Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Chaotic traffic, unstable electricity supply, and unsafe street with beggars and street children roaming around in mobs. That was Phnom Penh through our reading. However, after we stepped into the city by our own, we realized that the city was not as terrible as the hearsay.

We spent 4 days 3 nights at Phnom Penh. As we ventured into the city, these are what we have learned about the capital of the Land of Wonders. First, the street was safe. We strolled around with backpack and sling bag across the city without losing anything (however, that doesn't mean that we don't have to stay alert and take care of our own safety). Our night walk, from Landscape Hotel to whole area beside the river front, from Central Market (Psar Thmey) down Street 63, we met none but the peaceful and polite locals, gathered at the stalls by the roadside to enjoy their time after a long working day. Several of them had tried their very best to help us with the direction, with their very limited English.

City blends with modern and traditional architectures. The construction of high rises are eye catching in the middle of existing lower buildings.

River front at 6 pm. The busy Preah Sisowath Quay is a strong contrast to leisure and relaxing river front.

We encountered beggars and street children only once in a while. They left us alone after a polite rejection. We were advised by not to give them money, as the blind Samaritan deed would encourage them stay in poverty for the rest of their life. Several short term of electricity breakdowns occurred daily, without much effecting us.

The traffic however, was in total anarchy. That was true. Vehicles in all sizes might turn to any direction, without any signals. Bikes stopped in the middle of the road, blocking half of the traffic, just to wait for the chance to sneak across the road. Heavy vehicles parked and blocked half of the street and paralyzed the traffic. These were just a few real case that we had seen. We took time to adapt ourselves to the traffic condition there, on a tut-tut. Accident? Nope, as long as we could see. Maybe they have their own "hidden rules" to keep themselves from knocking down someone else.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, we were surprised by flash flood during our visit to the Royal Palace. A nearly one hour downpour turned the palace compound into one feet deep swimming pool. We were forced giving up our plan to visit the national museum, which is located just a few hundred meters away. Well,  besides the traffic, the unpredictable flash flood should be the next thing that we should keep an eye on.

A scene from tut-tut.

Shopping around night market with motorbike is nothing new for locals. So, we have to get used to this new shopping experience.

During our stay, we visited infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field, followed by the majestic Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, and Angkorian themed National Museum. Walking along the water front by the junction where great Tonle Sap meets Mekong River was an unforgettable experience. Delighting food (both Western and Khmer styles) and warm service offered by Daughter of Cambodia and Romdeng were great. We spent some time shopping at busy Central Market, Suriya Shopping Centre and night market. We were a little bit disappointed by predominant "Made in China" labels.

 Infamous interrogation room in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Now, the best part of Phnom Penh- the leisure atmosphere and the people. Unlike many cities, people here were living with a slower rhythm. In late afternoon, many people gathered at the parks around the city, talking, walking, jogging, playing around with football or badminton, or even dancing together. Many  gathered at the temples and shrines as well.  People we met were polite and kind. They always smile. We couldn't really catch the hardship that they had experienced on their face. That's what we need to learn from the people in Phnom Penh- smile, even in hard time.

This photo explained much about friendliness of Cambodians. As we waved, these workers waved back with big smiles on their face.  Photo taken at river front.

English is not a common language in Phnom Penh. Even many police could only communicate in extremely simple English. Body language helped a bit, but not much. The best way to cross the language barrier- get a tut-tut driver as a translator. Most of the tut-tut drivers speak simple English, and were willing to translate for free. Mass public transports were next to zero there. Getting a taxi was hard as well. Tut-tut was the most convenient transport that we could find in the city.

Daily expenses can be low in Phnom Penh. If you are willing to take tut-tut, the fare is around USD 0.75 - 1.5 per trip within the city, depends on the distance. If you don't mind to sit under a fan squeezing with the locals, then you can enjoy a Khmer style meal within USD 2 - 3. From what we could know at Tripadvisor, top 30 hotels in Phnom Penh had offered 4 stars' service to their customers. So, we had a variety of choices there.

Tut-tut is everywhere in Phnom Penh.

Next, we will share our experience at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field. Follow us now.

