Being the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh has government buildings, palaces and beautifully-landscaped parks. The park and area around the riverfront make for a pleasant evening walk. Phnom Penh has a lot of French influence which is reflected in the architecture. It also has newer modern buildings as well.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh and effectively took control of Cambodia. The reign of Pol Pot lasted until 1979.
While visiting these sites is very confronting, it is also an opportunity to learn from history. Seeing it first hand is not the same as a movie or a book. So while it is upsetting, hopefully we learn from it and can prevent it from happening again somewhere else.
Visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (Also known as S-21)
Prior to 1975 and Pol Pot, S21 was a high school. From 1975-1979, during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it was used as a prison and interrogation facility. After extensive torturing and extracting confessions the inmates were executed in the Killing Fields.
There are two survivors from the facility, both have written books and most days they are at the facility selling copies. For them, this provides and income in a country with no social welfare system.
A visit here is very confronting. The brutality of what went on here is horrific. Extensive records were kept, there are pictures on display of many of those who died here. Most were well-educated people or artists. Teachers, intellectuals, doctors, performers, dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors all were brought to this facility. The facility has been left much as it was when it was abandoned in 1979.
It is very disturbing in how ordinary it is. This was a high school a place where young people learned. A place of hope and optimism about the future. And it was turned into the absolute opposite- a prison with no hope of survival.
The Killing Fields
You can also visit the Killing Fields the mass gravesite where the executions took place. There are a number of killing fields throughout the country. At this site in Phnom Penh it is believed over 17,000 people were executed.
The movie The Killing Fields is the story of two journalists, one American and one Cambodian, covering the war when Pol Pot invades Phnom Penh and Americans are evacuated from the area. If you are not familiar with the history of this brutal regime, it is a movie worth watching.
The whole country has been deeply impacted by what went on during Pol Pot’s failed rule and the civil war that followed. Large portions of the population suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which for the most part has been untreated. Studies have shown PTSD can be passed from generation to generation and many of the children of the survivors also suffer from PTSD.
Joel Brinkley has written an excellent book about Cambodian, Cambodia’s Curse. I read it after we visited. It is a very well-written and interesting book that puts some of what you see in Cambodia into a broader perspective with some historical context.
We compiled a list of books, cookbooks and movies about Cambodia and you can also find these items in the shop.
Traditional Cambodian Theater in Phnom Penh
The National Museum has a theater performing traditional Cambodia opera by Plae Pakka, a Cambodia Theater Company. One of the sad things about Cambodia is all of their artists were targeted and many killed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. There has been an effort to find any surviving artists and to recreate their once vibrant art/culture. This is one such effort.
They have three different shows- we saw Mak Therng The Quest for Love & Justice. The costumes were great, the performance good, the enthusiasm contagious and it is very affordable. Buy tickets online for a 10% discount ahead of time or purchase them from your hotel. Just take a tuk-tuk to the National Museum. Even though the show is in the evening the theater is outside so a bit warm bring your fan if you have one.
The movement of the dancers is mesmerizing, as shown in both of these short videos from Mak Therng.
Take a Photography Tour in Phnom Penh
Southeast Asia is a very affordable destination. I took the opportunity to do a photography tour in Phnom Penh. It was a ½ day tour. It included a review of the camera and settings, and then going out to take pictures. I chose a photographer that does a lot of portraits. I do not do a lot of photos of people when I travel and this was an opportunity to learn more.
At only $55 it was a bargain. I took some fantastic pictures and increased my confidence about taking photos of people. You can find Michael Klinkhamer, the photographer, on Facebook or on his website Cambodia Photo Tours. He also has some options outside of Phnom Penh.
Transportation to and Around Phnom Penh
Getting to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap
Many international visitors will fly into Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh is about a 4.5 hour drive or a 7 hour bus ride from Siem Reap. A ferry runs during wet season between Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
Our guide from Angkor Wat organised a private transfer for us to Phnom Penh. I will just mention when traveling throughout South East Asia we use a lot of private cars/drivers as it an affordable and convenient option that is more comfortable than riding a bus and for 2 of us, it is not much more in cost. Your hotel can also arrange a transfer just make sure you know and agree to the price before you leave.
Getting Around Phnom Penh
Tuk-tuks are the most common form of transportation. And it’s cheap. You need to agree and negotiate your fare ahead of time with the driver. Most places $1 USD. Longer trips maybe $2. In Phnom Penh we used the same tuk-tuk driver who waited outside our hotel for pretty much everything. He was honest and reliable. He would wait or come back for us depending on the length of the trip/visit.