Phnom Penh has a reputation, actually it has a lot of reputations: Paris of the East, the new ‘wild west’ (tales of privileged gun toting youth), high levels of prostitution, corruption at institutional levels, the recent history of genocide… the list goes on; and all are true to some degree. It would be fair to say that I didn’t warm to this city on arrival; my first hours were spent in traffic jams or on dusty roads in and out of town- not the best introduction. The city is undergoing massive development of shopping centres and apartment blocks and the disruption and dust created by this is significant, there is also a serious trash problem, with mounds of the stuff lying about – you can only imagine the smell in this heat… However, by the end of the visit I had a better impression and began to even like the place.
The hassle factors in this city are approaching Egyptian levels (not an accusation I toss about lightly). It is near impossible to walk anywhere without constantly being approached, honked at, waved at, whistled at etc, with the intent of getting you in a tuk tuk or a moto taxi (motorbike). This will continue down a line if parked tuk tuks, as if you might have changed your mind a few steps later. It’s worst in the tourist areas (of course) and particularly by the river in front of the FCC bar where the levels reach abusive. They also get quite shirty if you ignore them, but there really is no other option unless you want to spend your entire stay explaining why you don’t require their services at that precise moment. Apart from anything else, I like to walk a new city; you see more and it helps you piece it together.
There is a lot of money and flash cars in Phnom Penh, but also staggering poverty, and you will see it at every turn. People living and sleeping on the street, sometimes just flaked out on a mat on the floor. Very young children make the round of the riverside bars selling bangles and the like, and some of them look very savvy; even calling up on mobiles for more stock. You can only imagine their background to have gotten to this point.
Phnom Penh is home to a huge number of NGOs aimed at helping kids and women in particular. If you want to contribute, then one of these would be your best route, as even some of the orphanages are not what they seem and have a revenue raising element.
Some of the more constructive ways of helping are the NGO set up cafes and shops, which not only create revenue but employment and skills development; they have some well made and interesting products.
Traces of the French designs are evident in wide tree lined boulevards, but pavements have often succumbed to parking and impromptu retail (as is the eastern way), the city is easy to navigate once you get the hang of the numbering system and walking in the central areas is quite feasible. Night time presents problems due to badly lit streets and potential petty crime (bag snatches), but with care, short distances are no problem.
Museums and ‘attractions’:
The Khmer Rouge genocide plays a big part in the recent history of this city and the two main related sites are Toul Sleng prison and the Choueng Ek killing fields some 15 km out of town. Today, as 40 years ago, they go together, one inevitably leading to the other.
The prison is as grim as you might expect but most of the displays are just iron beds in cells and you are free to wander about (but not photograph) within the buildings. The Khmer Rouge were keen to photograph and measure all their detainees and there is room after room of photos of victims, mostly haunted looking but often defiant; terrible to think that a lot if these would have been my age. Towards the back of the centre some of the implements of torture are displayed with diagrams; as if they were required.
Most visitors will be informed about what happened here before they visit, and this is essential because the place is sadly lacking in explanation and context. There used to be a map of Cambodia made from the skulls of victims on display here; it’s gone now, only a photo remains. But this perhaps sums up the attitude to the centre, it’s not viewed as a valuable reminder of a horrific past, or an educational resource with warnings of what dogma and idealism can bring… It’s just a tourist attraction, one that can make money.
Some people did survive this place, and some of them are still here today. Chum Mey was a prisoner here and he now returns every day to sell his book and talk to visitors of his experience – perhaps the most sobering part of the visit.
The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) are just south of town in an area that is rapidly being developed. This is only one of hundreds of such places across Cambodia, but it’s the one that is an ‘attraction’. At risk if sounding callous, I suspect that the ‘attraction’ part of the visit is more important than reverence to the owners. The site was sold to a Japanese company recently – to the disquiet of many – you can read more here.
The audio guide is an improvement on what Toul Sleng has to offer but again I felt context was missing and the explanation film does not do the place justice; in fact it’s naf.
To the back of the site one of the neighbours has cut a hole in the fence and set up a drinks stall, I know life is difficult here, but this just feels wrong…
The site is not as big as I had imagined and a visit will take about an hour. Some parts are barely excavated and there are areas where clothing and even bone can be seen protruding from the ground.
The Royal Palace is an easy visit… It’s not on the scale or grandeur of the palace in Bangkok, but neither is it as busy. Entrance fee is $6 and after that you are free to wander. There are guards but they are not readily identifiable as they wander about like visitors, you can only spot them when they are slouching about near an entrance, or spitting instructions to take shoes off, or surreptitiously gathered in a corner counting out the contents of a donations box…
The palace opens at 7.30 to 11.00, and again 14.00 – 17.00, tho’ when I visited the guards in the Silver Pagoda (main attraction) were locking up at 10.15.
National Museum. If you’re here you might as well, but unless you have a deep interest in either Khmer statuary, or perhaps dusty display boxes, go and spend the money ($6) on some coffee and cake.
They are manic about not taking photos and signs to this effect are everywhere. I can’t see why, you can snap away to your hearts content at much better displays.
The overall attitude of staff in all the places I visited could perhaps be summed up as ‘give me the money and then fuck off’…
Entertainment, shopping and nightlife:
This was only a short visit, so no in depth recommendations, but:
The riverside (Sisowath Quay) and streets off is the main tourist area, there are loads of restaurants and bars in this area with a selection of Khmer, Thai and western offerings. There are some good rooftop bars in the area and these are especially good at sunset, Le Moon bar on the roof of Amanjaya Pancam Hotel (next door to Wat Ounalom) was pleasant – use the lift behind reception – apparently this place attracts the PP ‘in crowd’ at the moment.
There are many cafes with a distinct French feel. Some of the streets further north have hostess bars (Street 136 in particular).
The blocks south of Independence Monument are favoured by resident expats and so contain a few familiar brands – Costa Coffee… Not a bad place to spend an evening bar hopping.
The main nightlife street is Street 51, in the blocks south of Central Market. This area is quiet by day, but packed when the neon comes on. Bars are open until dawn. This is also the area that some of the wildest (and bad) behaviour relates to… I found the security tight, but efficient, polite and helpful.
For shopping there is the restored Art Deco Central Market, which leans to clothing/ fabric, electronics and lots of jewellery. Street 240 behind the palace has some design shops and nice cafes. Street 178 beside the National Museum has NGO shops and lots of ‘art’ galleries – not my kind of art tho’… and to the south of the Independence Monument is the AEON Mall – with major brands, cinemas, food chains etc, uniformity arrives in PP.
Another kind of shopping; nothing is wasted here.
There are lots of free guidebooks to be picked up all over town, here is a link to one of the main publications – Cambodia Pocket Guide