Phnom Penh, Cambodia
April 10, 2015 – April 13, 2015
After Laos it was time to head into our last new country in Southeast Asia, Cambodia. We have friends from Cambodia and have heard a lot about the country and were quite looking forward to visiting and seeing all the sites we had heard so much about. Also for the first time on our trip around the world a friend from back home was flying out to meet us! So we jumped on a bus for what would turn out to be one of our craziest bus rides from southern Laos to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
To get from the island of Don Khon to the capital of Cambodia we learned there was a VIP air-conditioned bus which could take us directly there. The VIP and air-conditioned part were of little importance and in the case of air-conditioning, not always true. But going direct was exactly what he wanted, as we heard the way most travelers go from southern Laos to Phnom Penh, Cambodia was via a series of shorter trips in a collection of over-packed vans. So we purchased our direct bus tickets and were reassured by everyone along the way that it would be a direct bus.
Don’t be fooled by the claims of a direct bus from the 4000 islands region of Laos to Cambodia as it seems it doesn’t exist or else it is just extremely hard to find. Our promised eight hour direct trip, in fact turned out to be the dreaded all day series of transfers on small, hot, over packed vans. But I suppose it makes for a good story. After checking in for our bus trip, along with a few dozen other foreigners we were shown to a van, which we were told would take us to our direct bus. We headed for the border which was only a 20 minute drive away.
Checking out of Laos we were told there was a US$2.00 fee to exit the county, which is actually illegal, but we had heard of stories of foreigners trying to fight it who just spend hours at the border not getting anywhere. Laos is a poor country and corruption is still very prevalent, but being just two dollars, we paid the fee and proceeded into Cambodia. At the Cambodian border we were told in order to enter, that we had to pay a ‘medical’ exam fee, which consisted of them collecting one dollar. They briefly flashed one of those handheld infrared temperature takers at us, I suppose to get our temperature, but I doubt it works from three feet away, or that it even had batteries in it at all. We met some other foreigners trying to fight that fee, but they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
At the border we were surprised to see an actual bus! Could they have been telling us the truth and a direct bus was indeed going to take us to Phnom Penh?! Nope, we got on and drove about an hour, barely into Cambodia where we were dropped off at a small bus station and had to wait an hour for a van to show up. It was crowded and hot and had three motorcycles tied on the back. After we got in, and every seat was full, it drove around town looking for more passengers, five more people squeezed in, sitting between seats until we had twenty two passengers on board.
From there we drove for a couple more hours south until we stopped to transfer yet again. We had to wait for an hour while the next van filled up to bursting and for them to strap one of the motorcycles and everyone’s luggage onto the back. Once stuffed completely our driver announced there was room for five more and drove around looking for people to pick up. We stopped where five people were waiting and two climbed in, there simply wasn’t room for the other three but the driver wouldn’t leave until they got on. With the passengers in the van complaining and on the point of rebellion, two of the three unwanted extra passengers jumped on the back, sitting on top of the motorcycle and luggage hanging off of the back. The remaining person jumped in next the driver, sitting between the driver and the drivers side door, sharing the drivers seat. Then the driver took off before anyone could complain or get out. So we again headed south with 24 people, two sitting outside, hanging off the back.
Luckily this was our final transfer, though our trip ended up being much longer than advertised and we didn’t get into Phnom Penh until after 11pm. If you are thinking of making the trip from southern Laos into Cambodia, just be ready for multiple transfers and hot minivans, as the advertised direct bus won’t materialize.
Though long, tight and tiring the trip was an introduction to Cambodian transportation methods. Of every country we have visited, Cambodia had by far the most cars loaded down with crazy dangerous loads and cars packed with more people than you would think possible. The dangerous and entertaining spectacle of massive dangerous loads on tiny unsafe vehicles would prove to be a common and daily occurrence.
Sweaty and tired we finally arrived in Phnom Penh and headed to our hotel. We were excited not only to explore the city but to soon be meeting up with our friend Bre from back in Seattle. Bre was Krista’s old roommate and was excited to come visit us in Cambodia. We relaxed for a day after our long series of van rides and then headed to the airport to pick her up. This time of year however was just days before the Cambodian New Year celebration, one of the biggest celebrations of the year and the airport was packed with people waiting for friends and family to fly in from abroad.
We stayed at one of the nicest hotels of our entire trip in Phnom Penh, the Tea House Hotel. It is a very nice boutique hotel, in the middle of downtown Phnom Penh, with a fabulous buffet breakfast and a pool. We ended up staying at the hotel twice, at the beginning of our trip in Cambodia and at the end. If it had not been for Bre’s visit, we would have stayed somewhere a little cheaper, but the Tea House offered extremely good value compared to accommodations we have seen around the world.
