In Focus: Phnom Penh

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.

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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.

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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.

Ryan

2017-03-06T09:21:23+00:00 By |Cambodia, Destinations|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Jackie Park June 20, 2015 at 8:55 am - Reply

    I read this post before and remember feeling very inspired. Most travel posts I read are about the good and breathtaking parts of a country. Misery and death aren’t alluring, even if that’s what really has shaped a certain place into what it is today. We’ll be sure to also visit Phnom Penh when we go to Cambodia one day and not just the other more popular destinations. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Hedgers Abroad June 22, 2015 at 9:37 pm - Reply

      It’s such an interesting city and the contextual understanding certainly made it a more impressive place. We really didn’t want to just focus on the morbid aspects of the city in this post, but a special post is coming soon dedicated to the killing fields. It was too impactful not to share, in our opinion, but I’ll agree immediately that it’s not going to be a walk in the park for us to write or our readers to read. Certainly worth a visit. It’s an incredible city, no matter how you approach it. Thanks for reading!

      • Jackie Park June 22, 2015 at 9:41 pm

        Looking forward to that post 🙂

  2. Rafiqua Israel (@Rafiqua_Israel) June 22, 2015 at 8:53 am - Reply

    Beautiful photos! One place I am dying to visit is Cambodia…not too sure when these travel dreams will become reality though. The killing fields, albeit being an extreme tragedy, seem like they would be an extremely interesting place to visit. I’ve heard that Phnom Penh has nothing really special to offer, and most people only spend a day or so here before moving along.

    • Hedgers Abroad June 22, 2015 at 9:42 pm - Reply

      We’d always heard the same, that it wasn’t worth a visit for more than a day. But with everything we did, I’m glad we stuck around a bit. Gave a nice contrast to Siem Reap, for sure and absolutely added a depth to our connection with the country after visits to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and then the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Not enjoyable in a normal sense, but they added so much depth to the country that I can’t imagine passing back through Phnom Penh in the future and not revisiting these humbling sites.

      Go to Cambodia, see everything you can and then start planning your return trip, like we did! It’s absolutely one of the best countries I’ve ever visited.

  3. Duke Stewart June 22, 2015 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    Can’t wait to visit Phnom Penh in the fall and just let go, Ryan. I’m mostly looking forward to seeing the markets and to enjoy some good Khmer food. Of course there’s the history, and I’m curious about why you held back on writing about it. Did it bother you too much when walking around the Killing Fields or any of the other “darker” spots?

    I know we have to practice care so I understand where you come from. I had similar feelings about the floating villages near Siem Reap and haven’t written about them, other than some dramatic scribbling in my notebook. Maybe someday, I’ll make peace with it.

    Btw, did you visit the Russian Market there? I don’t know why but it seems cool from a distance. Would like a heads-up before stopping by, though I think we’ve got the time to spare. Thanks for the post, Ryan. It was a good read. Hope the pizza made you “happy” and hope to see more in the future.

    Take Care.

    • Hedgers Abroad June 22, 2015 at 9:51 pm - Reply

      The markets are wonderful and I really wish that we had made time for the Russian Market, but we didn’t have time. You’ll have to report back on that one or wait for our return to Cambodia that’s been in planning since we left.

      As far as the Killing Fields, we held back because we wanted to show a more balanced and fair portrait of Phnom Penh that would touch on highlights in a broad spectrum of preferences. In the next week or so, though, a post dedicated to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum will be coming out. It was too powerful a place to not go into detail and we are going to try our best to do these places justice. Basically we didn’t want to lure people in with a post about the city then drone on and on about something so horrific. A dedicated post will allow people to choose to experience it vicariously or not for themselves.

      Stay tuned if you’re interested. Like you mentioned about the floating villages (we wisely avoided, I think), though, it may take me longer to write that post than most. Gonna have to sit down and reread my journal from the trip.

      And the pizzas in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap were fantastic.

  4. Wendy Flor June 22, 2015 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    My idea of Cambodia is the Angkor Wat because that’s what I always see and read about. I almost forgot about the killing fields until last week, I saw a friend post about her trip to Cambodia, particularly the killing fields. And now, I’m reading your post. It’s a tragic time for the country but the world is deeply affected by that as well. Thanks for sharing. I, too, am looking forward to your next post.

    • Hedgers Abroad June 24, 2015 at 2:55 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Wendy! It’s an incredible country, and I’d say you’re right; I and more people think first about Angkor Wat. Within that small country are sites that have resulted in (probably) the most wonder I’ve ever experienced as an adult, and the most gut wrenching. The killing fields certainly don’t define the country, but it’s important to look things like that in the eye. It changed our perspective on a lot of things while we were in Cambodia and I’d say largely for the better. Thanks for reading!

  5. Jason Minkee Kim June 29, 2015 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Oh man, when I saw those skulls, it reminded me of the white walkers from Game of Thrones! I feel that there are many posts about Thailand and Vietnam, but very few about the countries between such as Laos, Cambodia. Can you add a link about the killing fields so I (and other first time readers) can get more info about it?

    • Hedgers Abroad June 29, 2015 at 10:53 pm - Reply

      Stay tuned, as we will be putting up a Killing Fields post in the next couple of weeks!

  6. In Focus: Japan - Hedgers Abroad March 30, 2016 at 11:16 pm - Reply

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