In Pictures: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A Travel Experience
Cambodia > Phnom Penh

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 8 July 2011
Category: Travel > Cambodia Comments View Comments


Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, a Buddhist kingdom in South-East Asia with a tumultuous history. Here are 24 hours spent on a recent trip, captured in pictures. Please note that some of the images and text many not be suitable for sensitive people.

As an introduction, Cambodia is a small country in South East Asia bordered by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. It is home to just under 15 million people, 70% of whom are under the age of 30 and 80% of whom are farmers. The country is very poor and has an unemployment rate of 45%. Along with that comes the problem of kids not attending school and drug abuse. A number of religions are practiced in the country, including Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, but the majority of people are Buddhist.

To understand the Cambodia of today you need to know a little about its past, which is very complicated and extends into pre history. The Khmer Empire emerged to dominate South-East Asia from the 9th to the 13th centuries. The empire expanded over the peninsula, enveloping areas that are now modern-day Laos and parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Myanmar, before declining in the 14th century. During this time magnificent temples were built by a succession of kings, most of whom were Hindu, some of whom were Buddhist. Wars, floods, and drought then followed for centuries.

In the mid 1800s the French began to colonise the region, which included areas that now form Laos and Vietnam, and the area became known as French Indochina. Cambodia gained its independence in 1953 and between 1969 and 1973 it found itself embroiled in the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known in Vietnam).

In 1975 the communist Khmer Rouge regime came into power in Cambodia, led by Pol Pot. The regime's brutal policies focussed on an agricultural revolution and classless society and away from intellectual pursuits. In the process millions of Cambodians (including intellectuals, artists, women, and children) and ethnic minorities were tortured and killed at killing fields such as the one that was established at Choeung Ek, 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, where bodies were then buried in mass graves. Countless more starved to death. The genocide lasted for almost five years until Vietnam invaded the country and captured Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge retreated west and still had control over some of the country into the 1980s, backed by China, while the communist People's Republic of Kampuchea was established by Vietnam and its ally, the Soviet Union, in the rest of the country. Vietnam withdrew in 1989 and in 1993 the monarchy was restored in Cambodia. The country is now (theoretically) a multi-party democracy under a constitutional monarchy but it is still recovering from its very brutal past.

Aerial View Heading Into Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Heading Into Phnom Penh Earlier this year I joined a tour group of South Africans on a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam in South-East Asia. We flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before switching planes and heading to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We met our guide, Sawaddh So [see the travel advisory section below], at the airport and immediately headed to our first stop: Choeung Ek Genocidal Center.

Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh: Memorial Charnel House
Choeung Ek Memorial Charnel House Choeung Ek was originally a farm but in the 1970s the Chinese bought a portion of it to build a Chinese graveyard. During the Khmer Rouge's reign the area, much like about 350 other places around the country, was turned into killing fields and thousands of people died. In 1989 the government of Cambodia transformed the Choeung Ek killing fields into a museum and memorial site in order to honour the victims and have a place where tourists could be educated about Cambodia's history. A memorial stupa with acrylic glass panelling was built. It houses the skulls of about 5000 victims, as well as clothing remains. Visitors are welcome to walk around the centre of this memorial and take photographs but as it is a Buddhist building they are required to remove their shoes before entering the inner section.

Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh: Mass Grave
A Mass Grave The largest mass grave discovered at Choeung Ek contained 450 victims. Not all the graves have been excavated - of the 129 that have been discovered, 43 have been left undisturbed.

Clothing Remains At Choeung Ek
What Lies Beneath Human remains, including clothing, bones, and teeth, still lie buried at Choeung Ek. Heavy rains and floods have slowly lifted unexcavated remains to the surface, where they have been left as visual reminders of the horrors that took place here. As we walked around we saw undisturbed signs of human remains everywhere, such as these pieces of clothing half buried in the clay soil.

Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh: Loudspeaker Tree
Drowning Out The Sounds Of Murder A loudspeaker once hung from the "loudspeaker tree", also known as the "magic tree". Its purpose was to play loud music that would obliterate the tortured screams of victims of the genocide. Nearby is an even more horrific tree - the "killing tree". There infants and children were bashed to death against its trunk before being tossed in one of the nearby mass graves.

Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh: Skulls In The Buddhist Memorial Stupa
The Remains Of The Dead A small acrylic glass enclosure forms the centre of the memorial stupa at the heart of the Choeung Ek complex. Inside recovered skulls and clothing remains are on display, categorised by age and gender, as a reminder that each one of those artifacts represents a life that was taken by a brutal regime.

Though a very sobering excursion, a trip to Choeung Ek is highly recommended to gain a better understanding of the people of Cambodia. Due to its history Cambodians, like South Africans, are very politically aware. Various people we spoke to tended to exhibit a mix of hope, for the democratic future of the country, and jadedness (or cautious weariness, if you prefer). This is due to the fact that although it's a multi-party democracy the prime minister, Hun Sen, has been in power since 1985 and in his official capacity he has the power to change laws and the constitution. He was also a member of the Khmer Rouge until 1979 when it is said that he fled to Vietnam to ask for its assistance in overthrowing the regime. More recently the prime minister has been tied to corruption. The Khmer Rouge's regime has left a deep scar in the psyche of Cambodia and Cambodians have mixed feelings about their prime minister but we could definitely see that due to the changes that have been taking place in the past decade there is growing optimism and democratic processes are at work. The fact that people felt comfortable openly voicing their political opinions, and particularly seemed to enjoy having political discussions with a group of South Africans, is testament to this.

Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh: Skulls In The Buddhist Memorial Stupa
Lost Lives The heady scent of nearby frangi-pani trees in full bloom filled the air at Choeung Ek, as in much of Cambodia. The contrast between the beautiful aroma of those pretty flowers and the brutality of the genocide that took place on the same spot was incredibly striking and gave me pause for thought. I will never again be able to look at a frangi-pani tree without thinking of the millions of people who died in Cambodia 35 years ago.

Key Facts: Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
Admission Fee: US$2.00 [?]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia: A Group Of Four On A Scooter
Getting Around Our visit to Choeung Ek gave us a great sense of the recent past, which is still having a huge effect on the present, future, and general outlook of Cambodians - but it was just the beginning of our trip, which was to encompass much history, pre history, and culture in just a few days. We left Choeung Ek and headed back to the city on our bus. Along the way I took this shot of a travelling family. Scooters and light motorbikes are the primary form of transport for most Cambodians and it's not unusual to see as many as four people crammed onto one vehicle.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh: Statues Along The Tourist Entrance
A Royal Welcome The Royal Palace compound was built opposite the Mekong River between 1866 and 1870 during the reign of King Norodom, although subsequently there have been additions and some buildings have been rebuilt.

The compound comprises several buildings, the Silver Pagoda complex, the Ramayana mural, and beautifully managed gardens that are a serene pleasure to wander through. It is open to the public on most days.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh: The Throne Hall
Seat Of Power Religious and royal ceremonies are still occasionally held in the Throne Hall, the central building that comprises the Royal Palace complex. This building was built in 1917 using modern materials after the previous one, which was built from wood, was demolished in 1915.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh: The Throne Hall
Golden Glow The entrance to the Throne Hall is decorated with kinnari on columns. The interior, which isn't overly opulent or ostentatious, bar beautiful frescoes of the Reamker, somehow feels as if it is bathed in gold light - I don't know how else to describe the breathtaking visual effect that's created. The centrepieces are the gold thrones (one in front and a raised one at the back of the room), which are surrounded by gold statues of previous kings of Cambodia. Tourists are not allowed to photograph the interior and you are required to remove your shoes before entering.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh: Phochani Pavilion
Arts And Culture The Phochani Pavilion was built in 1912 as a theatre that trained classical dancers. It is now used for meetings and official receptions. Many of the buildings are decorated with nāga, depictions of a seven-headed snake from Cambodian mythology. The princess of the Nāga, a reptilian race of humans, married an Indian Brahmana named Kaundinya. Their children are the origin of the Cambodian people.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh: Stupa Outside The Silver Pagoda
High Point The stupa of King Norodom, which houses his ashes, stands outside the Silver Pagoda and is a striking memorial surrounded by lush vegetation.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh: The View From The Silver Pagoda
A Royal Lineup Unfortunately you can't take photos inside the Silver Pagoda (Preah Vihear Preah Keo Morakot, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha), a Buddhist temple that has acquired its colloquial name because the floor comprises intricately decorated tiles made of silver, although you can only see these tiles in a few places because most of the room is carpeted in order to protect the floor from wear and tear caused by the constant foot traffic. The pagoda primarily houses cultural artifacts that have been discovered during archeological exploration or have been donated back to the country after plundering.

[Wikimedia houses a photo that has been taken inside, which you can see here.]

The view (above) outside the pagoda encompasses the stupa of King Norodom (left) and the stupa of King Ang Duong. Both stupas were constructed in 1908 and house the kings' ashes. In between, though it's not clear in this picture, is an equestrian statue of King Norodom.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh: Stupas
In Memory Of Around the corner from the Silver Pagoda two more stupas are bathed in the late-afternoon sunlight. On the left is the stupa of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Sisowat Kossamak and on the right is the stupa of Princess Kantha Bopha (1948-1952), who died of leukemia at the age of four.

Key Facts: The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Admission Fee: 25 000 Cambodian riel [?]

Cine Lux
An Art Deco Cinema Ciné Lux is a cinema complex that opened in 2001 and is housed in a modern Art Deco building. Unfortunately we zipped by so fast in the bus that this was the best photo that I could get. Other views of the cinema, which offer a better view of the Art Deco architecture, can be found here, here, and here.

Key Facts: Ciné Lux
Address: 44 Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh 12206 Cambodia
Coordinates: 11° 34' 4.83" N, 104° 55' 30.54" E

Phnom Penh: Wires
Organised Chaos Electricity poles with masses of interconnected wires can be found on every street corner, with hundreds of metres of wires running the lengths of roads. Although it looks as though it's a tangled mess the wires are labelled and there is a system in place - for those who understand it.

