Phnom Penh Tuk

Phnom Penh: Low to Highlights

City of Contrasts

Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s bustling metropolis, bursting at the seams with recent bloody history.

Argentina Path

The detention center and torture chamber Tuol Sleng and the infamous Killing fields are gaunt reminders that point to the brutal tyranny of the Khmer Rouge and its despotic leader Pol Pot. Many people are aware of the tyranny that tore this country apart in the late seventies but few understand why it happened. If you wish to learn about the Khmer Rouge before you arrive (and I highly recommend that you do as it is an integral part of the Cambodian people) there is some excellent literature surrounding the subject. One such book that captures the sheer terror of being caught in the middle of the Khmer Rouge’s plans for purification is Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father. For something that gives a look at the politics and reasoning for the genocides, Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 is an incredibly in-depth account.

Don’t be put off by these opening sentiments. Phnom Penh offers you a brutal and unflinchingly honest representation of itself. It does not shy away from its past and in some circumstances it positively glorifies it to the point of being tactless. It offers insights into its horrendous past as well as the opportunity to sunbathe on a freshwater beach.

A city of vast contrasts that never ceases to amaze, this is Phnom Penh.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Tuol Genocide Museum

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21) is a stark building, painfully reminding the outside world of the brutal and systematic methods of the Khmer Rouge.

Tuol Sleng served as the interrogation center for accused dissidents. The methods used to interrogate the prisoners are brought vividly to life with the use of photographs and written accounts from former detainees. There is little in this world more harrowing than viewing the photograph depicting a rusted and blood-splattered bed frame used to tie torture victims to, only to be confronted with what appears to be the very same bed frame towards the end of your tour.

The beggars are present in huge numbers outside the museum, so be prepared to meet the victims of this building.

The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)

The Killing fields lie about 15km outside of the city center, off an innocuous track, in an otherwise unremarkable location. It is a tiny area but the death toll of 17,000 Khmer people will leave you awestruck.

Right from the start, you will be confronted with a Buddhist stupa memorial, a beautifully rendered construction of glass and steel which houses over 5,000 human skulls dug from around the site over the last few decades.

The entire site manages to transfer the dramatic sense of loss felt by survivors of the revolution. Even though the area is small, the gaping chasm left within you caused by the history of the fields threatens to overwhelm at any point.

The guides you find at Choeung Ek tend to be individuals who survived or were child soldiers and guards at the fields and will convey their personal accounts of what they were forced to do or what they were forced to view with confounding calm.

Mekong Islands

Mekong Koh Dach River

The Mekong islands are just over 25km north of the capital. If you feel confident enough it is worth hiring bikes to make your own way there. Road signs are all in Khmer so be prepared to translate or be happy getting slightly lost. The island you are looking for specifically is Koh Duch. Any one of the local population you ride past will know where you are heading so bear in mind that you can always stop and ask. If not, then a tuk-tuk driver will take you for around about $20USD.

The islands themselves are home to a small population of fishermen and their families. The women and children make very robust livings selling handmade silk scarves. One or two of the families may even invite you into their home whilst you watch them making the scarves on their beautiful old looms.

The real attraction of the islands however is the natural beach complete with river huts at the northern tip. You can hire one of these huts to use for the day whilst lounging inches above the water, ordering freshwater snails and Angkor beer to snack on.

Linna Culinary School

If you find yourself wanting to be able to take some of the local cuisine away with you, Linna Culinary School is a fantastic way to spend half the day. Set up in 2010 by Vong Linna, it gives a brilliant introduction into Khmer cuisine.

Most classes follow the same basic structure. You will be taken to the local market to buy the ingredients, then return to the school to be introduced to cooking techniques and prepare the meals. By lunchtime you will have learnt to cook at least two main dishes and a side dish. I was able to ask our instructor for an additional introduction to spicy beef salad although I feel this was probably because spicy beef salad is incredibly easy and we were waiting for others to finish.

The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda

Royal Palace

The locations and attractions above are a very small sample of what Phnom Penh has to offer. Alongside the obligatory Royal Palace, there is the mightily impressive Independence Monument, laid down in 1953 to mark Cambodia’s release from French rule. It sits in the middle of one of the main roads in the central district silently proclaiming a calm dignity.

The Silver Pagoda lies to the south side of the Royal Palace and is worth investigating just to see the sheer amount of wealth accumulated in one building set just aside from the local beggar hotspot. The contrast between rich and poor is always a gaping chasm in countries like Cambodia but the Silver Pagoda simply has to be seen to be believed.

Tuk-Tuk Tour

You can hire one of the tuk-tuk drivers from outside the hostels to drive you to a number of places and negotiate a price. They all offer the same attractions and sights unless you ask them to take you somewhere more specific.

Phnom Penh Tuk

Something that touches me to this day was that the man we hired to guide us for the week became a friend. He grabbed us straight off the boat and screamed bloody defiance at any others who dared touch or speak to us and then proceeded to introduce himself as the most gentle, honest and hard-working individual I have ever met. We negotiated a price for his services for the week that we were both satisfied with and then saw just about everything that Phnom Penh has to offer. He began to take us to the more local areas of the city starting with the long eating halls frequented only by the locals. We ate with his family and met his fiancée. By the time we had to leave he had asked us to return in a month’s time to come to his wedding.

The friendliness of the Khmer people is something that you will hear echoed from blog site to review to guide book. It is not a lie or an exaggeration. They are some of the most accommodating and generous individuals you will ever have the pleasure to meet.

If you are planning on visiting Cambodia, set aside some time for Phnom Penh.