Phnom Penh

Neither of us had any expectations when we arrived in Phnom Penh. We were pleasantly surprised to find it a fairly calm and quiet place (in Asian city terms). It seems everywhere is Cambodia is quieter and more sleepy than Vietnam. The tourism is heavy, but it clearly is a functioning city for locals as well which is always nice. As is expected by now, there are many crumbling remnants of the colonial French which give the city the typical Southeast Asian city look that you grow to love.

By the time we got to Phnom Penh, we had spent 9 days on the road (or backpacking), eating quite poorly and sleeping in locations that only ran electricity for a couple of hours each evening. So even more so than usual, arriving in a capital city was exciting if only for a comfortable bed and good food. We got our typical Italian and Indian, which was very good, and even found a Pho place since we were missing our Vietnamese breakfasts. But for the first time in the trip, some food at some point was a bad choice and Matthew ended up with a stomach bug. This means we have visited a doctor in every country on the route now. On a happier note, we took another cooking class to continue our training on how to cook a delicious chicken (or fish) amok.

One of our first days in Phnom Penh we visited Wat Phnom, a small temple on top of the only hill in town. The temple was nothing special, though the murals on the wood paneling and columns in the interior were more beautiful and less gaudy than most. More interesting to see are the dozen or so monkeys in the pleasant park surrounding the temple. They were calmer than expected, since monkeys are often known to be excessively vicious, and were peacefully receiving fruits from some of the vendor ladies in the park. Inspired, we returned later with bananas in hand to pass out to the monkey population. It went really well at first as the monkeys would come, get a banana, then leave to eat it. One banana was too unripe to be peeled by the monkeys, and they discarded it. Alison tried to pick the banana up to peel it for them, and a monkey rushed at her and bit her, apparently deciding the banana was still his even though he had tossed it aside. There was no damage (didn’t get through the clothing) but it was frightening anyway. So beware monkeys, though if you’re careful they seem relatively harmless.

Two of the “highlights” of Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields (the location of a mass grave during the Khmer Rouge’s terrifying reign) and the S-21 (a prison used for torture, before inmates were moved to the killing fields to die, which has now become a museum displaying the pictures taken of inmates at arrival and after interrogation). Over 17,000 Cambodians died here between 1975 and 1979. We decided not to visit these. We’ve seen too many grim documentations of the horrors of history (the museums in Saigon and Nanjing and countless memorials for WWII in Europe come to mind first). Another reminder of the brutality of man was not necessary, and we’ve read quite a lot about the mindless brutality of the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath. It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died during their rule, but estimates range from 1 to 3 million. Even 30 years after the Khmer Rouge lost their control of Cambodia, it is still one of the most mined countries in the world (thanks for that also go to Vietnam, who mined the border areas in the 80s), and in some areas that have not yet been cleared it is dangerous to deviate even slightly from well-trodden paths.

The less horrific highlights in Phnom Penh include the Royal Palace and the National Museum. The Royal Palace is indistinguishable to an untrained eye (like ours) from any temple complex in the area, except for the fact that it’s a lot larger. It is the official current residence of the King of Cambodia, and as such large parts of it are closed off to the public. As you can see from the pictures, it was very ornate and impressive. The Silver Pagoda is the main religious structure within the palace walls. You walk up imported Italian marble staircases to enter the temple where the floor is tiled with 5000 silver tiles (1 kg each) and there is a life-size Buddha made of gold and 9584 diamonds (including a 25 carat beast). There’s also an offering box in front of the gold and diamond Buddha.

The original plan was for us to head on to Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat) and then straight into Thailand to stop the trip in Bangkok. After some discussion, we’ve decided that neither of us has much interest in Bangkok, or any desire to extend the trip for the extra month or so it would take to properly do Thailand justice. On top of that, it’s taken nearly 2300 miles but we’re finally well and truly tired of the biking. The new plan is to leave the bikes (and much of our luggage) in Phnom Penh and set off like traditional backpackers for two weeks to see more of Cambodia. We’ve already booked our flight and will be returning to Shanghai from Phnom Penh on the 16th of February. After that? Living in Shanghai for a while. Both of us have jobs available at the same places we were working before leaving for this trip. We are both craving the still life for a while and funds must be replenished. We decided this over a day in Phnom Penh, and bought the tickets that night. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to have an end date, let alone one that is so imminent, but I think overall it was a good decision. So now we have a bumpy bus ride to Siem Reap, and the temples of Angkor to look forward to.

Pictures form Phnom Penh can be seen here

Pages updated: Maps, Stats, Food, Pictures

~ by Elephants on February 5, 2011.

2 Responses to “Phnom Penh”

  1. Pleased you have made some positive decisions. Good luck on your journey back! A friend of mine has been offered a job in Shanghai and his wife, also a good friend, is flying there in February half term to see if she wants to live there or let him go on his own and just visit in holidays! They are both in their 50s so I think it will be quite a big decision! all the best Ann

  2. Thank you for the great tour of of S.E. Asia,one we will never forget.We loved your narrative and the pictures. Be safe traveling home. Love to you both. Gandma and Grandad Davis

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