We flew from Hanoi to Phnom Penh on an early morning flight, and it was the strangest we’d ever been on. The one hour 45 minute journey was on huge jumbo jet, and the total passenger count…10. We virtually had a staff member each! Normally we’re searching for a spare seat so we don’t have Jack on top of us for the entire flight, this time there were no such worries. Although it didn’t stop Jack from still wanting to sit on top of us. You know how when you take your dogs to the park, and there’s huge amounts of space to play with other dogs, but all they want to do is run around at your feet? That’s what it’s like with Jack on planes.
We arrived at the airport, paid $US20 each for our single entry visa, plus $US5 for the guy who handed our arrival cards to us at the Visa On Arrival desk (still not sure why), and we were on our way. You’ve really got two choices to get into town, a taxi or a tuk tuk. The taxi costs $US12, the tuk tuk $US7, so of course we went for the latter.
The first thing you notice about Phnom Penh is the poverty. Our frame of reference when determining poverty is obviously limited, we’ve only been to two countries on this nomadic adventure so far, but to us this was pretty low. We’ve both travelled extensively before, but mainly to first-world countries, and not nomadically like we are now. As we made our way to the hotel, we drove past what I assume was parliament house. It was called the Council of Ministers, a magnificent building, at least 12 stories high, beautifully maintained and would have cost a fortune to build. Disappointingly the enormous divide between the haves and have nots was a clear theme throughout our stay.
Because we were about three hours early for check-in, we dumped our gear at our hotel, The Mekong Boutique, and made our way to the riverfront to grab some lunch. We walked past people lying on the footpath, some with children, clearly homeless without a penny to their name. There they lived, right outside the Royal Palace, a regal home that wouldn’t look out of place beside the grandest of European equivalents.
We stopped at one of the many restaurants along the riverfront looking for some local Cambodian food, and sat at a table out the front. We ordered from the menu and within minutes a man with a horrible deformity approached our table begging for money. He had a huge growth protruding from his forehead, covered with hair and hanging over his face. Moments after he left a mentally retarded man pushing a mentally and physically retarded man in a wheelchair approached begging for the same. Then a group of four children surrounded our table, acting cute but eyeing off our food, wanting to eat our lunch and asking us to buy them ice-creams.
‘Welcome to Phnom Penh’ I thought.
It’s difficult to know what to do in these situations. Do you give them money? Do you politely say no? Do you ignore them altogether? Everything we read online recommends not giving money or food to beggars. You can’t possibly give everyone who approaches money, it’s a tough situation to be in, but obviously not as tough as that of the beggar. It wouldn’t be the only time we encountered beggars while in Phnom Penh, in fact we were approached every day. Each time I’d think of the parliament building we saw on our way into town, or the other incredible buildings we’d see while there, and wonder why there was plenty of money for these projects, but none for the people on the streets.
During our four day stay the weather was incredibly hot. Within a minute of walking out of the hotel in the morning I’d be covered in sweat. I’d have a reflective sheen from head to toe, and anyone looking in my direction would need to be wearing sunglasses to maintain any sort of eye contact. For the majority of our time we walked around the city, making our way from one place of interest to the next, stopping for a bite to eat or a drink at one of the many street vendors along the way. On one of our days we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the Killing Fields, Russian Market and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Here’s what we got up to during our stay:
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda ($US6 entry fee)
The royal family still live here so part of the grounds are no-go zones, but that doesn’t matter, there’s still plenty to see. The buildings are quite simply magnificent, and the grounds are in perfect condition. Once inside the high walls keep the sounds of the city out, providing a nice sanctuary from every day Phnom Penh life. You must cover your knees and shoulders when here, so make sure you don’t wear shorts and a tank top. Even while walking around these amazing buildings, the cynic inside me kept asking the same questions. Does the money raised from the entry fee cover the costs to maintain the palace and pay staff? What happens to any profit, does it go to the royal family or back into the community? How much tourism is generated because of the palace? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Some countries can absorb losses, some can’t.