[A Trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
[Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Killing Field]
[Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum] [Food in Phnom Penh
[Shopping and Accommodation in Phnom Penh] [All Our Destinations]

You might like to read about our sharing on our Siem Reap trip too.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field

We need to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field to understand the dark history of Phnom Penh. Tuol Sleng Museum was formerly served as a detention and interrogation center, where terrible torture was carried out to force confession from the innocent people, before they were killed at Cheoung Ek Killing Field. We decided to visit both places together.

A little bit of history. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was previously schools (Tuol Sleng Primary School and Tuol Svay Prey High School), before Pol Pot came into power and turned it into Security Prison 21 (S-21) in 1975. How horrible was that place? The statistics answered. Out of 10519 documented prisoners, only 7 came out alive. Some believed that S-21 held up to a total of 20000 prisoners.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was initially built as schools. Hanging on the wall, the blackboard once served as educational tool was then used to list the prison's rules and regulation by Khmer Rouge guards. This photo was taken at block A of the prison.

The classroom at the ground floor was partitioned into smaller interrogation room, with the prisoner chained on this metal bed. The interrogation was carried out with all the windows shut tightly that even the shout and cry couldn't escape.

Most of the early victims were the scholars, professionals, teachers, politicians, singers, artists, plus everyone with spectacles. These literates, or believed to be literates were declared as the enemy of the state. Pol Pot believed that they would threaten his ideal communism. The victims were later being extended to almost everyone else, including monks, priests, factory workers, and even Pol Pot's own people. We can learn more about Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) at Wikipedia. A brief overview is available at

The entrance of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is located at the junction of Street 113 and Street 350. The entrance fee of the museum is USD3 per person. We need to pay another USD3 per person to hire a tour guide. The museum opens everyday from 8 am - 5 pm, including public holiday. The museum is divided into 4 blocks, named Block A, B, C, and D respectively. We arrived at the museum at around 12 noon, and spent about 1 hour and a half in the museum. From our experience, hiring a tour guide is essential in order to learn more about the background of the museum, as well as giving us deeper knowledge about the history and brutality of Pol Pot's regime.

Maly, our tour guide was 13 during the fallen of Phnom Penh. The city was emptied within only three days. She was sent to a remote area of Cambodia, and forced to work as labor with minimum ratio of food. She saw many people died and lost two of her family members. She survived the ordeal, and she told us many of her painful experience.

This shovel was found right inside the room. Different from most of the shovels we have, it hacked on flesh.

One of the bodies of last 14 victims found in the prison. This photo was originally taken by Vietnamese combat photographers, led by Ho Van Tay, after the combined force of Vietnamese and Kampuchean Front of National Salvation liberated Phnom Penh in 1979.

All 14 victims were buried right in front of block A.

Block B served as an exhibition hall, where we can find thousands of victim's photos, taken by the prison's guard to keep as record. Although some said that the soldiers of Khmer Rouge seldom involved in sexual violence, but the latest report from Cambodia Daily stated otherwise.

Block C displays the net of barb wires which once webbed all the blocks in the prison. The purpose, to prevent the prisoners from commit suicide by jumping off the building.

The classroom was partitioned to hold male prisoners. This photo was taken at Block C.

 Cells at Block C.

Block D showed many of the documentary photos of what Khmer Rouge had done, not only to the prisoners of S-21, but to whole Phnom Penh.

On the way from Block B to Block C, we met with one of the 7 survivors of Tuol Sleng.

 Photo on upper left reveals the usage of the wooden scaffold and the large ceramic vat on upper right. Shackles collected from the prison were the evidence of crime against humanity (lower left). Another equipment of torture with slanted platform.

Block B (left), Block C (middle, right behind the building with red roof) and Block D (far right) of the prison. This photo was taken from the third floor of Block A.

Block A of the prison from third floor of Block B.

Cheoung Ek Killing Field, or now called Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is quite far away from the city center. By tut-tut, it took us around 40 minutes of smoke and dust to reach the killing field from Tuol Sleng. It is the most well-known killing field in Cambodia under Pol Pot's regime. More than 300 were identified, and many more are yet to be found. It is believed that around 17,000 victims had been executed at Cheoung Ek, where 8895 bodies were exhumed from 86 of a total of 129 mass graveyards there. The rest of the graveyards left untouched.

