13 Feb 2014

Phnom Penh City Highlights

We were coming to the end of the South East Asian part of our trip and decided to squeeze in a couple of weeks in Cambodia thanks to some cheap flights with Tiger Air. Our first stop was Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh, we’d agreed that we were up for a bit of a party so chose the young and lively Mad Monkey hostel. After a much needed afternoon nap (we’d slept overnight in Singapore airport) we headed straight to their rooftop bar for $1 beers and later, 3 for 2 Happy Hour making friends quickly with an eccentric Irish/Texan guy. 

phnom penh royal palace cambodia

Once the sun had set over the rooftops the three of us decided to venture out in search of dinner and wandered aimlessly through our neighbouring streets eventually stumbling upon a busy little local restaurant, applying the logic of ‘if the locals are eating here then it must be good’. Thankfully we weren’t wrong and we feasted on fresh prawns, beef luc loc, spicy chicken, morning glory and steamed rice and two rounds of beers all for under $10! Proud of our successful mission and with bellies full we headed back to the hostel bar for after dinner cocktails and a few complimentary shots as was the custom there. However, we sensibly declined the nightly group jaunt to a local nightclub and headed to bed for a full nights sleep.

S21 prison phnom penh cambodia

One of the best things about this hostel was their breakfasts: a full english with homemade sausages, baked beans, HP sauce and a pot of PG Tips (not Yorkshire tea but you can’t have it all)! We’d been over three months without these British staples so naturally we tucked in every morning. For our first full day in Phnom Penh we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the two key historical sights relating to the Khmer Rouge: The S21 Prison and The Killing Fields. As you can imagine it was very harrowing for us to visit both places and hear details of the terrible crimes they committed against their own people in the late 1970’s. Around 3 million people died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge in just over 3 years, that's over one third of the countries total population!

S21 prison phnom penh cambodia
"Tiny cells inside S21."

We visited S21 first which is a former school in the centre of Phnom Penh used by vicious Khmer Rouge guards to torture their prisoners in very barbaric and horrific ways. There are four buildings here and you can enter each of them to see the rooms and cells of the former prisoners plus, read records and see photos of the prisoners and guards. Its very difficult to comprehend and it was a shock to see that many women, children and babies had been held prisoner and murdered too. Only seven prisoners survived S21 when Vietnamese troops entered to liberate Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge guards fled, each of their histories are available to read in the museum too. There is not tonnes to read in S21 and there is no audio guide so if you want to learn more details you can hire a guide (often a Khmer Rouge survivor) to show you around.

the killing fields memorial stupa phnom penh cambodia
"The memorial stupa at Phnom Penh's Killing Fields."

The Killing Fields were a very bumpy 30 minute tuk tuk ride outside of the city and on first impressions the setting was an expansive, tranquil garden and orchard but this soon changed. We were given an audio guide each and followed the given route around the site. The narrative was excellent and very emotive as it gave insight into Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge guards, the final moments of the victims, accounts of the Cambodian people forced to work in the countryside and later the people who discovered the graves and scientists who had the task of identifying the bodies. There are over 20,000 grave sites (aka Killing Fields) in Cambodia of which the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh are the largest with almost 9,000 bodies exhumed here and another 8,000 still left buried, small fragments of bones and rags of clothing can still be seen on the ground too. Recently they have built a Memorial Stupa here where over 5,000 skulls and large bones of the victims found in the mass graves here are on display to remind people of the atrocities and in the hope that they will never happen again. Each year on May 20th they have a Day of Remembrance across the country.

As you can imagine we were pretty exhausted after a day at two very sombre sights so we ate at our hostel and retired early to bed. The next day we felt that a visit to the Royal Palace was in order but got the times wrong so took a detour to the Russian Market instead. 

tuk tuk phnom penh cambodia
"Tuk tuk = the best way to travel!"

You can buy everything there from kitchenware to clothes, and jewellery to trainers (we bought converse for $12 a pair!) - the lanes inside are very narrow and the entire market is a huge maze of colours, noises and smells - its also incredibly humid inside so sweating is inevitable! We were only in there about 30 minutes before we bumped into our friend Joey and two Australian girls, we were all melting so made a unanimous decision to grab a table outside and enjoy a chilled beer or two. It was a very hot day so we didn’t venture back inside the market choosing to go to ‘Friends’ for lunch instead where we got to eat ‘creative tapas’ and support a local street kids project. 

friends restaurant phnom penh cambodia
"Tasty tapas with friends @ Friends!'

The food was absolutely delicious and there were a few quirky options on the menu such as stir fried red ants, not very distinctive tasting to be honest! We can’t recommend it highly enough, there are many ‘good cause’ dining restaurants in Cambodia’s major cities and they are well worth a visit.

noodle soup phnom penh cambodia
"Handmade and homemade Cambodian noodle soup. Sluuurp!"

Later that afternoon we enjoyed some drinks on a large, secret balcony that we’d found attached to our hostel building and watched the sunset before heading out in search of dinner. Our luck was in again as the five of us ate in a packed, local restaurant where they served a local noodle soup very similar to Vietnamese Pho for under $2 a bowl, it was delicious and we saw the noodles being handmade at the front of the restaurant. Then it was back to hostel for cocktails...

the royal palace phnom penh cambodia

We finally made it to the Royal Palace on our last day, it was a pleasant enough experience with many individual ornate temples to marvel at. It was pretty strict where you could and couldn’t walk though and a few structures were out of bounds. Be warned there are loads of tour groups here and its incredibly busy. We also got ‘interviewed' by some young South Korean students who were thrilled we’d heard of their country and liked Bibimbap - very sweet.

the royal palace phnom penh cambodia

It was just the two of us that evening for dinner so we spent quite a lot of time trying on foot to find the Boat Noodle restaurant which was not where the Lonely Planet said it was on the map. Phnom Penh felt like a very safe city to us and we were comfortable walking at night if the distance wasn’t too far, that said tuk tuk rides start at $1 a person so its cheap to get around anyway. The long walk was worth it as Vic discovered Fish Amok, Cambodia's national dish of white fish fillet in a tasty, spicy sauce of peanuts, lemongrass and chilli - definitely a top five in our favourite South East Asian Foods list!

the royal palace phnom penh cambodia
"A model taster of Angkor Wat!"

We really enjoyed our long weekend in Phnom Penh - it's a very attractive looking city with beautiful broad avenues and big old mansion houses as influenced by the French during their reign here. The city is steeped in culture and history with fantastic dining and shopping options, we only scratched the surface of this huge city during our stay but what we saw we liked, a lot! Next Stop: Kampot!

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