Phnom Penh: an interesting city, especially if you are white and male… 

Tuesday 22nd – Thursday 24th March

If you are a white male, you get a lot of attention in Phnom Penh.  Phnom Penh street 

The phrase “Tuk-tuk sir?” followed Eric everywhere. Everywhere! 

When I went out without Eric, I got approached perhaps 10% of the times he did. Maybe my tanned skin hides me, or maybe it’s because men don’t approach women much in this culture. I wonder if it’s the latter, because at restaurants the waiters have tended to address Eric, and not me. I quickly decided that I could handle the invisibility if it hides me from the salesmen.

There are people keen to earn a living here, that’s for sure. Most take “No thanks,” for an answer, though occasionally we were trailed with repeated requests for us to take the guided tour or the tuk-tuk. Generally, though, it’s with a grin and some light-hearted banter, so we haven’t minded it too much. 

The city has a poor feel as capital cities go – which isn’t too surprising, but it does have its grand buildings, and the mighty Mekong always looks impressive. I think that due to the time of year it’s low season, as there seemed to be a whole lot more tuk-tuk drivers than tourists (all of which were converging upon poor white male Eric). 

The mighty Mekong, with a boat carrying… mud? At least I hope it’s mud.Mekong River Phnom Penh 

Speaking a little more of poor white male Eric… it wasn’t just the tuk-tuk drivers who took a special interest in him. I inadvertently booked a hotel in the middle of one of the Red Light District areas, and as soon as Eric was away from my reassuring feminine presence, the Cambodian ladies hanging around the bars were very keen to get to know him.  Candy Bar, Phnom Penh 

As we walked down a fifty metre stretch of road one evening, Eric was offered drugs by several different men. “Hey, you want drugs? Skunk? Heroin? Opium?” 

OPIUM??? What is this, nineteenth century China? 

Maybe he thought we were hipsters? 

I tried to take a picture of our street but it came out very blurry. Just imagine that you’re seeing it through a big skunk opium bender-haze.  Red Light District, Phnom Penh 

A lot of the girls at the bars looked like teenagers, and a lot of their potential customers looked quite old. It was a bit sad to see. 

Day one, and we set off to see the sights… 

Wat Phnom is set atop Phnom Penh’s only hill (37 metres tall) and legend has it the very first pagoda was built here in the 1300s, to house four Buddha statues which washed up on the banks of the Mekong.  Wat Phnom  

Wat Phnom 

Giant clock.
Wat Phnom 

We took a look at Phnom Penh’s central post office and surrounding square, which has examples of old French Colonial-style architecture. It was a charming but smaller version of what we saw in Ho Chi Minh City.  Phnom Penh Central Post Office 

We walked through the Old Market and Phsar Kandal Market – places where local people buy fruit, meat, other foods, jewellery and more. We both enjoyed seeing these places. It was an interesting experience.  Phsar Kandal 

Tiny stalls spilling into each other, all dimly seen under the cover of broad umbrellas. Narrow, dirty walkways used by pedestrians and people on motorbikes alike. Colour, noise, and smells of fish, cooked meat, rotten meat, smoke, diesel and sugar mingling together in the heavy air.  Phsar Kandal 

Meat hung from hooks. Meat laid out on tables. Plucked chickens. All lying in the heat with the flies buzzing around. One of the cycling blogs I read advised avoiding meat in rural Cambodia. After walking through this market I think I can see why! The attitude to keeping meat out in 35 degree heat is pretty casual. These people must have iron constitutions.  Phsar Kandal 

The most shocking thing was the fish. Many times we saw fish laid out in metal trays still alive, thrashing, jumping around and slowly suffocating to death. From the point of view of the sellers/buyers we could see the value of keeping the fish fresh for as long as possible, but I did feel sorry for them.  Phsar Kandal 

After this we saw Wat Ounalom, which is known as the foundation of Cambodian Buddhism. Unlike Wat Phnom, it was empty of other tourists when we saw it. We shared the courtyard with some monks and what looked like a homeless family that were staying there. Wat Ounalom 

This temple suffered much destruction during the Pol Pot era, but has now been fully restored. Statues that were once hurled into the Mekong were found, repaired and put back.  Wat Ounalom 

In the afternoon we went to see what is probably Phnom Penh’s biggest tourist attraction: the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda.

Some photos of the Royal Palace. Phnom Penh Royal Palace  

Phnom Penh Royal Palace 

The designs are based on the Thai Royal Palace, and the place did indeed look very similar. 

Lots of beautiful rooftop designs.  Phnom Penh Royal Palace  

Phnom Penh Royal Palace 

The Silver Padoga is so-called because of the interior’s silver floor.  Phnom Penh Silver Pagoda 

It houses the renowned Emerald Buddha. No photos are allowed, but I can reveal that he’s about as big as a medium cat, and he’s very green. 

Amazing stupas.  Phnom Penh Silver Pagoda  Phnom Penh Silver Pagoda 

We had dubbed day two as “genocide day”, as we would be seeing the Genocide Museum in the morning and the Killing Fields in the afternoon. 

(Here’s a quick historical context: from 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge, a political party purporting to hold communist/nationalist ideals, took control of Cambodia. Wanting to return the country to a more “simple” life, they forced everyone out of the cities to work as farmers, growing rice. 

They murdered anyone deemed to be an “intellectual”. For example, if you were an engineer, a doctor, a teacher, or someone who wore glasses, had fillings, or “soft hands”, you were killed. Your family were killed too. 

The Khmer Rouge banned art (unless it glorified their leader) and religion, and destroyed many temples and items of cultural significance. They also banned banks, private ownership and family relationships. 