We didn’t go in, but we had a look around outside. It’s a beautiful building in traditional Cambodian style. If you want to go in there’s over 5,000 objects on display including Angkorian statues and other artefacts, as well as pieces from other eras.
Wat Phnom ($US1 entry fee for foreigners)
It was a bit of a trek from our hotel to this place at the northern end of Norodom Boulevard, but well worth the walk. It’s a small hill with an active Buddhist Wat on top, marking the birthplace of Phnom Penh. Legend has it in 1372 Lady Penh fished a Koki tree out of the river, discovering four Buddha statues inside. To house the statues she built a hill (‘Phnom’ means hill) and a small temple (wat) here, hence the name Wat Phnom. Later the surrounding area became known as Phnom Penh after the hill and it’s creator.
Phsar Thmey (Central Market)
This is an impressive art deco style building, if you like that sort of thing, with four arms that meet in the middle at a searing dome. It’s well known because of the vast array of gems and jewellery for sale, but there’s plenty of other goods to buy as well. We went there with one goal in mind, to buy me a hat. Unfortunately we failed dismally as they didn’t fit my head, even with the aid of the ever present lubricating sheen! There’s also a ‘food court’ where you can sit down and have a bite to eat and a drink.
The Riverfront and Sisowath Quay
If you’re looking for a bite to eat to suit any budget ranging from local Cambodian food to your more Western style cuisine, this is the place for you. And, along with Area 51 (on street 51), it is the focal point of the many bars and clubs in the city. At the top of Sisowath Quay is the Night Market. When it’s on it’s packed so take very good care of your belongings. Sarah had her handbag over her shoulder, zipped and buttoned shut, but miraculously while in amongst the heavily congested crowd our hotel room key ended up flying out of her bag onto the ground. We’re guessing someone took a grab in her purse and didn’t like what they came out with.
Choeung Ek Memorial -The Killing Fields ($US6 entry fee)
We negotiated a fee with a tuk tuk driver for the half day it was going to take us to see the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. He started at $US25, I started at $US15 and we ended up agreeing on $US17. It seems I’m getting much better at this negotiating business. You can read a far more in-depth description of our visit to the Killing Fields by clicking HERE, but be prepared to be question your faith in humanity and re-evaluate what humans are prepared to do to each other after your visit.
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum ($US1 entry fee)
Prior to the Khmer Rouge seizing control of Cambodia this was a school surrounded by a high wall. Once Pol Pot was in power it was converted into a prison called S-21 where inmates were interrogated and tortured to get the required ‘confession’ the Khmer Rouge needed. The prisoners were then sent to Choeung Ek to be executed in the Killing Fields. It’s now a memorial, a museum and testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. It’s left pretty much how it was found after it was abandoned in 1979, the crudely built tiny brick cells still standing. Other rooms are filled with thousands of photos of the victims, along with many other artefacts such as torture devices and weapons.
There’s quite a few other things to do while in Phnom Penh. We poked our heads in the Russian Market (Phsar Toul Tom Poung), but it was like so many other markets we’ve already been to so didn’t stay long. I touched on Area 51 (on Street 51) earlier which is the city’s best known party district, but neither of us drink and we have Jack so it didn’t really appeal to us.
Would I go back to Phnom Penh again? Probably not. The sporadic foul smells, rubbish in the streets and abject poverty aren’t appealing, and the clear division between the rich and poor makes me angry quite frankly. To think Phnom Penh was once the jewel in France’s Indochina crown, evident by the smattering of beautiful buildings around town. But a combination of the maniacal regime of the Khmer Rouge (of which there are still members in today’s government), the corruption in the ensuing years, and incomprehensible building approvals has diminished its appeal.
Luckily for Cambodia I’m in the minority as tourism is booming, bringing a great deal of foreign money into the country. I just hope that money goes to the people who need it most, those sleeping in the streets outside the Royal Palace and various embassies. But the cynic in me doesn’t believe that will be the case, and that makes me too angry to return.
Note: Everything is in American Dollars, and while it’s not the official currency, it’s used far more frequently then the Cambodian Riel. In fact, American Dollars are dispensed from the ATM’s, not Riel.