Monday, 28 March 2016

Travelling Southeast Asia: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

After spending the past twenty-five days travelling around Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, we flew from Krabi to Phnom Penh to meet our friends Sam and Vicky, who we would travel with for just under a month around Cambodia. We flew Bangkok Airways via Bangkok, and as it was the only journey we had booked before we left home, we were pretty happy not to have to factor the flight into our daily budget.

Sam and Vicky met us at the airport in Phnom Penh and after a running around the carpark a few times trying to find the tuk-tuk driver who had brought them to the airport, we headed to our hostel, where they had already stayed the night before. It was so surreal suddenly being with two friends from home, after feeling so far from home for almost a month, and we had a lot to catch up on, as they were in the midst of a five-month trip around Southeast Asia.

We stayed in SLA Hostel, which was one of the cleanest and most modern places we'd stayed on the whole trip, and as the four of us could share a small private dorm room, it was pretty reasonable too.

I had very mixed preconceptions of Cambodia, but Phnom Penh didn't feel hugely different to where we'd just been in Krabi Town, Thailand. Though it was a fair bit dirtier, there was a lot more evident poverty, and the roads were undoubtably busier.

One thing that did surprise us about Cambodia in general was that things often ended up costing us more than we expected, and it was even comparatively more expensive than parts of Thailand. As the principal currency used is the American Dollar, it seemed as though things were rounded up a lot for ease of not having to use Cambodian Riel for prices below one dollar.

Our first afternoon in Cambodia was spent planning the upcoming month in Connecting Hands Cafe, which is a charity cafe that supports young victims of human trafficking. In the evening we went to a temple, Wot Lanka, for the meditation hour, before going to Romdeng restaurant. Romdeng is part of the TREE Alliance, training up former street youth and marginalised young people. Sam, Vicky and Tom decided to be adventurous and try tarantula for the first time, which of course I filmed for everyone's entertainment, so go and watch the vlog at the end of this post if you want to see their reactions!

The hostel staff recommended that we use one driver for a whole day, rather than try to get individual lifts from place to place around the city, so for our first full day it cost $18 between the four of us. The roads we were travelling along were pretty dusty, and our driver pulled over and bought us all masks to wear for the journeys.

We spent the day at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre and Tuol Sleng Museum, and more than anything it just made me ashamed that I, and the majority of the Western world, are taught and know so little about the awful things that happened to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is located on one of hundreds of the killing fields that were used by the Khmer Rouge for mass execution, which contributed to the deaths of around 2 million Cambodian people. Tuol Sleng Museum was a school which was converted into a prison under the Khmer Rouge, and is now filled with information and documentation about the horrific things that went on inside the prison.

Dark tourism is something with which I struggle to find my moral and ethical stance, but both of these locations offered the hard truth; there is nothing that feels touristic about these sites, both are set up to teach the rest of the world about the atrocities that were covered up during this period and provide a place to pay respects to the millions who lost their lives.

None of us really knew what to do for the rest of the day, so after a very late lunch we spent the rest of the evening at Eclipse Sky Bar, taking in Phnom Penh from above and inevitably discussing what we had learnt that day and the good and bad things about the world.

For our final full day in Phnom Penh we started off with Wat Phnom, a small temple, before taking a break from the heat at Mekong River Restaurant.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Royal Palace, which cost $6.50 each. This was probably the strictest place we visited in terms of dress code: if you're wearing a shawl or any other kind of cover-up, you are made to buy a Royal Palace t-shirt instead. There are a lot of beautiful buildings to walk around inside the walls of the palace, though it does get extremely crowded.

We finished off our time in Phnom Penh with a sunset cruise on the Mekong. It was definitely worth walking beyond the main pier where most of the cruises go from, as we were offered a boat to ourselves for just $5 each from a bit further down the road. 

After an hour spent trying to cross the city in rush hour in a tuk-tuk we made it to SoVanna restaurant, for a Khmer BBQ-style meal.

I also vlogged our stay which gives an even better impression of Phnom Penh, so give that a watch and subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss the vlogs from the rest of the trip!


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