I like big cities…
… I like big buildings, efficient subway systems, and organized transportation. I like the little things that make life convenient. Efficiency and progress are testaments to human potential and advancement and I tend to find more enjoyment in locations that take pride in improving day-to-day life.
In Kuala Lumpur I loved staring at the driverless subway cars and trying to figure out how they worked. I remember gaping at the Shanghai skyline fascinated by the architecture and human ability to create such buildings. In Rome I fell in love with the seamless blend of modern construction with 2,000 year old Roman ruins all around.
So now that you know that about me … Phnom Penh was not my favorite city. I don’t know what I expected (perhaps expecting anything was the first mistake), but the capital of Cambodia is not amongst the world’s modern capital cities. It’s much poorer than I expected and seems to survive on a steady rise in tourism. I am optimistic that Phnom Penh will continue to progress and improve as a city, but for now they have quite a ways to go. It’s polluted, tuk tuk drivers and beggars hassle you non-stop, and it is tough to escape the tourist traps and “foreigner prices.”
I don’t think Phnom Penh is what it used to be. The paved streets and ATMs on every corner show some of the signs of change. There are tourist groups, backpackers and white faces everywhere, prices aren’t as cheap as they once were and the natural kindness shown to travelers a decade ago is being replaced with a less-genuine version aimed at your wallet.
That said, people can’t say enough about Phnom Penh! People in hostels, bloggers, and travelers who were coming from Phnom Penh, for the most part, all seemed to love it! There is something about the city, a vibe in the air, an aura that backpackers and travelers seem to love. I suppose I just didn’t see it.
No one clicks with every place they go though. I was in London once, a city that many people gain a life-long obsession with, but I hated it because it rained the whole time, I got kicked out of a hostel, and had just been moving too much leading up to it. There is a flow to traveling that results in many highs and lows. If you end up somewhere during a low point, it’s hard to disassociate your traveling fatigue and your opinion of the city. After being in rural China for so long, Jess and I were eager to escape the run down, impoverished and rustic traveling experience.
But alas … due to the overwhelming amount of people who seem to have loved Phnom Penh, I will settle on, “Just go and see for yourself!” Cambodia undoubtedly has a feeling that people connect with… maybe we just weren’t there long enough.
So enough rambling. Here are some suggestions for when you give Phnom Penh a whirl!
The US Dollar – US dollars are preferred in Cambodia. Everywhere accepts USD and Cambodian Riel. Many times, if you pay in USD they will give you change in the Riel. (1 USD = 4,000 Riel)
Petty Crime: There is very little face-to-face crime in Cambodia, but bag snatching and theft does occur. Girls, DO NOT take your purses or bags out at night. Take limited cash and cards with you when you go out, and always keep track of your belongings in bars.
ATM machines: If you are taking money out of an ATM Visa doesn’t cost anything. Mastcard has a $4 fee. You have to take out at least $100 and if you anoly take $100 you will get a $100 dollar bill (can be hard to break). If you take $200 you will get a $100 dollar bill and smaller change for the second 100 dollars.
Don’t pay more than $5-6 for a meal. Cambodia is still pretty cheap and you should be able to get a meal and a drink for $5 without looking too hard. Prices are way higher in tourist spots, so try to venture out a couple blocks and you should find the local spots. Food ranges from Khmer (local) food, Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese.
Things to do:
The Killing Fields and S-21 are very sobering experiences and serve as an excellent reminder of how cruel humans can be to one another. There were many killing fields across Cambodia during the brutal reign of Pol Pot, but the killing fields in Phnom Penh serve as a memorial, a history lesson, and a dedication to the 3 million (out of 8 million) Cambodians who were murdered by Pol Pots Khmer Rouge.
2. S-21 “Tuel Sleng Genocide Museum” (Torture Prison)
S-21 is even more horrific than the Killing Fields. This was an old school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a torture prison. Life was extremely hard for those sent to “Tuel Sleng” and very few lived through it. This museum continues to educate people on the importance of not forgetting what humans are capable of. The first part of touring the prison shows empty prison cells (old classrooms) with a rusty bed in the middle, and horrific images showing the last victims of S-21.
The riverside is okay. There’s tons of shops, over-priced food, and tuk tuks racing up and down the street along the Mekong River. It’s worth strolling down the river on a lazy day. If you go a bit later you can catch the night market.
4. National Museum
We didn’t go to the National Museum but most accounts we heard were positive. If you have time and are into museums, it sounds like it’s a pretty decent one.
There are 3 Markets worth seeing in Phnom Penh: 1. The Night Market (tons of fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish), 2. The Central Market (clothes, souvenirs, belts, etc.) and 3. The Russian Market.
Temples in Cambodia have a similar feel to those in Thailand. They are on top of hills, cheap to get into, have really bright colors, and cool architecture. Wat Phnom is the main attraction in Phnom Penh. It cost $1 for foreigners and you only need 10-15 mins to see it. It’s nestled inside a grassy area of the city and the temple is on top of a small hill.