Following our peaceful two days at the elephant sanctuary, we headed back to the hustle and bustle of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.
After yet another gruelling six-hour bus journey, where we were crammed like sardines into a local minibus/post van, we made it back to the city.
As we split our Phnom Penh stay into two, two days either side of the elephants, I thought it would be best to do…
My five highlights of Phnom Penh
The Killing Fields
Unsurprisingly, coming up top was visiting the Killing Fields, known to the Cambodians as Choeung Ek.
It’s not an enjoyable experience in the slightest, but I truly believe that everyone visiting Phnom Penh should go there.
During the Khmer Rouge, between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 prison were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek.
The remains of 8,985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in this one-time longan orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched.
About an hours tuk tuk ride from the centre, the Killing Fields wasn’t at all what I had expected. This time we’d done our research, but upon entering I was blown away by how peaceful and tranquil it was. There were hundreds of butterflies and bird song filled the air. A stark contrast to the horrors that had taken place here.
We paid extra for the audio guide began the tour. Choosing to separate from the group and experience the place on a more personal level.
There are a number of marked mass graves, collections of bone fragments and clothes that have been found by staff at the site.
We were told right at the beginning that as we were visiting during rainy season, it was common for clothes and bone to be seen coming up through the ground along the walkways. This was the part that got to me the most. That morning, on our two hour visit, we carefully stepped around a number of items. ‘The dead here do not rest’.
The end of the tour took us to the memorial stupa where more than 8,000 skulls are visible behind the clear glass. You can’t help but feel as though each of them is watching you.
The whole experience was deeply moving and it’s very difficult to describe. I can only imagine that anyone who has visited Auschwitz feels the same.
S-21 Prison (Genocide Museum)
A former school, Pol Pot’s secret prison, codenamed S-21, saw between 1-2 million Cambodians and many thousands of foreigners, starved to death, tortured and killed between 1975 – 1978.
Slap bang in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city, the genocide museum allows visitors to walk around the four buildings and witness the items that were left there when the Khmer Rouge fled. With bloodstained floors and cells still left intact the eerie feeling you get whilst walking around uncomfortable to say the least.
The exhibition also includes thousands of photographs. The guards photographed every prisoner they held, tortured and killed. Thousands of faces stare at you as you walk the rooms. One thing I still can’t get over is the strength of every person. Clearly terrified, each held their heads up high, even the children.
I would recommend visiting S-21 before the actual Killing Fields themselves for a better understanding of what you are witnessing.
The Royal Palace
We’d heard the Royal Palace was one of the city’s highlights and judging from the constant queues outside we decided to grab our scarfs and join the them.
The Palace was beautiful! Every detail had been thought about, every tile, every door, every railing was carefully designed and crafted. I can’t imagine Buckingham Palace was this thought out – I shall put it on my list of things to check.
We wandered around the gardens for an hour, unfortunately we couldn’t go inside as the King was home, so headed in search of the famous Silver Pagoda.
Strangely it wasn’t marked on our maps as a point of interest and we only saw one lonely handwritten sign referring to the Silver Pagoda. Odd, how it’s one of the highlights.
An hour later we were still wandering… In a country that seems to employ a ridiculous amount of people, here it takes four people to fill up your car with fuel, no one was around to ask. Deciding that it was too hot to keep wandering we asked the icecream lady, who promptly pointed us in the direction of a temple we’d already visited.
Thanking her we headed back to the temple, removed our shoes, readjusted our scarfs and headed inside. Nope, still couldn’t see it. Surely it couldn’t be hard to spot, a pagoda (whatever that is) covered in thousands of diamonds.
We asked a security guard who was in charge of making sure people didn’t take photographs (no wonder no one knows what they’re looking for, there’s not photos of it) and he pointed at a statue. A gold statue and to be honest it didn’t seem that sparkly. Now to me that makes no sense, no wonder we couldn’t find it!
Not wanting to seem rude or uncultured, we stood there for a few minutes appreciating the beauty of the craftsmanship, we then hot footed it out towards a cafe.
So in conclusion, it wasn’t what we expected but it sure was beautiful!
We got to practice our bartering skills at the Central Market. The boys going for more of a forward approach, offering half the asking price and seeing what happens, versus our girls way of ‘walking away’. Have to say that the boys probably got the better deal.
Note to self: must try harder next time.
At least we nabbed a bargain at the massive food court where we had a big bowl of questionable meat* soup for about 50p.
*Think along the lines of I’m a Celebrity and you’d be about right.
With half of our group feeling rather worse for wear (and no not due to alcohol), we girls headed off to the famous Russian Market. We’d been warned not to go in the heat of the day so made sure we were there by 10am.
After walking down the stupidly narrow aisles, the sweat was pouring. Even the locals were glistening in the heat. It was unbearable. The humidity, mixed with crowds and the overwhelming smell of fish was overpowering, but not wanting to miss out on another character-building experience we chose the ‘breathe through the mouth’ routine and battled through.
Despite the smell, the central food area was amazing. Women sat on their stalls skinning a whole manner of animals, fresh fish jumping around in boxes of ice – can’t get fresher than that!
We managed to stay inside for about an hour before escaping to the open streets.
I loved our ten days in Cambodia. I fell in love with the country more than I could have imagined. Now time for the next adventure…
We spent our first two nights at Mad Monkeys. A great hostel with modern rooms and a rooftop bar. It was a great place to meet people and also had a reasonably-priced bar serving food. I’d highly recommend the continental breakfast!
It’s about a ten-minute walk from S-21 but quite far from the markets and palace.
We stayed in Lovely Jubbly on our second trip to Phnom Penh – in the hope that a more central location would save us money on tuk-tuks. It worked! Apart from the Russian Market, we managed to walk to everything.
The hostel may have prison-like decor with cement walls, floors and black ceilings, but it’s edgy and the staff are really friendly.
Word of advice, if you stay here head to the laundry place opposite – it’s about half the price of the hostel service.