In order to under the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, you have got to step back and understand the history of the place and what it has gone through…
On 17th April 1975, a military group ran by its leader Pol Pot invaded Phnom Penh. Tanks were driven through the streets and a reign of terror was unleashed on the Cambodian people. People were forced from their homes, families were split up, kids were turned into soldiers and labour camps across the country were filled.
The Khmer Rouge regime targeted people like doctors, lawyers, teachers and pretty much anyone that was smart enough to think for themselves and try and overthrow the regime. Although many fled the cities into the countryside, for those who tried to escape the regime and failed the outcome was ultimately death.
The regime fell in 1979 and with a death toll of over 2 million people to show for it. Phnom Penh was the epicentre of the 4 year civil war and thats why so much of it is still visible in the capital, when compared to other places in the country.
Nowadays Phnom Penh is thriving just like any other capital city in the world, it makes a great place to visit and a must to stopover in if you are passing through the country.
In this post I share with you 5 activities I took part in when I visited Phnom Penh, which I thoroughly recommend if you visit the capital!
#1 – Visit the Phnom Penh killing fields memorial (Choeung Ek)
Above: The stupa is in the centre of the Killing Field memorial grounds, its filled from top to bottom of skulls and other bones that were found during the exhumation of the mass graves – © Lewis Pickthall 2020
Its important to understand that during the Khmer Rouge regime, there was not just one killing field, but many. Many of these mass graves have been discovered and exhumed now around the city and country, but one acts as the main killing field memorial site that many people come to visit and pay respects to, this is also the site that I visited, which is called the Choeung Ek killing fields.
Located a bit outside of the main city, the Killing Fields are a very sobering reminder of what took place in only the previous century to the one we are in today.
If you choose to visit the site you need to dress in respectful clothing (mainly covering the shoulders and knees), you can either take a guided tour with a Cambodian guide, or you can choose to use an audioguide and headphones and take yourself around the grounds. Except in a couple of places (which are sign posted) photos of the site are OK, however I did not take any apart from the one at the top of this post as I personally didn’t think it was right to do so.
The tour of the fields is certainly not a pleasant trip and has many features which are upsetting (which I won’t detail in this post) but it is important to learn about what has happened here. As well as the actual fields (which have now grown over but are fenced off to stop people walking over them accidentally) there are also indoor exhibitions of artefacts found in the grounds.
I had a local guide escort myself and the group I was with around the site and I would highly recommend you do the same. Regardless of what kind of tour you have of the area I would also advise you to seriously take your time around the site and truly take in what has happened in these fields and what these people actually went through.
The Killing Fields are open every day from 7am to 5:30pm and costs $6 to visit. Personally I had a trip to the killing fields included in my wider trip to Cambodia so didn’t have to pay up front for my visit.
#2- Take a tour through the Tuol Sleng (S21 Prison) genocide museum and memorial.
Above: The now peaceful courtyard of the Toul Sleng museum and memorial. It is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged to just sit down on the seats in the courtyard and reflect at what actually went on in the prison – © Lewis Pickthall 2020
Following on from the dark sites of the killing fields at Choeung Ek, the Tuol Sleng/S21 Prison serves a even more poignant reminder of Cambodia’s dark past.
Typically visited alongside the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, the genocide museum is on the site of a former secondary school that the Khmer Rouge regime turned into a prison.
Its estimated that more than 20000 people were imprisoned within the walls of S21 during its time as an actual prison, with most of those inevitably dying from their treatment. Sparing the full details of what those people involved suffered on this post, a tour of the prison shows in detail where those imprisoned were kept as well as what they went through at the hands of the guards.
In addition to preserved artefacts within the former classrooms turned prison cells, some of the prisons actual former prisoners who have survived and are still around to tell there own story come to the site daily. The day that we visited the museum, 2 former prisoners were seated in an area and were more than welcoming for anyone to ask them questions about their experiences.
Much like at the Killing Fields, takings photos is OK in the most of the site, however I just didn’t take any apart from a couple of the outside grounds. It is also advisable to dress modestly when visiting and be respectful of your surroundings!
