After a six-hour hour bus ride from the Thai border through rural Cambodia I definitely did not expect such a modern, clean and colonial city – on first impressions, I LOVED Phnom Penh. I thought I would share some of my experience and tips with fellow Thelma & Louise members.
It’s so much more that I expected
With wide paved boulevards, an al-fresco cafe culture and a distinctly European feel, this city is worlds apart from the chaos and smog of neighbouring capital, Bangkok. I stayed in Phnom Penh for two weeks and whilst there are several “must-see” attractions there are also many unforgettable experiences that make up my Phnom Penh “top ten”.
1. Take a moto-taxi
Slow moving traffic and gridlock streets are somewhat of a characteristic of many Asian city streets. Undoubtedly the quickest way to get around the Phnom Penh is by moto-taxi. Whilst not for the faint hearted, moto-taxis are one of the most exhilarating ways to explore the city, ducking and weaving through traffic.
“However, after a while you will lose the fear and embrace the freedom that can only come from tearing through this beautiful city with the wind in your hair.”
To begin with you may, like me, spend more time with your eyes closed and holding your breath. I still am not sure quite why that helps but it does. However, after a while you will lose the fear and embrace the freedom that can only come from tearing through this beautiful city with the wind in your hair.
For those who are not quite ready to jump on the back of a motorbike, a tuk-tuk is a good way to get about town and better if there are more than two of you. It is impossible to walk for more than fifty metres in the city without hearing “madam tuk-tuk” or “good morning, moto moto” there is a lot of competition so you should never have to pay over the odds for your ride. As a general rule moto-taxi journeys should cost $1-$2 and tuk-tuks between $1.50 and $3.
The city is not that big - so don’t be taken in by a reluctant driver insisting the fare is $5.
2. Take in Phnom Penh’s cultural sites
Built in 1866, the building of the Royal Palace & Silver Pagoda are impressive and opulent examples of traditional Khmer architecture. As the palace complex is home to Cambodia’s king there are parts that are out-of-bounds but there is still plenty to see. Admission is $3 plus a $2 fee if you take in a camera.
Wat Phnom, or as it is otherwise know Hill Temple, is one of the city’s most important Wats. This ornate temple, which is guarded by stone lions, sits on top of a 100ft man-made hill. Tourists have to pay a $1 admission fee to enter. Women need to dress conservatively at both the Wat Phnom and the palace complex, shoulders must be covered so take a scarf if it’s too hot to put on long sleeves.
3. Visit Tuol Sleng (S21) genocide museum
Dark, shocking and extremely haunting, S21 is the site at which 17,000 men, women and children were held prisoner and ultimately executed under the Khmer Rouge. If you can handle sitting for an hour in a dark and stiflingly hot room, then there are ‘film’ showings in the main block at 10.00 and 15.00, which tell the story of one of the prison’s survivors (of which there were only a handful) and one of its former “guards”.
The photo exhibits of former prisoners and collection of skulls that have been excavated from the “Killing Fields” are undeniably disturbing. Walking through the detainee cells with their eerie etchings on the wall and the camp’s torture chambers are images that will stay with me for a lifetime.
For all its atrocities this is one of Phnom Penh’s most “popular” attractions and gives an incredible insight into how awful and oppressing life under the Khmer Rouge was for the nation of Cambodia. Entrance to the museum is $2.
4. Haggle for handicrafts at the city’s markets
Phnom Penh is a shopper’s paradise, filled with malls, boutiques and designer stores. For souvenirs however, there is no better place for choice than its markets.
Carvings, artwork and fakes-a-plenty can be found at Russian Market but it gets very hot and crowded. A huge range of Khmer silk products and scarves are on offer but prices are set pretty high and you will have to bargain hard. I managed to pick up three traditional silk scarves for $10 but prices do start off at about $8 each! Central market is another popular market though at my time of visiting it was under renovation. From what I can tell it is similar but housed in a huge Art-deco style building.
5. Eat Khmer
There is so much to choose from when it comes to eating in the city. There are outstanding restaurants for just about every type of international cuisine at somewhat international prices ($7-$10 for mains) but head off the main boulevards and into the back streets and you will find more authentic places to eat - often just benches or seats on the side of the road with one pot of noodle soup bubbling away nearby.
