After my amazing trip through the rural countryside of Cambodia it was time for some big city life again. I took the bus down to Phnom Penh, not sure what to think. A few people I had met before said it’s basically just a big, chaotic and dirty city which is only for a stay of a day or two. I wanted to see for myself and was excited to make it there. I arrived in the sweltering heat at the Central Market and was instantly surrounded by Tuk Tuk drivers offering me a ride. I arranged a ride to a place I had looked up before, not sure if it would be any good. I got to the Tat Guesthouse and was greeted by the family running the guesthouse. It was a nice place with a big airy terrace overlooking the street. My hosts were super friendly and very helpful – it was clear that this would be my home away from home for the next week.
The former Pearl of Asia getting back its reputation
Phnom Penh is a city on the rise. Once being a true colonial gem and the pearl of Asia, its shine was destroyed during the commotion of war, revolution and the terrible reign of the Khmer Rouge. Being faced with a dramatic modern history like this, the people seem to have moved past it and now really want to make it up. Right from the start I felt that the city is dynamic, full of energy and very vibrant. The people seem to sense that their country and especially city is on the way up and they want to seize that moment. That being said, they are not at all pushy or aggressive as one might expect. On the contrary, everyone I met was very friendly, courteous and helpful. It made my stay in Phnom Penh a very pleasant one.
Cambodia’s capital can be a challenge for the senses. Anarchic traffic with literally no rules and tens of thousands of motorbikes whizzing through streets and lane ways, exotic scents at the many markets, the unbearable humidity around midday and everything accompanied by the constant sounds of life, commerce and survival. In contrast to that you have the breezy riverfront, with the Royal Temple, a few impressive leftover colonial landmarks like the Foreign Correspondents Club and a bustling bar and restaurant scene. This combination full of contrasts makes for an atmosphere which is hard to resist.
Descending into Cambodia’s dark past
Cambodia has experienced a terrible and gruesome episode not that long ago. That was the period from 1975 to 1978 after the revolution and the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In attempt to change society in the most radical way imaginable and to establish a pure communist system, they deported everyone living in cities to the countryside and forced them to work in the fields. At the same time, everyone appearing to be intellectual (teachers, civil servants, doctors etc.) or against the revolution was imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed. To learn more about this dark part of Cambodia’s history, I visited the Toul Sleng Prison also known as S21 inside and the Choung Ek Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh.
The prison used to be a school before it got transformed to the most notorious prison of the Red Khmer. More than 17.000 people were tortured and eventually killed. The prison shows the cells in which the prisoners where kept, graphic pictures of the last victims that were found in those cells and a lot of background information. It was an oppressive afternoon but good to learn more about the history. The next day I decided to to visit the Killing Fields which is tightly connected to the history of the Toul Sleng Prison. After being tortured, prisoners where driven in trucks to the Killing Fields about 15 km outside of Phnom Penh. There it usually took only one to two days, depending on capacities, before they detainees were killed. Since the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste the bullets, people were bludgeoned to death and then thrown into mass graves. The audio guide I got was really good and besides hearing about the history, the stories of some of the survivors were moving. It was hard to believe, that these things can actually happen and they actually did happen not long ago. It also shined a different light on Cambodia and especially Phnom Penh. Taken that history, it is incredible to see how happy, friendly and dynamic the people are nowadays.
Phnom Penh Fight Club
On a lazy and hot Sunday afternoon I decided to check out the the Pradal Serey, the Cambodian boxing. The sport is very similar to Muay Thai which one shouldn’t say to a Cambodian though. They take great pride in their sport and don’t want to be compared to their Thai counterpart.
The fights take place at one of the TV stations which also broadcasts the events live. The good thing is, that it’s free. You just have to be there early enough to get a good seat. I was a little late but still managed to grab an ok seat. The fights I saw where intense. There was a strange mixture of sweat, adrenalin and tiger balm in the air. The local crowd was wild, yelling, waving, betting on the fights and applauding every good combination. Observing the crowd was almost as entertaining as watching the fights. Surprisingly there were only a handful of tourists there and that despite the fact that the fights are mentioned in the Lonely Planet. I enjoyed the afternoon at the fights, but it’s maybe not for everyone.
Lazy evenings, exaggerating motor taxi rides
The rest of the time I spent walking around the city and just soaking up the atmosphere. The evenings I spent at my favorite bar and restaurant Touks. It is situated right beside the Foreign Correspondents Club and offered nice views from its balcony. It was just nice to sit there, watch the busy street down below, have a beer and enjoy he fresh breeze from the Mekong. I went there about 4 nights in a row and in the end I already became friends with the waiters there. Back to the guesthouse I usually took a mototaxi which is the cheapest way to get around town. Already thrilling during the day, it became a total rush at night with the most chaotic traffic and the mototaxi drivers just weaving through the lanes.
Last thoughts …
Phnom Penh is a great city and I really enjoyed the stay there. Staying for a whole week enabled to dive deeper into the city life and the mentality. I also got a feel for prices and the people’s attitude. You just become more confident moving in the city, organizing transportation and you actually have the chance to meet locals.
The city itself seems to be booming. It’s so dynamic and so are the people. I think in ten years, the city will be three steps further. It seemed to have cast off the shadows of the past and is now ready to move on.