This is the smoke and dust that we faced on our way to Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Far from being comfortable, but close to being a local. Be sure that you have a mask ready if you wish to tut-tut your way to Choeung Ek during the dry season. Or else, rent a car or taxi might be a better idea.

We reached Cheoung Ek killing field around 3 pm and had spent about 2 hours there. The admission fee was USD3, with additional USD2 for the audio guide per person. The audio guide contains the narration of a Cambodian who had suffered and survived the brutality of Khmer Rouge's regime. The overwhelming information described how Cambodia fell into Pol Pot's hand, how he turned to be the enemy of humanity, the killing process, to the defeat of the fanatic dictator and finally, the building of the genocidal center. The podcast contains several testimonies from the survivors, as well as ex-executioners of Pol Pot's regime. Without the audio guide, the killing field is not more than a small memorial park in the middle the forest.  

None of the original buildings survived the crisis after Pol Pot's defeat. The villagers, who were short of food and shelters teared down the buildings in the killing field as the material for their own houses. What we could see from the field now is the Buddhist stupa. As a resting place for more than 5000 skulls and bones, the stupa commemorates the victims of the brutality.

The entrance of Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.

The stupa with vivid roof top is the heart of the center. Served as the resting place for more than 5000 victims, the stupa is decorated with the sculptures of Garuda and Naga, two feuding characters in Buddhist mythology, a symbol of peace.

We were provided with audio guide, which we need to press the designated number to listen to the podcast. At this stop, we are required to press two to listen how the victims from Tuol Sleng Prison being brought by trucks to the killing field. The stop number 2 was once the parking place for the trucks.
Photo on the upper left shows the audio guide with earphone connected. Choeung Ek was once Chinese cemetery, which some of the graves can still be found within the field (lower left). The clothes and the pieces of bones are still emerging from the ground, especially during rainy season. These clothes (upper right) and bones (lower right) have been collected for display.

The chain marks the area with frequent emergence of human bones and clothes. The wooden structure at the back marked one of the excavated mass graveyards.

This is how the mass graveyard looks like in the wooden structure.

Different types of bands were hanging around the fence of the mass graveyards. This might be a symbol of blessing, prayer, or showing a connection between the living and the dead.

This tree is growing right behind the stupa, which once served as the place for the executioners to smash the children. That was the best way they could come out with to kill without bullets (cost saving).

Few steps away from the killing tree stands the magic tree. The tree however showed no pleasant tricks. It was the place where a loudspeaker was hang, to produce sound of political speeches and songs that was loud enough to cover screams and cries. That's why the neighboring dwellers didn't realize the presence of killing field till the fled of Khmer Rouge's army.

After a very long journey, we went back to our hotel for a rest. We paid our tut-tut driver USD15 for a day tour to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Genocide Center. One the following days, we visited several interesting places within the city area. Follow us to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum of Cambodia now.

[A Trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
[Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Killing Field]
[Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum] [Food in Phnom Penh]
[Shopping and Accommodation in Phnom Penh] [All Our Destinations]

You might like to read about our sharing on our Siem Reap trip too.

Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum in Phnom Penh

Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum are located side by side along Samdech Sothearos Boulevard. These three places are the attractions that we should not miss in Phnom Penh. Our suggestion, visit all these three places in a single tour. As we stayed in Landscape Hotel, we took just 10 minutes to reach the royal palace by foot.

The entrance fee for Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda is around USD6 with extra USD2 for a camera. However, we brought our camera in with no charge, although we had shown it to the counter. The opening hours are from  7:30 - 11 am, and 2 - 5 pm. Be aware that the palace guards need a lunch break of 3 hours, and the throne room, Silver Pagoda, and the Golden Buddha is closed to visitors during the long lunch break. Being trapped by heavy down pour, we took around 2 hours to walk through the palace and the pagoda.

