The Cambodian Capital is a developing Asian city. Some tall buildings are already there. Many are under construction. The city is rich with its history and I visited few cultural places like the Royal Palace, Independence Monument, and the Choeung Ek: killing field. We learn a lot from traveling and sometimes it can be dangerous if we are not cautious enough so in this post I will also share my bad experience in Phnom Penh and share some travel safety tips for you.
People are friendly and sweet and I enjoy talking with them while walking around the streets. They ask me where I am going and they want me to bring me there with their motorbikes and tuk-tuks. In the beginning, it might seem annoying but when I smile and start to talk about other things they won’t keep on bothering me. Even if you don’t want their service they are friendly and helpful and that makes up the soul of the city. I feel safe and people are happy although oftentimes they seem to have nothing but their smile.
One of the cultural highlights of the city is the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh. It is really beautiful and also reasonable. With 6$ entry fee, it’s worth a visit.
Unfortunately, I did not really visit other cultural places to share to you. Actually, when I drive through the city by motorbike I see a lot of beautiful boulevards along with the Independence Monument.
I also consider other things like the night market as a cultural place. I love to stick around there. Most locals speak some English but it’s limited. So the conversation will not be very deep. It’s often only small talk and things which are going on that keeps us connected.
…A bald western guy just arrives at a shop while I’m eating soup and chatting about boring stuff. It’s a family business and all of the staffs are just relatives – brothers, sisters, cousins, father, and mother. There are too many employees but that doesn’t bother anyone here. Anyway, the western guy orders some food and pointed out that he wants it spicy. When the meal is served, he starts eating and the waiter smiles at me as I am observing the bald guy. At first, I don’t know why he does that. But after a minute or two, the bald guy emptied his water and starts sweating still he doesn’t give up. He continues eating, his whole head is covered in sweat and he tries to dry it with tons of tissues. Now I understand why the waiter was smiling. I think they like to make fun on a foreigner who thinks they can eat spicy foods. And this one seems to be a perfect victim. He uses all the tissues from the box on his table. After that, the waiter shows mercy and brings him a glass of ice and more water. Soaking in sweat the bald guy pays his bill and leaves the place…
Even when the people there did not speak a lot of English we had a blast just by observing this scene.
The motorbike traffic can be insane and you are very close to other bikes.
…I visit a traveler’s meeting with a friend, which takes place at a pool of a hotel. It’s my last day in Phnom Penh and I gave my bike back already as I’m going to leave early next morning. My kind friend brings me back to my hotel by bike. We relaxed cruise around town after a few beers through the almost empty boulevards. I use google maps to find the way through the city to my hostel while holding my phone in my hand. As we are driving I hold onto it quite strong to make sure not to lose it. All of a sudden, another motorbike with two guys overtakes us on the right side. The one on the back starts grabbing my phone and pulls it really strong. But as I hold onto it very strong he cannot successfully steal it and finally, his hand slips off. I shout a few uncontrolled and unmentionable words at them but they drive quickly away. My friend must be shocked of my vulgar eruption and he doesn’t understand at first what just happened. They are gone.
Actually, I should be happy that I still have my phone but I’m not happy. I feel very angry and disappointed. The feeling I have is not much different from the last time in Bolivia when someone took my phone. It’s not the loss of a thing which makes me feel bad. It’s the criminal’s offense against me. I don’t know how they feel after failing to steal my phone. They might don’t care… Maybe I think too much.
Getting Around in Phnom Penh
Tuk-tuk drivers seem to be annoying but what else should they do than wait for customers. Tourists are the best customer as there are not many taxis and also public transport such as buses in the city is rare. The public transport contains mainly motorbike taxis, tuk-tuks, and the cycles. They don’t have any official prices so I always have to bargain. I already explained that I don’t like doing that in my last posts. I had a tuk-tuk from the airport. It cost 5-6 dollar to the city. I hailed it at the street which is just one minute by feet from the airport. This is a simple traveler tip. If it is possible I walk out of the airport area and Taxis or other transports are often cheaper. In some countries up to 20$. Not here I think I saved 2-3$ by walking one minute out of the airport area.
…That’s why I decide to rent a crappy scooter for 6$/day.
Always take photos of the damages of the bike you rent. If not they will make you responsible for it. The bike gives me a lot of freedom in Phnom Penh. Nobody really follows the rules on the street and I have to expect the oncoming traffic at all time. You have to pay attention to a boulevard with separate lanes for each direction. Especially on those boulevards because people are too lazy to go back to change the other direction. The only rule I have to follow is to put off the light during the daytime. It’s hard as I’m used to the opposite back home where the light is also required during the daytime. I always forget to put off the light. Police charge tourist 5-10$ if they drive with the lights on during the day. They surely also fine me for driving with lights on at daytime and for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The police do not even speak. They just point on the light and show me a one-way sign and a paper where it is written 10$. I pay the penalty and say “acoun” which means “thanks” and continue my ride. In the right direction this time… although there is local traffic in both ways despite there are policemen monitoring.
