The bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was fairly uneventful, the so called highway was nothing more than a never ending dusty stretch of land, and by the end of it, we were pretty glad that we hadn’t attempted to drive around on our own.
A short Tuk Tuk ride from the bus stand took us to our hotel, The Plantation. I had read rave reviews about this hotel, as one of the best places to stay in this city and I wasn’t disappointed. The hotel is really artistic, the staff is very friendly and helpful, the buffet breakfast is fantastic, and the spa, totally relaxing (we were offered a discount which I obviously availed 😛). But the absolute best part is the huge pool with cabanas along it’s length, where you can relax endlessly with your drinks and books, and when the sun gets too much, just walk down few steps and jump right into the pool!
I had two days in Phnom Penh which I spent mostly at the pool and spa in our hotel, visiting the Killing Fields, sampling amazing cuisine at Romdeng and Friends, buying souvenirs at the Russian market, walking across the waterfront and enjoying a meal at one of the local café’s right opposite it. While that sounds like quite a bit, I must be honest in admitting that I didn’t really enjoy Phnom Penh. It’s not a city that made any impression on me, at least not a positive one, which is exactly why I wouldn’t go back a second time.
I recall that on our first night we decided to have dinner at the very famous Romdeng, which wasn’t even a kilometer away, so we wanted to walk the route. Our hotel strongly discouraged us and asked that we take a Tuk Tuk since pick pocketing was common on the road. We didn’t pay heed, since it wasn’t too late in the night(8 pm) and presumably safe. While walking in a fairly well lit lane, we were followed by this guy on a bike, constantly circling around us and it did scare us a bit. We clutched our wallets and phones tightly and walked hasty steps till we reached the restaurant. And this wasn’t the only instance, all of which eventually led us to leaving our phones, cards (even my earrings behind) carrying only the minimum possible cash. This left me edgy and uncomfortable for the most part, and as a traveler that is pretty disappointing. I have also known of others who have experienced this – a friend who went to Phnom Penh on a work trip was elbowed by a guy on a bike and had her bag snatched. This was while she was walking with another colleague in broad daylight. She bravely held on to her bag and the bike guy had to let go.
I had a fantastic time in Cambodia but Phnom Penh was probably the only place in my entire trip where I didn’t feel safe and welcomed – it seemed like everyone from the Tuk Tuk driver, to the roadside vendor was out to rip us off.
Possibly the only thing that you may want to specially visit Phnom Penh for is the Killing Fields and Genocide museum. These are the biggest tourist draws to Phnom Penh, and while one may argue why such a place has been opened to tourists, I do think seeing these places will offer you an insight into Cambodian history like nothing else. It is said that every Cambodian today, over the age of 50 has witnessed and survived Pol Pot’s extreme regime, every family has experienced this horror.
I visited only the Killing Fields and I can tell you that it is definitely not an easy place to visit. Under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, nearly one third of the population was killed or died out of starvation. The killing fields were where these mass executions were carried out and one of these is now open to public viewing. Since bullets were expensive, people were killed by torture, slitting their throats by sharp leaves, hacked by hammers, rods or hung from trees. The “killing tree” was used to kill babies, by smashing their skulls on this tree. The experience is disturbing and horrific. During rains, many times skulls, bones and clothes rise to the ground surface even today. A giant stupa now acts as a memorial for all those who lost their lives and displays skulls and bones of the victims, which were recovered from the mass graves. It is unimaginable, chilling, painful.
We walked back in silence, the air still, heavy and foreboding, and skipped going to the Genocide Museum that day.
Cambodia is now opening up to tourists from all across the globe, but it is a country which is still getting back on its feet, one day at a time. In a warped way, I could make sense of my discomfort, understand why locals are always out to make an extra buck, why you need to be careful with your belongings lest someone snatch them – I can’t justify any of this, but I could understand it.Somewhat.
Have you visited Phnom Penh? Would love to know of your experience in the comments section.