“Take a walk around the Independence Monument in the early morning or at dusk and you will see whole families marching around in their “sports-wear pyjamas.”
Very few local restaurants have menus or staff that speak English so it’s, more often than not, a case of signing and pointing at the food of others. You get what you are given. In such places, $10 will get you a meat dish, a fish dish, veggies, rice and noodles and will feed three to four people.
Food hygiene standards are pretty high and seemingly very few travellers get sick so street eats are normally fine. Being veggie my favourites were the crispy fried leek potato cakes and giant sweetcorn on offer after dusk by the independence monument. Meat eaters are spoilt for choice.
6. Go karaoke crazy
Karaoke is a Cambodian national past time and a real passion of the people, so most of the city’s bar, clubs and even some of its restaurants do karaoke on a daily basis.
“Here it’s the taking part that counts and it doesn’t matter if you are genuinely terrible or can’t read the lyrics.”
Now, it’s not often that you would catch me taking to the mic but I didn’t want to offend my Cambodian host! I fought the nerves and started my duet. Here it’s the taking part that counts and it doesn’t matter if you are genuinely terrible or can’t read the lyrics. If you hum along or dance with the microphone in your hand you will inevitably be well received and heartily applauded.
7. Exercise with the locals
The Cambodian people don’t take themselves or exercising too seriously. It is after all supposed to be fun, and it shows. Take a walk around the Independence Monument in the early morning or at dusk and you will see whole families marching around in their “sports-wear pyjamas” with their retro approach to exercise, limbs-a-flailing. At times the boulevard looks like an 80’s exercise video shoot just disbanded but only without the spandex.
Outdoor group exercise is also immensely popular and very widespread across the city. With sunrise tai chi, hundreds of badminton games and aerobics en-mass to take part in, who needs to join a gym!? This is serious fun and a great way to mix with the locals.
8. Chill out by one of the city’s outdoor pools
Phnom Penh can get extremely hot and humid so chilling out by one of the city’s outdoor pools is a great way to spend a sticky afternoon. Most of the big hotels have pools but admission can be expensive. My favourite was Ausfit’s tranquil rooftop pool that charges $7 day admission with use of the gym and steam bath. The sunbeds are really comfy and more often than not it was totally empty. http://aus-fit.com/
The Olympic Stadium also has an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, which is a far cheaper option at around $3 but it can get very busy, full of screaming kids and you’d be hard pushed to find a sunbed. This is one for serious swimmers, not loungers like me.
9. Venture out to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek)
Located 15km outside of the city this mass execution site was the end of the road for prisoners from S21. Mass graves cover an area the size of a football field, 43 of which remain untouched so the total number of lives lost is still unknown. However over 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives under the four year Khmer Rouge regime (1975 – 1979).
Walk through the site and you will see pieces of tattered clothing and embedded shoes in amongst the soil and grass. Choeung Ek’s memorial monument houses some 8,000 skulls, which were exhumed from the burial pits.
10. Meet Cambodia’s Indigenous animals – Phnom Tamau wildlife refuge
Located 30km outside of Phnom Penh is Tamau animal rescue centre, home to hundreds of rescued tigers, leopards, elephants, crocodiles, sun-bears and monkeys, gibbons and more. It is a hot, dusty and an extremely bumpy ride to get to the centre but get there around feeding time and you will forget all about the journey home.
A tuk-tuk to the centre costs around $20 and entrance is $5 per person making it the cheaper option if there are two or more of you. If you are travelling alone, taking an organised tour is probably an easier and more sociable option. Betelnut Jeep Tours run excursions to the park for $30 per person, including guide and lunch. http://www.betelnuttours.com/ This trip is not ideal for those that suffer from back pain.
Some final notes
When to go – December through April are the driest months. Avoid September and October when rainfall is heavy and humidity is high.
Currency – The official currency is the Reil but US dollars are accepted everywhere and often preferred.
The people – Cambodians are well-mannered, friendly and extremely hospitable. The women are a warm, smiley faced and (from what I saw) a pyjama clad bunch, whilst the men are much the same but tend to restrict their pyjama wearing to inside their houses.