The “Whereabouts” series is now taking guests! Have a location to share? Pitch your idea here.
Presenting ‘Phnom Penh, Cambodia’ according to one of my favorites, Cait Davison.
At first glance, Phnom Penh appears to be a city of contradictions. The grandeur and beauty of Independence Monument, Silver Pagoda, and the Royal Palace stand in stark contrast to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods just blocks away. You’ll see more Lexus SUVs driving around downtown than in Hollywood, yet you’ll also see more begging children than perhaps any other country you’ve visited. As well, child trafficking is a major problem, however there are literally dozens of organizations currently working to eradicate this terrible reality. You may be scratching your head and wondering what to make of the Kingdom’s capital what with all of these paradoxes.
I had the opportunity to live and volunteer in this interesting city for 3 months, and I can tell you that it’s worth digging deeper than what appears on the surface to reach into the heart of the city—which is actually the hearts of the people who run it. What I saw when I peeled back the layers was a city (and a nation) doing a hell of a good job at pulling itself up by its bootstraps despite the current corruption, poverty, and the devastating genocide they endured just 35 years ago. So you see, the contradictions come as a result of the Cambodian people transitioning into a better place for themselves and their country.
Now, it took me nearly three months to come to this conclusion. I’ve met travelers who spent anywhere from a day to a week in the capital and weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Here is my whittled-down list for things to do and see that I believe can help travelers really understand and appreciate the Kingdom’s capital.
1. Pay a visit (and your respects) to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocidal Center) and the S-21 Tuol Sleng Museum
It is by no means the most fun activity to indulge in, but it truly does lend insight to the gruesome genocide that received very little press and acknowledgement during its time. The Khmer Rouge saw 1 in 4 Cambodians murdered ruthlessly at the hands of Pol Pot in his quest to “cleanse” the nation of what he deemed “undesirable” citizens. You’ll cry, you’ll shudder, and you’ll grow to understand how this terrible ordeal has shaped the Cambodia you see today. My advice: do both the killing fields and the museum in one day, that way you can focus on more pleasurable outings on your other days! And be sure to pay a few extra bucks to get an audio headset at Choeung Ek, so you can hear the stories as you walk the Fields. If you want to get a little exercise, you can even ride your bike to and from the Killing Fields—it’s about 13 km from the heart of PP and took me around an hour, using the calmer back-roads. I even stopped for lunch after visiting Choeung Ek at a local Cambodian restaurant along the route back to PP.
2. Take in the city by tuk-tuk!
Tuk-tuks, used by locals, tourists and expats alike, are far and away the best way to get around Phnom Penh (if you don’t have a motorbike of your own, that is!) They’re cheaper than other SEA countries I’ve visited, though you still should bargain with the drivers every time. Here are the “must see’s” on your downtown tour: Independence Monument, the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, the Post Office, the Silver Pagoda, and of course the riverside area (Sisowath Quay street.) Sure, you coooould see everything by walking to and from each location, but it’ll be faster, cooler, cleaner and altogether FAR more enjoyable to get around this way!
3. Take a day trip to Kien Svay, or as locals call it, Koki Beach
Get out of the city for half a day the way the locals do: by whiling away the hours in a stilted bamboo cabana over the lake. This place is like a breath of fresh air after spending a few hot, loud, gritty days exploring the inner city. Kien Svay is in Kandal Province, about 15 km from Phnom Penh, and most tuk-tuk drivers will know where it is. You can rent a cabana for around $3-5 for the entire day, and you pay for food and drink separately—or just pack your own for a picnic. Things to do? Journal or read while lounging in the built-in hammocks, play games (we played Bingo in Khmer!), hop in a boat headed toward the market, eat, drink (yes, they do sell beer), and just enjoy the peace and beautiful surroundings. Things not to do? Go on Sunday, because you won’t be able to find a free cabana, OR swim in the water.
4. Spend some time perusing the Khmer markets, or “Psars”
“Psar” means “market” in Khmer, and it wouldn’t be a visit to Phnom Penh without checking out at least one or two. Each has its own flair, so if you have time I advise popping into a few to experience the contrast. If not, at the very least you must visit the Russian Market (“Psar Toul Tom Pong”). Seriously, it has everything you could ever want to buy, and for insanely low prices. DVDs=$1, silk scarves=$2, hammocks=$2, coconut shell chopsticks=$0.50, Lululemon workout pants=$5. The list goes on and on. Vendors do expect you to bargain a bit, so have fun mingling with the local sellers and finding a happy agreement on pricing. A few of my other favorite markets include the Central Market (“Psar Thmei”) which is known for its retro 70s art deco building, the Night Market (“Psar Reatrey”), and for those who REALLY want the local experience, Psar Orussey. There’s not even an English name for this one because typically only the locals frequent it! But if you’re up for it, it’s a 3-story maze that will leave you dizzy with the local flavor.
5. Beat the heat with a film at Flicks
You might think that going to the movies while visiting a new country is silly or even a waste of your precious touring time, but that’s BEFORE I tell you about Flicks. Think of it as more of a movie house than a cinema. The rooms hold about 30 viewers, and the stadium-style seating is made up of mattresses and couches (AKA, the comfiest theater EVER). The cost is $4.50 for the day, and for that price you can see one, two, or all three films they are showing that day. As if all that wasn’t good enough, in addition to the blockbuster films and oldies-but-goodies that they show, Flicks is really good about playing movies that enlighten viewers about Cambodia. Two films I’ve seen there are “The Killing Fields,” an incredible true story about a New York Times journalist and his Khmer assistant who were trapped in Phnom Penh during the onset of the Khmer Rouge, and “Same Same But Different,” another true story about a young German tourist who falls in love with a Cambodian bar girl. So to summarize, you can learn more about Cambodia, while drinking beer and eating popcorn or burgers, in their awesome AC, in a volunteer-run movie house, that puts its proceeds back into the Phnom Penh expat community. Win, win, win.
- Hit a happy hour at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC)! This bar is famous for being a safe haven during the 70’s to foreign journalists. Today it boasts a sweet balcony with a river view and a 2-for-1 happy hour!
- A 1-2 hour river cruise on the Tonle Sap will run you $15, but it’s well worth it for the views of downtown from the water.
- Go see a football (soccer) game for only $2 at the Olympic Stadium. Swim laps in their Olympic-sized pool, or just exercise in a sweet location that may not be around for much longer.
- There are a multitude of organizations aka do-gooder NGOs in the form of cafes, jewelry shops, massage shops, etc. that provide training and jobs to at-risk Cambodians, and those who have been victims of trafficking and the sex trade. Daughters of Cambodia, Friends International, and Penh Lenh jewelry are some of my personal favs.
- Four times a week, the monks open up the Wat Langka Temple for a free guided Vipassana meditation. It was one of the most peaceful things I did in the city, although I only had the endurance to meditate for about 40 minutes (it’s totally fine to stay for as little or long as you please!) Do be sure to cover shoulders and knees out of respect.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cait Davison is a New England native who, after 7 years on the west coast and 19 months in Asia, now calls both coasts home. She has visited 27 countries and most recently spent a year teaching in South Korea, followed by 3 months of SEA traveling and another 3 months volunteering in Cambodia with the wonderfully ethical NGO “Conversations with Foreigners.” Cait loves dreaming about traveling and doing as much of it as she can. Check out her wanderings on her Instagram.