While I was in Thailand and Vietnam, so many people warned me that Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was a scary place to be. Whenever I told people that I was staying there for four days, they looked at me in shock and assured me that that was way too long to spend there. Almost everybody I spoke to who had been to Phnom Penh told me that either somebody had tried to rob them there or they knew somebody who had been robbed there. Nobody seemed to have anything good to say about the city. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about my upcoming time in Phnom Penh.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried at all. I honestly have no idea why everybody seems to hate Phnom Penh so much. I never felt the slightest bit unsafe while walking through the streets there. To me, it seems to be a pretty typical Southeast Asian city in every regard. The tuk-tuk drivers are ubiquitous and annoyingly persistent — it seemed like every 30 seconds somebody shouted at me, “Hello, lady. Tuk-tuk?” — but they’re completely harmless if you just ignore them. Of course I kept a close eye on my bag at all times, just in case, but there’s really no reason to be scared here.
There are two main sights in Phnom Penh that nobody leaves the city without seeing: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21 Prison) and the Killing Fields. During the 1970s, Cambodia fell under control of an evil communist party called the Khmer Rouge. In their attempt to create a perfect society, the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered millions of Cambodians. Under this murderous regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, the country lost 30% of its population.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison for detaining, interrogating, torturing, and murdering innocent people whom they deemed enemies of the revolution. Today it’s a museum that allows visitors to learn about the horrors that occurred there during the darkest chapter of Cambodia’s history. It’s certainly not a fun place to visit, but it’s an essential stop in Phnom Penh for anyone who wants to understand the unfathomable suffering that Cambodians underwent only a few decades ago.
The day after I went to Tuol Sleng museum, I visited the Killing Fields. This is one of the many sites in Cambodia where prisoners from S-21 and other prisons were taken to be executed (beaten, stabbed, and hacked to death because bullets were too expensive) and buried in mass graves. I paid a tuk-tuk driver $15USD to take me there, wait for me while I visited, and then drive me back to the city. (It’s about a half-hour drive each way.)
Entrance to the Killing Fields is another $6USD, and you get an audio guide for free. I normally don’t like audio guides and don’t bother with them, but this one definitely enhanced the experience a hundredfold. The buildings that once stood at the Killing Fields have been torn down and replaced by signs that explain what was once there, but the audio guide elaborates extensively on what the signs say. The information is terribly interesting too, and I learned a lot during the 80 minutes or so that I spent at the Killing Fields. It’s mind-boggling and horrifying to think of the atrocities that human beings committed against other human beings here and elsewhere in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
After I got back from the Killing Fields, I walked to Phnom Penh’s Central Market. In terms of how it’s laid out and what’s sold there, the Central Market resembles every other market in Southeast Asia. The cool thing about this one is the large, dome-roofed Art Deco building that it’s housed in. It’s worth checking out if you have some spare time in Phnom Penh.
The next day, I decided to check out the Royal Palace, which is the official residence of the King of Cambodia. The palace is certainly beautiful, but definitely not worth the $10USD entrance fee. It was modelled after the Grand Palace in Bangkok, so the buildings look very similar to the ones there. If I remember correctly though, the temple complex in Phnom Penh is much smaller and less impressive than the one in Bangkok. I’m sure I spent far more time exploring the Grand Palace than the Royal Palace. So if you’ve already seen Bangkok’s palace, you can probably pass on seeing Phnom Penh’s.
If you want a hostel recommendation, the Mad Monkey is THE place to stay in Phnom Penh. It’s a huge, clean hostel with its own bar, restaurant, and pool. The city doesn’t seem to have a huge number of options in terms of nightlife — everybody in the hostel heads out to the same small nightclub at 11:45 every night, and then just walks back home after dancing for a while — but I always had a fun night while staying at Mad Monkey. They host a different event in the bar every night of the week (e.g. free keg parties, free punch parties, pub crawls, pub quizzes, BBQs, etc.), so it’s easy to meet people and socialize. It’s pretty clear why this is the most popular hostel in Phnom Penh.
As you can see, my apprehension towards Phnom Penh turned out to be completely unfounded. The tuk-tuk drivers are annoying as hell, but nobody ever made me feel at all unsafe during the four days I spent there. To be honest, there aren’t a ton of things to do in the city, so I can understand why so many people want to leave after seeing the Killing Fields and S-21. But I personally had quite a good time in Phnom Penh, thanks to the cool hostel I stayed at and the great people I met there.
Next stop: Battambang, Cambodia!