The museum is open every day from 7am to 5:30pm, with a break between 11:30am and 2pm and at the time of visiting it costs $3.50 to visit. Much like Choeung Ek, I had the S21 museum included in my tour of Cambodia but a must to see if you are travelling independently.
#3- Take a cyclo ride down the streets of Phnom Penh!
Above: This is a cyclo, basically a reverse trike! You can get a ride in one of these around Phnom Penh and get most of the main sites, just make sure that you organise one with a reputable NGO like The Cyclo Centre! – © Lewis Pickthall 2020
Now this was awesome! Instead of opting for a Grab or Tuk Tuk to get around the capital, you can try a ride in a cyclo! These reverse trikes involve having the passenger in the front with the driver sitting behind them and peddling.
When you get a ride on an organised cyclo tour you typically spend around 2 hours with the group, however you are not being pushed around for that entire time and will have a couple of stops within that time.
By Western standards, being a front passenger on a cyclo, with no crash protection and on busy city roads seems like a very dangerous idea! By South East Asian standards its not much different and certainly no more or less safer that getting on a Tuk Tuk!
To some people getting someone to push you around in a cyclo may seem like ‘slave work’ however getting a cyclo ride through a recognised NGO like The Cyclo Centre (who I got did my cyclo tour with) is actually very good thing to do.
This NGO and many like it are actually giving those that are much less fortunate a job and a safe way to earn some money. By going with one of these NGO’s you are supporting these people in a very responsible way and ensuring that these people are not getting taken advantage of!
Once again I had a ride in one of these included in my tour of Cambodia, however you can expect an hour ride to cost around $10!
For more information on The Cyclo Centre and the work they do, click here
#4- Visit the royal palace of the Cambodian Royal Family
Above: One of larger pagoda style buildings within the Cambodian Royal Palace complex. At the time of visiting some of the buildings were covered over as renovation work was going on, however there was still a lot available to see! – © Lewis Pickthall 2020
The Royal Palace is located right on the front, by the side of the Mekong River. This complex of stunning golden buildings and lush gardens serves as the official royal residence of the King of Cambodia; King Norodom Sihamoni.
Although an active palace with the family living there, the residence opens its doors to visitors most days and with the exception of a couple of areas (mainly where the royal family actual reside and where some of the more valuable royal artefacts are stored) allows visitors to roam free throughout the grounds and inside the buildings.
The palace has recently undergone some serious renovation works and this was actually still visible when I visited, nonetheless it was still spectacular to see the place!
The palace is open most days from 8am to 5pm, but with a break from 10:30am to 2pm. At the time of visiting it cost foreigners $7 to enter to palace, or you can pay a little bit more and get a local Cambodian guide to escort you around the grounds!
Just be aware that you need to be dressed modestly to enter and be respectful of your surroundings once inside!
#5- Take a walk through the Phnom Penh Night Market
There are many markets to chose from in Phnom Penh, one which I had a walk around when I visited the capital and one that I can recommend is the main night market on the riverside! I wasn’t able to get any photos of the market, mainly down to it just being so crowded when I visited and there wasn’t really a good opportunity to stop and get my camera out!
The stalls are set out either side of an open area with a stage in the middle, you can shop for everything you can think of and although most of the ‘labelled’ goods are actually knock offs, they are very convincing knock offs!
Although it is pretty hard to miss of an evening as it has so many stalls and even live music being played for a stage, the market is located between Street 106 and Street 108 and is visible from the main riverside road, Preah Sisowath Quay.
Above: If my directions were not clear enough, you can clearly make out the night market on this map! Street 106 is just off from the US Embassy. Another option which should get you there is just head to the river and you should be able to hear the market and whoever is playing on the stage! – © Apple Maps 2020
The market is up and running from 5pm to 11pm every night and like any other market it is free to actually wander around the market stalls, just be prepared to be hassled a bit when you are walking around for custom!
If you find yourself in the Cambodian capital at any point, then I hope that you experience and enjoy some of my recommendations!
Have you been to Phnom Penh? What did you do when you were there? Let me know in the comments below!