I got punished because of adapting to their driving culture. Maybe I should not integrate myself that quick into every part of culture.
I learn to eat hot soup in hot weather. Because there are many soup restaurants around and sometimes I’m just hungry and don’t want to search further so I start eating noodle soup. Some are actually very good and they serve the soup with fresh herbs. I don’t sweat more than I usually do and I think 1.50 US $ per soup with noodles, vegetables, and meat is a good value.
In Cambodia, people pay in U.S. Dollar. The Cambodian Riel is only used to replace the coins. So they use the 100 Riel for 2.5 cents or 1000 for 25 and the 500 for… whatever. Sometimes I also receive 10 000 Riel or higher bills. It’s a bit complicated but to divide everything by 4 or 4000 keeps your brain busy. However, I have no choice everybody has to deal with that. I bet the Khmer people are particularly good at maths for that reason.
Separate Expat Scene
Phnom Penh has a huge expat scene and some districts offer a lot of places only for western people. Especially in coffee places with prices like Switzerland. Also, bars are usually stuffed with western people. Most Khmer people you find there would be the bar staff or otherwise working people.
For me, it’s not very interesting as I can meet Europeans at home. In here it seems to be welcoming as expats probably miss their home and culture. Unlike them, a traveler like me is here to see different things. French in a few bars seems to be the dominating language by the way.
That’s why I rather hang out in soup kitchens and local restaurants than bars.
The Beggar Thing
…Some kid asks me for money to buy slippers. I offer to buy some as there is a vendor selling right at the next corner but he refuses, smiles and runs away. Of course! What was I thinking! Why would this kid ask for slippers if he already has slippers?
When I come out from the visiting the palace, a mother asks for money to buy food for her baby, she holds demonstratively in her hands. I offer to pay anything she orders from the restaurant at the next junction. She refuses.
Something is wrong with Phnom Penh’s beggars. That’s for sure. I decide to not bother anymore and I buy nothing from street kids and I don’t give them money but I always offer them food, clothes or shoes if they want.
Only one girl accepts a bottle of coke I just bought. Apart from her no beggars ever wanted anything like that. You can usually find them along the riverside.
… or around other touristy places. By the way here, is an overview of the sightseeing places in Phnom Penh from my hostel.
Everything is owned by a few rich upper class. It is a typical corrupt country where you can buy everything with money. For example, they sold the former lake district in the middle of the city for a ridiculous price of 88 Million a few years ago. This might be a nice amount of money for a few corrupt leaders. But a lake in the middle of the capital is worth more than that. There is no justifiable market price for a lake in the middle of a concrete jungle. It is unique therefore it is priceless.
Let’s make a silly analogy. The lake is comparable to the Bachelor as the only man in the Bachelor TV show. This is a monopoly and it should not be given away. You can see that as soon the show ends and all of a sudden there are other men available. Eventually, the “value” of the bachelor drops dramatically…
The buyer of the lake was so damn stupid to fill up the lake with concrete and at the same time destroyed his own monopoly and gave away the opportunity of owning the only lake in Phnom Penh. They built a very innovative project called One Park on it. The architecture imitates french design from the 19th century and combines it with 17 concrete apartment towers that look like from the 1970s.
I’m not an architect and I don’t think all modern architecture is better than the french from the 19th century. But to come back to my silly metaphor… Imagine the Bachelor would wear a white wig like they did in the 19th century. I guess, hardly any girl would even accept any role in the show. Now I think you can understand how ridiculous this project is.
As it is in the center of a very nice booming city it still will pay out well as some people just want an apartment or some space for their business. Especially because they bought the land so cheap they still have a good margin.
Nobody can deny the most horrible part of the Cambodian history. The Killing Fields of Phnom Penh “Choeung Ek” is only one site of over 300 places with over 20000 mass graves. Estimates range from 1.7 to 2.5 million deaths including diseases and starvation resulting from the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
…Arriving at Choeung Ek, I get an audio guide which gives a brief overview of what happened and how that could have happened. I move from number to number, from bench to bench, from tree to tree, from grave to grave and listen to what the audio guide says. In the end, I visit the stupa with the skulls and the bones which prove how many people died here.
Me and everybody else is leaving silently with tears in their eyes. Which leaves no doubt everybody got the message…
It is a good historic museum. You will not leave it without knowing the history it is about. To be honest I didn’t know a lot about this history until I came to South East Asia last September when somebody told me about. I didn’t visit the S21 prison by the way. I’ve seen enough at the Killing Fields.
Although I had some sad or annoying impressions here the memories of the friendly and warm-hearted people, good food, beautiful boulevards, palaces and the easygoing life in Phnom Penh predominate my feelings and memories when I leave.