The city is fairly walkable, but it was hot and tuk-tuks are also cheap and plentiful. We explored the city on several occasions on foot and by tuk-tuk. Before we arrived and while we were there we were warned about the dangers of the city. Apparently Phnom Penh is well known for its bag snatching. We were warned by many people on many occasions. Several foreigners staying in Cambodia for long periods of time told us about different robberies against them and that every foreigner they knew living in the city had been robbed at least once. Comparing notes on these stories it seems that walking alone on the streets after dark was the most common time for these robberies to happen, and the most common act was a bag snatcher on a motorbike. This does not in anyway mean that every foreigner who visits is going to be robbed, we were in the city twice for a combined total of nine nights and did not have any problems. The people we spoke with who had problems were in the country for months if not years. We also used common sense and did not walk anywhere alone, stayed away from dark deserted streets, weren’t outside late at night, and the girls kept their handbags to their non-street facing sides. Every Cambodian we met was extremely friendly and helpful, and with some common sense you should be fine. We have also already been in the habit of not taking anything of much value with us when we leave our hotel, since the beginning of the trip.
Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge
Phnom Penh is a vibrant, action-packed massive sprawling city, a mix of modern buildings, coffee shops and fancy cars next to older crowded neighborhoods with extreme poverty. New malls built right next to old traditional markets and street venders selling food outside of five star restaurants. The city is a wonderful and sometimes surprising mixture of things to see as it tries to find its identity in a rapidly advancing world.
Cambodia was the location of one of the most recent, terrible, and less talked about genocides in history. The Khmer Rouge, led by the dictator Pol Pot took over complete control of the country in 1975 until they were finally forced out in 1979. During that time, Cambodian society and development of any kind was almost completely smashed. Nearly everyone with any kind of education was executed and those who survived were forced into a life of farming or hard labor with no possessions and little food. The atrocities left 2 million Cambodians dead, millions more in refugee camps and the country of Cambodia with almost no infrastructure. As a result Cambodia has had to rebuild itself nearly from scratch over the last 35 years.
The Killing Fields – Choeung Ek
After the Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975, they had everyone who was educated, wealthy and influential, or anyone suspected of being influential immediately arrested and labeled as “enemies” and were executed, in places which are now called “The Killing Fields”. The remaining people who lived in the cities were sent out in the countryside to start new lives as farmers. Whole cities, including massive Phnom Penh were drained of people in a few days. The horror was only just starting for the survivors as they were worked, often to death, in the fields, exploited and abused by their new leaders, the Khmer Rouge. We visited one of the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh.
The Choueng Ek Killing Fields, is perhaps one of the more infamous, most well known, and most visited of the memorial sites, because of its proximity to the capital and the many higher profile prisoners executed there. The site is a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride out of town, it is common to hire a tuk-tuk to take you there, wait for you until you have finished visiting and then take you back into town.
The memorial site has a self guided audio tour, which does a good job of explaining the politics involved and the atrocities which occurred there. The site is the final resting place of almost 9,000 people, mostly political prisoners captured in Phnom Penh. They were taken to the site in trucks, executed and buried in mass graves. One of dozens and dozens of such sites all over the country, it is a sad reminder of the country’s recent turbulent past.
The S-21 Prison
Before many of the prisoners arrested in and around Phnom Penh were executed at sites like the Choueng Ek Killing Field, they were held in secret prisons like the infamous S-21 prison in downtown Phnom Penh. The S-21 prison was a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over and converted it into their secret prison and torture facility. We visited to learn more about the genocide, and see the evidence of Pol Pot’s regime first hand.
Pol Pots cruel regime documented each person executed, and took pictures with names of each prisoner. These records were found and some of the buildings display each picture. Room after room displays the thousands and thousands of faces of those killed in black and white pictures.
Though gruesome and sad, we could not visit the city without learning about its past. The city planners have made sure that each site is open to visitors because they do not want people to forget what occurred there. Each memorial site serves as a reminder for future generations to never let such horrible atrocities happen again.
Traveling around Cambodia, it was always in the back of our mind that nearly everyone around us, over the age of 40 experienced the horrible acts of Khmer Rouge. Despite this fact, every Cambodian we talked to, of all ages, was very happy, helpful and kind. Cambodia is a country which is really bouncing back from its recent dark past and modernizing fast.
Phnom Penh Markets
Phnom Penh is home to several large markets open daily that are worth visiting. Great deals can be found on nearly every kind of good you can think of, along with hours of fun just exploring the market stalls.
The Central Market is by far the largest, It has a large central domed hub with long halls heading out like spokes, on a bicycle wheel, each loaded with hundreds of venders.
The Russian Market, though a bit smaller than the Central Market has a more authentic feel. Its wandering halls are a bit darker and grimier, but it feels much less touristy and more like a place locals would actually frequent.
The Royal Palace
Along the shore of where the Tonle Sap River meets the Mekong River in downtown Phnom Penh you can see the extensive royal palace complex. A huge walled off section of the city filled with lavishly decorated palace buildings and religious temples.
Thanks for visiting Bre!
Thanks Bre for coming to visit us and travel with us. After Phnom Penh Bre stayed with us to check out our traveling lifestyle for a couple weeks. We look forward to sharing our adventures with Bre in our next couple articles.