Warning: Some content in this post may be potentially disturbing.
Bustling Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a lively, exciting city full of character. Cambodian culture oozes from the cracks of the bustling city streets, from crafty stalls in the art deco Central Market to fried creepy crawlies in the many night markets. Although often overshadowed by Siem Reap, Phnom Penh is a must-see city of Southeast Asia.
Getting to Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh has an international airport for those flying in from far-off cities. Otherwise, buses and vans are also a suitable option. Coming from Siem Reap, we hired a van for the 6-hour journey. Our driver was two hours late, and the aircon wasn’t nearly high enough - but such is Cambodian van travel! There are plenty of companies that will book you in a van or a bus for less than $10.
For some reason, maybe the absurdly hot climate, Phnom Penh is known for pool hopping. We stayed in a hostel called Eighty8 Backpackers, which of course, had its own pool. When looking for accommodation, opt for one where you can take a dip in the scorching afternoon. You probably won’t want to be out during the heat anyway.
Understanding Cambodian History
Cambodia’s history is riddled with violence and instability. But now, Cambodians are happy to be at peace and eager to share stories about their country’s past.
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge’s army emerged from the jungles of Eastern Cambodia where they had been building under the leadership of Pol Pot. They captured the capital, overthrew the government, and sought to return the country to an agrarian, socialist republic. The Khmer Rouge regime shut down Cambodian cities and imprisoned anyone who was seen as opposition to Pol Pot’s idea of the perfect society, including scholars, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and most professionals. pPrisoners were interrogated, tortured, and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit. After which, they were trucked to unmarked “Killing Fields,” and brutally executed.
The Killing Fields
Phnom Penh’s main attraction is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, otherwise known as The Killing Fields. “Killing Fields” are burial grounds throughout Cambodia where mass execution occurred under Khmer Rouge, killing between 1.5 to 3 million people. Choeung Ek is the largest known site in Cambodia where over 8,800 bodies were uncovered, thus adopting the overarching name of “The Killing Fields.”
Visiting the Killing Fields is an emotional, but necessary experience for anyone visiting Cambodia. The $8 admission fee includes an audio tour, which is the best way to get the most out of your visit. The tour will take you through 18 spots around the fields, each with an accompanying narrative and a few sub-topics for those wishing to dig deeper. If you’re not rushing to catch a flight, take the time to listen to each story.
At the far end of the grounds, there is a pond you can walk around and listen to stories of survivors, or just be in your own head. The Killing Fields are provocative and potentially triggering, so prepare to have time to process your thoughts.
The last stop on the audio tour brings you to the central stupa, a memorial for the unburied victims. Within the glass walls of the memorial are shelves upon shelves filled with skulls of those massacred at Choeung Ek. The lowest shelves are displayed with color-coded stickers indicating the cause of death drawn by forensic specialists, including the suspected tools. Being in the stupa with the remains can be both overwhelming and enlightening.
Be sure to donate a dollar or two to contribute a flower and incense to the memorial.
S21 Genocidal Museum
Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum is an accompanying experience to the Killing Fields, or perhaps an alternative for those who may find the Fields too triggering. S21 was originally a high school converted to a prison upon capture by the Khmer Rouge regime. Now, the grounds serve as both a memorial and an educational opportunity.
The classrooms were converted into torture chambers, interrogation rooms, and prison cells. As you walk through the old eerie campus, you’ll find the rooms filled with meticulous records of the prisoners kept by the Khmer Rouge Regime. Thousands of images fill the walls of unjustly persecuted Cambodians. Over 14,000 people were brought to the prison, and only 7 are known to have survived. Spend some time observing the artistic depictions of what life was like in the prison.
For a more upbeat, lively experience of Phnom Penh, check out the vivacious Central Market! The bright yellow art deco building is jam packed with shops and countertops full of Cambodian goodies.
Browse the sparkling silver boxes, the wooden carvings, old war memorabilia, charming jewelry, flashy watches, and heaps of textiles! This is definitely the place to grab grandma a good souvenir.
You cannot miss a food market while in Phnom Penh. Check out the Sambath Tonle Bassac Night Market for an authentic Cambodian night out. There are loads of vendors lined up along the Wat Botum Park where families gather to enjoy the late afternoon’s setting sun. Each cart has a full spread of oddities to throw on the grill - cucumber-stuffed squids, full-sized frogs, slimy garlic snails, and still-moving seafood!
Jet’s Container Night Market is another great place to hit the town. There are a couple blocks of lively restaurants bumping loud music and selling cheap beer - popular with the young folk. Try a few things from one of the buffets and climb directly above to the dining area where you can join all the other market-goers across the whole market!
If you’re still hungry, head to the Night Market (vaguely named) right next to the Children Park Koh Pich. The food stalls create a courtyard-esque seating area made up of straw mats and low tables. Grab some noodles and pop a squat, or just wander around the maze of shops and listen to some local performers on the full-size stage!
Vibe Asia is an amazing 100% plant-based vegan restaurant on Street 446. This three-story cafe offers vibrant, filling meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Head to the top floor for a table in their cozy “rooftop jungle” among hanging plants and straw cushions.
You can leave with a smile on your face knowing that 10% of Vibe’s proceeds are donated to the Good Vibe Foundation, bringing healthy vegan food to children around Cambodia! Check them out at https://goodvibefoundation.org/ for more information!