After 4 nights in the jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, I’ll be honest I was dying for a shower and clean clothes. I have no problem with roughing it, but there’s nothing like being clean again and not smelling of the jungle covered in a film of red dirt.
Phnom Penh is a busy capital with insane traffic but once I was scrubbed clean I was keen to go and explore. I was staying near the Kandal market, full of vegetables, fish and meat as well as household goods. It did mean though that I was also close to the Tonle Sap river, and where it joins the Mekong – the confluence where in the wet season the water backs up and causes the Tonle Sap river to flow in the other direction, back to the lake.
Phnom Penh is a large city so at some point you will need to jump on a tuk tuk to get around. That said, some of the best shops and restaurants are around the riverside. There’s also some fantastic social enterprise shops on street 240 at the back of the Royal Palace. If you’re not already weighed down with gifts and treasures, head to the Russian market where you will find opportunities to shop.
Riding around on a tuk tuk you can see the French influence on the city and the crazy electrical wiring which explains the city’s power cuts!
The National Museum is worth a visit although if you’ve spent time at temples already on your trip you might find this a bit underwhelming as it is only small, and whilst there are a lot of exhibits its almost entirely dedicated to the Angkor era.
As you whizzing around on a tuk tuk make sure you pass the Independence monument; originally created in the 1960’s to celebrate independent rule, but now a memorial to the war dead.
Given its size it hard to believe that Phnom Penh has only been the capital of Cambodia since the 19th Century (though it had a brief stint in the 15th Century too); and its hard to believe such a bustling city was once so desolate and abandoned during the 1970’s genocide.
Despite the brutal and horrific story behind it, you should also visit the Toul Sleung Genocide museum, to fully understand the history of the country beyond the temples and pagodas. There is also the Killing Field’s site just outside of the city centre which you can visit, but after seeing the museum it felt a little disrespectful to me to visit the killing fields. I understood the story and didn’t need to see more. There is an intense sadness when you ask Cambodians about this period of their history, and whether out of national shame or its just to painful to remember, few share their memories.
The Toul Sleung Genocide museum had been a school prior to the Khmer Rouge occupation when it became the S-21 prison and interrogation facility. As you wander around the buildings the exhibits are sparse but that only adds to a sense of the brutality that lay inside them, in the tiny brick cubicles. That this was one of 150 such prisons in Cambodia during the regime makes it all the more horrific. That around 1/4 of the Cambodian population were killed in just 4 years is sickening.
The rows of photographs of some of the 17,000 people who died there are hard to look at and not cry. Its hard to not feel completely overwhelmed by the brutality and cruelty that took place not that long ago. This is the history of Cambodia which lies in the eyes of the people you meet on your travels.
A new Genocide Museum is being constructed which will help to memorialise the history of Cambodia during this era, and hopefully to teach people to prevent it ever happening again.