The Khmer Rouge had no idea about farming, and worked many people to death under terrible conditions. They also felt that they had to “purify” the population by getting rid of any traitors, and rounded up so-called traitors, torturing them into false confessions before killing them. They made no distinctions between men, women and children. The regime gradually became so paranoid that some prominent party members were labelled as traitors and killed – in the end, almost nobody was safe, except for “Brother Number One”, or Pol Pot, as he is better known.

The regime fell apart after just four years, but in this time their actions had caused the deaths of approximately 3 million people, which at the time was 25% of the entire population.)

The Genocide Museum is housed in the infamous S-21 building. Once a school, S-21 was converted into a prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured civilians into confessing their “crimes”, before moving them on to be murdered.  S-21 Genocide Museum 

The rules of S-21. S-21 Genocide Museum 

You walk through the rooms where torture and imprisonment happened. 

A torture room. S-21 Genocide Museum 

A floor full of tiny cells, used to house prisoners under interrogation. S-21 Genocide Museum 

There are rooms full of photographs, of both Khmer Rouge members… S-21 Genocide Museum 

And their victims.

S-21 Genocide Museum 

The whole regime was shrouded in secrecy. People were blindfolded before they were brought to S-21, and had no idea where they were. Efforts were made to muffle screams during torture, so that other prisoners would not hear what was happening. When prisoners were eventually transported to be killed, they were simply told they were being moved to a different place. At the bottom level, Khmer Rouge recruits were poorly educated and easily manipulated, and for most of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, almost nobody knew who the party leader was.  

After a quick (and depressed) lunch we went on to the Killing Fields. This is the place where prisoners from S-21 were taken to be murdered once their “confessions” had been extracted. As the regime was drawing to a close, 300 people were killed here per day. The Khmer Rouge couldn’t afford bullets, so soldiers killed by bludgeoning the back of the head and then slitting the throat. Usually this was done to patriotic music played on loudspeakers, so as to keep what was going on a secret from the other prisoners. What a nightmare image that presents. 

This is the “Killing Tree”. Soldiers killed young children by swinging them against it. You wonder what they were thinking as they killed children and babies? Had they just switched off by this point?  Killing Tree 

The final stop is the memorial building. Inside a chamber of skulls rises up high. Killing Fields Memorial skulls 

It felt important to come here to acknowledge what happened and to understand what Cambodia has had to come back from. You can use words like “mad”, “evil”, “deranged” and “horrifying”, and they seem like one drop of water in an ocean of what it would take to describe this tragedy. 

Back to the present. Eric’s lunch had evidently been a bit dodgy, because he reported feeling queasy just before we had an incredibly bouncy tuk-tuk ride, which took us past several open sewers that were reacting very enthusiastically to the 35 degree heat. Eric looked pale but bravely insisted that we go on. Still feeling sick, he then sat in the shade listening to an audio-guide about genocide, before taking a very slow walk around to look at some mass graves and bone fragments. So for Eric it was the double-whammy: learning about one of the most depressing tragedies of modern history, all while coping with mild food poisoning. 

That evening I left (poor white male) Eric in bed and went to meet a member of the Warm Showers community, Bethy. (Warm Showers is a community that provides free accommodation and a social network for cycle tourists.) 

She suggested we meet at a place called Momma Wong’s, a tapas-style restaurant that serves amazing dumplings. We talked about a lot of things, but one of the things in particular I wanted to know was – in her experience as a resident of Phnom Penh, are Cambodians as a whole still traumatised from what happened during the Pol Pot era? 

I will paraphrase her answer, which was a lot more eloquently and sensitively put (though Bethy also wanted me to know that she was by no means an expert): yes, generally speaking the trauma of what happened has been passed on. In particular, people are not able to express grief about personal matters, because there is a feeling that the whole country is in pain. To extrapolate from this, I think the attitude is: “Everyone has pain, so what makes my pain so special that I should burden other people with it?” At the same time, Cambodian people have made an incredible recovery considering all that happened. They are getting on with things, and this in itself is an achievement. 

It was great to meet with Bethy and learn about what she does, and gain a bit more insight into life in Phnom Penh. This really was turning out to be an interesting city. 

Day three, and in the morning we walked to Wat Kean Kleang (on our map called Wat Mongkal Serei Keang Klang). This is a less-visited stunningly gold temple.

Wat Kean Kleang  

Maybe things always look better when you’ve walked a few miles in the blistering sun to see them (it was so hot!!). But we thought this was place was good.  Wat Kean Kleang  

Wat Kean Kleang 

Next to it was an older temple, which was also very beautiful.  Wat Kean Kleang 

That afternoon we finally gave in to temptation and took a tuk-tuk to an air-conditioned mall. (The Aeon Mall.) Ice cream! Burgers! Shops! Oh wow. 

Eric considers buying a hat.  Eric... in a hat 

I was trying to make him try on a much more embarrassing hat (it was pink and said “SEX” in big blingy letters). This hat was actually the compromise. 

A “claw” machine for glasses.Win a pair of glasses! 

A final fish amok in a coconut that evening at the Titanic Restaurant (thanks for the tip, Bethy!) and our time in Phnom Penh was over.  Fish amok, Titanic Restaurant, Phnom Penh 

What an interesting, intense experience this city was. 

Next we will be cycling to Siem Reap to see the largest religious monument in the world. No, it’s not your Easter egg, it’s Angkor Wat!

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2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh: an interesting city, especially if you are white and male… 

  1. Minor historical direction: sadly the Khmer Rouge regime didn’t fall apart. The Vietnamese invaded and overthrew them. Amazingly the Americans then armed the Khmer Rouge and helped them fight against the Vietnamese.

  2. Our experiences of PP were very similar – tuktuk ? Tuktuk? We generally found it would take at least two refusals before they gave up. the genocide museum and killing fields were really just mind blowing.

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