The best things to do in Cambodia’s capital.
02.12.2013 - 06.12.2013 35 °C
During the first half of last century Cambodia’s capital was known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’. Phnom Penh was cosmopolitan, full of sophistication and swish French buildings. That was until the Khmer Rouge ordered a mass evacuation in 1975, forcing everyone to work as slaves in the countryside (that’s if they weren’t killed immediately). Within just a few days the city became a ghost town with nothing swish about it. Thankfully since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Phnom Penh has slowly but surely shaken off the darkest days in its history and is once again deserving of the title the ‘Pearl of Asia’.
We spent four days in Phnom Penh and loved every bit of it especially as we were joined by a very special guest - Brayden’s little brother Jay.
Here’s our top ten in no particular order:
1. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
It doesn’t get more sobering than this place. Tuol Sleng was a high school up until the genocidal ruler Pol Pot transformed it into Security Prison 21 (S-21) in 1975. More than 17,000 people were detained and tortured here before being sent to the nearby killing fields of Choeung Ek for slaughter. The buildings have been left almost as they were when Cambodia was liberated and the Khmer Rouge fled.
--- Before it was used as a torture facility, Tuol Sleng was once a place of learning and laughter.
--- The Khmer Rouge hung prisoners upside down from these gallows. They would dip the prisoners' heads into the pots that were filled with dirty water until they lost consciousness.
--- Every victim sent here was photographed. Of the thousands who were imprisoned, only eight survived.
--- These were the barbaric cells used to hold prisoners awaiting torture and eventual execution.
--- Blood stains like this are all over.
--- Victims were shackled to bed frames while they were tortured in the hope they’d confess to plotting against Pol Pot.
2. Choeung Ek Killing Fields
This is where the thousands of men, women and children from S-21 prison were sent for execution. Because bullets were in short supply, soldiers often used blunt objects to murder their victims. As you walk through the park, a brilliant audio guide tells the story of the horrors that went on. It’s the most chilling place I’ve ever visited but I also felt a sense of relief. Two and half million Cambodians were killed during 1975 to 1979 and the world did nothing. At long last their story is being heard. The Choeung Ek Killing Field serves as reminder to us all that we can’t let anything like the Cambodian genocide happen again.
--- Choeung Ek lies about 17 km south of Phnom Penh.
--- In the centre is a memorial stupa filled with more than 8,000 skulls exhumed from a mass grave.
--- Jay with his audio guide. Because all visitors are given a guide, there is little talking and the park is a place of peace and reflection.
--- Bones and clothing still litter the site.
--- Bullets were too precious so soldiers swung infants against trees like this one before tossing them into a pit. Their mothers often watched on.
3. Royal Palace Complex
Now for somewhere a little more cheerful! This is the home of the King and is certainly fit for one. The 150 year old site is enormous, filled with temples and halls gleaming in gold as well as priceless art and other interesting treasure.
--- This monkey used a towel to hide himself from the tourists snapping him from below.
4. National Museum of Cambodia
This place is full of Khmer art - 14,000 pieces to be exact! We hired a guide to take us through room after room of treasures, many of them from the mighty Khmer Empire which once stretched over a huge portion of South East Asia.
--- The museum houses items dating as far back as prehistoric times.
The riverfront is the spot to be in Phnom Penh. A nice place for a stroll, meal or a drink. I’d recommend coming down in the arvo, grabbing a drink in happy hour and staying until nightfall when the atmosphere kicks into gear.
--- From the swankiest restaurants to the tackiest of girly bars – the waterfront is where you want to be.
6. Temple hopping
Like most of South East Asia, Phnom Penh is bursting with temples. Even if you know or care nothing about Buddhism it’s impossible not to be wowed by the sparkly buildings and all round serenity on offer. Special mention to Wat Phnom or "Hill Temple" which has an interesting history and little park. We also enjoyed Wat Langka near the independence monument. We came for the afternoon meditation session and found ourselves drifting off into a peaceful land of relaxation. If only the pins and needles in my feet stopped dragging me out of it…
--- Wat Phnom.
--- Inside most temples you'll find images of the Buddha's life.
--- All temples feature depictions of the serpent or 'naga'. They are considered guardians who keep away bad spirits.
7. Travelling by tuk tuk
After sampling tuk tuks across the world for the past year and half I can declare Cambodia as home to the world’s most comfortable. Padded seats, room to stretch your legs and a perfect view - you can kick back and enjoy the scenery while the poor driver on a few bucks an hour fights his way through the traffic chaos.
8. Central Market.
Built in 1937 and painted a very happy shade of yellow, this art deco stunner has been restored to its former grandeur. Inside you’ll find hundreds of stalls selling thousands of different items.
9. Cooking class
Cambodian cuisine isn’t as famous as its neighbour Thailand’s but there’s still plenty to boast about. I was keen to learn the inns and outs and signed up to a cooking class, dragging Jay along with me. The half-day tour included a tour of a local market and two typical dishes - spring rolls and another very close to my heart… (see number 10 below)
--- As we toured this colourful market we played a game of 'guess this fruit/vegetable/spice/dead animal' this is.
--- How boring is a supermarket compared to this?!
--- Jay hard at work in the 'Cambodia Cooking Class' kitchen.
--- Carrot and taro spring rolls.
10. Eat Amok!
This curry is a traditional Khmer dish and is delicious. It’s usually steamed in banana leaves and served with a little coconut cream on top. Yummmm! I’d run amok for Amok! You can find it at most of the restaurants serving traditional fare.
--–Amok is a bit like a Thai red curry only more thick and creamy.