If it hasn’t been apparent by our other posts about Cambodia, let’s put it mildly by saying that we loved the country and its culture. The food, the temples, Cambodian people, the rich history; there wasn’t hardly a single negative side of this amazing country. While we preferred Siem Reap for its overall vibe and the Angkor Wat Complex, Cambodia’s capitol city has a lot to offer if you’re there for a few short days. When we were flying into Cambodia we ignored the common advice to “skip the capitol and go straight to the Wats” for some very specific reasons. While more of a metropolitan area than Siem Reap, there is still quite a bit to do in Phnom Penh. We specifically wanted to visit a few of the more notable attractions while we were there before we boarded a bus north.
While it is a lovely and warmhearted country today, it’s important to understand the struggle that took place before the Cambodian spirit was able to triumph. So, on our first day we decided to skip breakfast and touch on the brutal recent history of Cambodia by touring the Killing Fields of Choeunk Ek and then the torture prison S21. While some people would see this as unsettling or a real buzzkill, we make a point to keep our eyes open to the highs and lows of humanity. I won’t go into the deep and detailed modern history of Cambodia, but it’s a moving thing to tour one of the many sites of mass genocide in Cambodia. I feel remiss for not trying harder to put these two experiences into words but there really are none that adequately represent the emotion. Not for the feint of heart, but an incredible opportunity to better understand the country and what it has survived. And survive they did.
After gaining some perspective on the people and history of this fantastic country, we decided to go see the city for what it has become, and see how the people have rebounded from such unspeakable tragedy. We explored the markets, palaces, and temples around the city. At the temple we bought swallows for a dollar; making wishes to the tune of their excited hearts as we released them back into the wild. One night we got hopelessly lost while wondering the streets trying to find our hotel. For en entire afternoon we planted ourselves at a pizza shop with cold beer and fans pointed on their outdoor seating to avoid the midday heat. We toured the incredibly beautiful National Museum and we ate our weight in curry.
From the highs of Cambodia’s capitol city to the utterly horrific examples of human suffering witnessed at the Killing Fields and S21, Phnom Penh was a mesmerizing city that we’re glad we spent a few days in. While the heart of our reasoning for staying in the capitol and delaying our greatly anticipated visit to Siem Reap was to experience the appalling and morbid past of this incredible country, we came away with a great appreciation for the human spirit that lives within Cambodia’s surviving population. The culture and history that certain individuals attempted to erase by wiping out over one fifth of the population lives on today and I can’t wait to go back and see how they stride into the future as a free country. Phnom Penh might not be the most amazing place you could visit in Cambodia, but the capitol provides an incredible peek into the past and the rapidly modernizing present on the wonderful country.