The Royal Palace is the residence of the King of Cambodia and his royal family. The palace was built in 1866 and stands until now. It was formerly located at the intersection of four rivers- Tonle Sap, Tonle Bassac, Upper Mekong, and Lower Mekong. Although many reconstructions have taken place and the wooden structures had been replaced by concrete, the palace still exhibits strong influence of Khmer architecture, with predominating yellow and white colour, in which the yellow represents Buddhism and the white represent Brahmanism- a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism. In present Cambodia, the Royal Palace is still considered as a symbol of unity by Cambodian.

The Supreme Court of Cambodia is located opposite to the royal palace. This is the place where the trial of Khmer Rouge regime's leaders is held.

The throne hall is the prominent building in the palace compound. It was built with strong Khmer architecture. This is the place for the coronation ceremony. The hall is guarded by lions and cobra statues.
Preah Tineang Chanchhaya is a hall without wall. The purpose, moonlight can shine inside the hall. Built in 1913, this hall serves as a place for dance performance, banquet for national and international delegates, and the place where the king delivers his speech during national day of Cambodia. It is located nearby the throne hall.

Behind the throne hall stands the forbidden city of Cambodia. This is where the king and his family reside. Door is tightly shut and it is closed to visitors.

The Silver Pagoda or Wat Preah Kep Morokot (The Pagoda of the emerald Buddha) is located within the same compound with Royal Palace. It was built in 1902 and renovated at 1962, with traditional Khmer architecture. It is used for royal ceremonies. The galleries surrounding the pagoda are painted with Khmer and Hindu epic stories. Many of these painting on the galleries were very old and restoration work was still ongoing during our visit.

Silver Pagoda is not majestic or special in architectural artwork. It is famous just because of the silver tiles on it's floor. This photo was taken from the gallery during heavy rain.

The another side of the pagoda. The square temple housing the golden Buddha is located right to the pagoda.

King's statue in front of the pagoda.

National Museum of Cambodia was built in 1920 with traditional Khmer architecture. It is located at Street 13, but the entrance at Street 178. We paid USD3 per person for the entrance fee. The opening hours are from 8 am - 5 pm. Last admission is 4:30 pm. Please note that we are not allowed to take photo inside the museum. The original statue of the "Leper King" (actually Yama, the Hindu god of death) from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Archaeological Park is placed at the center of the courtyard. The square in front of the Museum is the site for the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which prays for the coming harvest. 

National Museum of Cambodia is really easy to spot with it's maroon coloured building.
The roof of the national museum is quite identical to the royal palace and Silver Pagoda.

A beautiful garden is located right in the middle of the museum.

The biggest surprise of all- the original Leper King statue from the Terrace of the Leper King, Angkor Thom.

The museum is not big, which the collection predominated by Angkorian statues and artworks. As we had being to Angkor Archaeological Park before, the collections couldn't impress us much. We spent around 45 minutes in the museum before we had our lunch at Daughter of Cambodia, one of the two restaurants that we would like to introduce to all of you next. Click here and follow us now.

[A Trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
[Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Killing Field]
[Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum] [Food in Phnom Penh
[Shopping and Accommodation in Phnom Penh] [All Our Destinations]

You might like to read about our sharing on our Siem Reap trip too.

Food in Phnom Penh

We love Cambodian food. We love the spices (especially the strong taste of basil), the way of cooking, the fragrance rice, the mixing fruit and vegetable with the dishes. We have share much about Cambodian food in our previous post here. We would like to recommend two shops here- Sugar 'n Spices (Daughter of Cambodia) and Romdeng. Both of the shops run by non-profit organization to serve the community.

Daughter of Cambodia is a non-governmental organization established to reach out to the victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia. We came across this organization through, where the shop is categorized under attraction. The shop is divided into several sections- souvenir selling and massage service is offered on the ground floor, while the first floor is a cafe named Sugar 'n Spices.

The cafe is located at 65, Street 178, 5 minutes away from National Museum of Cambodia. The cafe was clean, well managed, polite waitresses, interesting menu, and, with a few things that surprised us. First, the restaurant was fully air conditioned. Second, the portion of the food was big with cheerful display. Thirdly, it was opened only from 9 am to 6 pm, from Monday to Saturday, unusual in the sense of missing both breakfast and dinner hours. We ordered two dishes with really special names, which we couldn't recall them. We enjoyed our meal for around one hour, and that's the time the last surprise kicked in- we were the only Asian customers in the cafe through our stay.

