARVES!). Katie was forced to purchase a rather large t-shirt at the gate in order to be allowed to enter since she only had a scarf/shawl to cover her shoulders. I guess on the bright side though, she got a new sleeping shirt out of it!