Phnom Penh: Dirty, Dangerous and Depressing
We took 2 steps outside of the airport doors and we were immediately swarmed, “tuk tuk, sir? Madame, tuk tuk?” We slithered our way through the mob of drivers ready to take us to our final destination when we were nudged by a Finnish man asking to share a ride into the city. He had clearly done this a time or two and knew how to play the game and save some money. We took him up on his offer, wiped the orange dust off the seat of the tuk tuk, and hopped in. As we made our journey into town, we made small talk with the friendly, yet seemingly emotionless man. He sure seemed to want to talk, but never made so much as a smile or a laugh. After answering his questions about what we are doing in Cambodia, we returned the question, to which he replied, “I come for pretty ladies”. As I turned my head to the side and tried to hold back the vomit, I noticed the sun was setting behind us. I whipped out my iPhone and asked the man to take a picture of us. I figure I might as well take advantage of the situation and at least get a picture. We barely snapped the photo when another tuk tuk driver took note of what we were doing, drove up beside us and urged us to put our phone away. “Cambodians will snatch out of your hand! Keep your phone away! Put your purse low. They will steal!”. I had heard Cambodia was bad about petty theft, especially the guys on motorbikes that will drive up and snatch your purse before you even realize what happened. After having my purse snatched in Thailand, I thought I was being extra cautious by wrapping it around my waist and tucking it between me and Charlie, but apparently having your phone out puts you at risk as well. I quickly realized how big of a problem it must really be if not even 5 minutes on the ground, the Cambodians were already sending their warnings. It was a bit of an unsettling feeling, and from then on I couldn’t help but feel that every person we passed on a motorbike was out to get me and my purse.
The drive to our guest house felt like a long one. In actuality, it was probably only about 30 minutes. I couldn’t help but notice the mounds of trash piled up all along the road. Everything was covered in a thick, orange dust. We stopped at a few traffic lights and each time were approached by young, half-dressed children that hadn’t been bathed in what looked like weeks. Maybe longer. One young girl in particular approached our tuk tuk and held out her tiny hand while a baby rat was scampering over her foot. It was so heart-breaking I could hardly look at her. She stood there for the duration of the light, and then stepped back onto the sidewalk just as the light turned green and the hoards of motorbikes came whizzing right through her path. We carried on and I kept waiting for us to get to the “nicer” part of town. I figured the “touristy” part of town must be a little more well kept. Well, that never came. And the first 30 minutes of our time in Phnom Penh pretty much sums up the rest of the trip.
We were happy to finally make it to our guest house, the Mondulkiri Boutique Hotel, and it was actually very lovely. It was clean and modern, and the breakfast was also a plus. Especially after just leaving our so-called hotel room in Hong Kong. While it was technically “walking distance” to the riverfront and Royal Palace, sidewalks in Phnom Penh are practically nonexistent and walking in the street is nearly impossible due to the unkempt roads and potentially hazardous traffic situation. We found that getting around by tuk tuk was a better option than walking, which is very rare for us.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
We didn’t do much research before heading to Cambodia, but the one thing we knew we wanted to see were the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. Not knowing much (or anything really) about Cambodia’s history and the millions of innocent people that were executed by the Khmer Rouge, we were interested in learning more about the tragic event. We had heard it was a very moving experience and not one to be missed. We first visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 Prison), which was once a school that was transformed into a prison when the Khmer Rouge took over. Here, they imprisoned and tortured many of the victims before they were carried off to the killing fields for execution. Just a heads up – it is very graphic and hard to make it through without getting emotional. Expect tears.
We had read prior that hiring a guide when you arrive is a must. You can walk through on your own, but you will learn a lot more from one of the locals – many of which lived through the time and have some sort of personal connection. When we arrived, many of the guides were already off on a tour except for a few ladies. When we asked to hire a guide, they all just looked at each other until one woman finally stood up with an “if I have to” attitude. She rushed us inside and began her script in very broken English. We had a difficult time following along and could tell she was not into it. When we asked questions, it was obvious we threw her off her script and she would just start her story over again. While many of the other guides sounded really informative, I think we had just a bit of bad luck. She kept telling us to walk around by ourselves for a few while she had to “talk to a friend”. At the end of the tour (which was clearly cut short), she told us how her father and brother were taken away by the Khmer Rouge never to be seen again. She then dramatically turned her head to the side, told us it was difficult to talk about and that the tour had to end and we needed to pay. I hate to call her a liar because I have no idea what she’s been through, but the whole thing seemed like a charade. The fee was $6 and we handed her a $10, which was all we had. We expected change and planned to tip her a few dollars but she just scurried off with the $10. On the way out, we passed her already chatting with her friends and her damp eyes had mysteriously dried up. We definitely felt cheated and the experience was kind of ruined. It was saddening to see someone who lived through this time completely exploit this tragic, yet important piece of Khmer history. We wanted to be informed, but it was clear she just wanted her money. I truly don’t think all of the guides have the same intent and we definitely recommend paying a visit. But talk with some of the guides before you hire one!
Choeung Ek Killing Fields
Choeung Ek was quite a different experience. You are given an audio guide that leads you around the memorial to different sites, describing the events that took place at each. It is a very educational, yet heart-wrenching experience. We kept asking over and over why we never knew anything about this event? It’s hard to understand how something so terrible could have happened just over 30 years ago. If you plan to visit S-21, you might be better off visiting Choeung Ek first to better understand the history and then you may not even need a guide. In any event, if you are ever in Phnom Penh, make sure to add this to your itinerary. To say it is a humbling experience is an understatement.
To sum it up, our experience in Phnom Penh was not much to brag about and we are not sure we would return in the foreseeable future. We had no idea how poor of a country Cambodia really is and we just didn’t feel right tramping around town with our smart phones when there were so many people in need of a meal. It was really hard to even eat a meal along the riverside without feeling incredibly guilty when you have extremely poor children begging at your feet. It was very saddening. Very depressing. The 5 year old kids work harder than most grown adults back home. And I just couldn’t handle watching anymore scantily clad young girls throwing themselves at the old, white men looking for “boom boom”. Although the large majority of Cambodians were extremely friendly and helpful, we didn’t feel safe, especially after witnessing a drunk Cambodian man trying to mug an elderly couple in the middle of the day in a busy part of town (see video). While it was an educational and humbling experience, I wouldn’t exactly call it enjoyable. If you were to ask us how long to spend in Phnom Penh? I guess that depends on what kind of trip you are looking for. But we say stay a night. See the Killing Fields. Then jump on a bus to Sihanoukville or head towards Siem Reap to explore Angkor Wat.
- Hotel/Guest House: Mondulkiri Boutique Hotel
- Time spent in Phnom Penh: 3 nights
- Cost of tuk tuk from airport to hotel: normally $7, but we shared a ride so two stops was $10 ($5 each)
- Cost of tuk tuk for the day: $20 (Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng, riverside lunch)
- Best Meal: Pizza and feta salad on the river front
- Best tip: Start your day early – it gets hot!!
Check out our video tour of Phnom Penh:
Have you ever been to Phnom Penh? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments below!