 This is a meal for one pax.

 This dish is really special, mixing mango with pork, eat together with Khmer salad.

Romdeng Restaurant was established by Mith Samlanh (friends), as an effort to integrate street children into the society by providing training, jobs, and even schooling to them. Located at 74, Street 174, the restaurant is just a street away from Sugar 'n Spices. The restaurant was well decorated with relaxing atmosphere. It was a wonderful place for dinner.

A nice pool is really a valuable add on for Romdeng. Beside a beautiful pool, there is a small souvenir shop on the second floor of the restaurant.

 Amok fish, traditional Khmer food that we missed a lot after we had tried it for the first time in Siem Reap.

 This dish has a fancy long name- Two coloured pamelo salad with shrimps and toasted coconut.

The young waiter who helped us to take this photo had never touched a DSLR before. But, he learned fast, and learned well, with just one simple demo.

[A Trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
[Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Killing Field]
[Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum] [Food in Phnom Penh
[Shopping and Accommodation in Phnom Penh] [All Our Destinations]

You might like to read about our sharing on our Siem Reap trip too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Phnom Penh Shopping and Accommodation

We stayed in Landscape Hotel, which offered a good panoramic view over Phnom Penh City. As far as we could see, it was one of the tallest building within the area. The good side about the hotel, polite staff, big room with enough amenity for a comfortable stay, nice top floor restaurant with delighting food, and the location is strategic. By foot from the hotel, 10 minutes to Royal Palace, another additional 5 - 10 minutes to the museum and river front, and, if you really can walk, the central market is 30 - 40 minutes away (USD1.5 with tut-tut in 10 minutes). The down side, we need a little bit of patient to communicate with some of the staff in English.

A great river view, where Tonle Sap joins the flow of mighty Mekong River. This photo was taken at the top floor of Landscape Hotel. Please click on the photo for higher quality view.

City view of Phnom Penh.

Reception counter (upper left), the lobby (upper right), restaurant (lower left), and the room of Landscape Hotel.

Psar Thmei or Central Market is a shopper's heaven in Phnom Penh. Other hotspots include several shopping complexes such as Suriya Shopping Mall and Pencil Supermarket, and roadside shops. 

We went to Central Market quite late in the afternoon, and strolled around for about 1 hour. With a little bit of disappointment, we left the market empty handed. Anyway, we are not talent shoppers, with very low interest to buy anything that the quality of the item cannot be determined.
Bright yellow dome at the center of market brightened the whole area (upper left). Jewellery and watches are available at the center part of the market, with the four wings are selling different items, from clothes, foot wears, bags, groceries, to food and beverages.

 Maybe, we should visit the souvenir shops like this to get something more indigenous.

One of the night market in Phnom Penh.

Well, last part of our Phnom Penh trip, we would like to share some of the photos taken on the street of Phnom Penh.

Streets in front of Suriya Shopping Mall (upper left) and along river front (upper right). Stalls selling various type of items can be found all around the city (lower left). After the flash flood, the locals dry their clothes on the low wall.

 A food stall by the road.

 Motorbikes are very popular among the locals.

 Scouts by the traffic light, teaching drivers to stop on red light?

Phnom Penh is filled with gardens like this (upper left). Independent Monument is located in the middle of a roundabout at Preah Suramarit Boulevard. Experience the relaxing atmosphere at the river front early in the morning (lower left), as well as late afternoon.
Tonle Sap by the river front.

Statue at the river front.

That's all about our recent trip to Phnom Penh. Hope you all found our sharing helpful. Please feel free to contact us to discuss more about our trips. Please visit All Our Destinations to read more about our previous trips, or you might want to read about our experience in Siem Reap and Angkor Archeological Park.

[A Trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
[Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Cheoung Ek Killing Field]
[Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and National Museum] [Food in Phnom Penh
[Shopping and Accommodation in Phnom Penh] [All Our Destinations]

You might like to read about our sharing on our Siem Reap trip too.