Phnom Penh: A Street Scene
A Typical Mid-City Street Scene Snapped in the late afternoon from a moving bus, Cambodians go about their day. This was one of the greener streets in the city centre, which tends to lack foliage in the densely packed inner city areas even though this is a very wet country.

Phnom Penh: The View Outside Central Market (Phsar Thom Thmei)
Night Begins To Fall The Central Market (or Phsar Thom Thmei in Khmer, which means "big new market") is a massive Art Deco building with a central hub that houses jewellery and electronics merchants and which can be locked up. Large wings extend from the centre and encompass the rest of the merchants' stalls, which sell everything from clothing to cooking utensils, souvenirs, and groceries. We arrived at the market quite late, with the light fading, and even at that time it was very crowded so I wasn't able to get a decent photograph of the building as I couldn't get my camera high enough above the crowd. It's on the list for next time, though. (Yes, there definitely will be a next time in Cambodia!) Since it was our first evening in Cambodia and everything was new and exciting I was quite captivated by the billboards on, and the architecture of, the buildings across the road, hence this photograph. The Khmer script is beautiful and I love the design that naturally results.

Key Facts: Phsar Thom Thmei
On The Internet: GeoHack | TripAdvisor | Wikipedia

Phnom Penh International Airport: Cambodia Angkor Air ATR 72-500
Cambodia Angkor Air Cambodia's national carrier has been in operation since mid 2009. (Due to operating expenses airlines in Cambodia don't seem to last too long, as can be seen by the Wikipedia reference here.) We flew from Phnom Penh International Airport to Siem Reap in this ATR 72-500, one of two that the airline leases from Vietnam Airlines. The ATR 72 is manufactured by ATR, a French-Italian manufacturer. The interior of the plane is divided into rows of four seats with a centre aisle, so everyone has either a window seat or an aisle seat. This trip, and a subsequent one on an ATR 72-500 between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, were two of the most pleasant flights I've ever experienced.

Key Facts: Cambodia Angkor Air
Destinations: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) [ route map ]
On The Internet: Official Site | Wikipedia

One day in Phnom Penh was definitely not enough. I will be back! Our next stop was Siem Reap and the Angkor region, the main reason I went on the trip, so look out for my post, which will include magnificent temple ruins, the Tonlé Sap lake, and Artisans d'Angkor. Follow @brainwavez on Twitter and keep an eye on the home page for updates. Travel Advisory: Cambodia
Our Guides:
South Africa: I travelled to Cambodia as part of a group tour organised by Travel Experience, which is based in Cape Town. Email Jan Hough (jan.te at galileosa dot co dot za) or Andre Nel (andre.te at galileosa dot co dot za). There is another tour scheduled for November 2011.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Our local guide in Phnom Penh was Sawaddh So, who speaks English, Thai, Lao, and Khmer. I recommend him. Contact him via email: sawaddh_guide at yahoo dot com or call +855 1797 3581.
Getting There: Malaysia Airlines flies from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur (approximately 11 hours) as part of the bi-weekly Buenos Aires-Cape Town-Kuala Lumpur route. From Kuala Lumpur it's a quick flight (also with Malaysia Airlines) to Phnom Penh.
Accommodation: We stayed at NagaWorld, a large hotel that is situated on the outskirts of the city. The rooms were comfortable and quiet but the ground floor is a full-on casino that's part of a larger entertainment complex and it feels rather trashy if you're not a casino fan (imagine a slightly subdued Indochina version of Grand West or Montecasino). The breakfast offerings were varied and accommodated both Western and South-East Asian preferences. If this is not your thing you may prefer to stay in one of the many smaller hotels or hostels situated in the city centre for a more authentic experience.
Currency: Cambodia's currency is the riel, divided into 100 sen. We rarely saw any Cambodian money as most transactions are done in US dollars.
Options And Prices: Menu prices are usually in both US dollars and Cambodian riel. Average meal prices are slightly lower than the equivalent found in a mid-range restaurant in South Africa. Vegetarians are well catered for. Rice is ubiquitous. Expect to pay US$2.50 to US$3.00 [?] for a decent cocktail or can of beer (any more and you're being ripped off). Try the local beers: Tiger Beer and Angkor Beer. The food is generally very good and the portion sizes are filling.
Payment: There is no problem dining as a large group and restaurants are very accommodating - the waiters will allow you to pay separately, which you can do with whatever combination of US dollars and Cambodian riel you have on hand. They will easily do currency conversions if necessary and in many cases you can ask for specific change back in either currency.
Dress: Except on beaches, where swimming costumes are allowed, you are expected to dress conservatively. Certain tourist attractions have particular dress codes and may require you to have your shoulders and knees covered. A T-shirt or shirt and long trousers will be suitable in most cases. You will be required to remove your shoes, which you can safely store outside without fear of them being stolen, if you wish to enter Buddhist buildings.
Electricity: 230V/50 Hz; European (type A and type C) plugs are common; British (type G) plugs can be found in many hotels.
Malaria: The northern forested areas of Cambodia are in a malaria zone but you are unlikely to encounter malaria at any of the usual tourist spots. However it's still advisable to take precautions - use a product such as Tabard and/or a mosquito net to repel insects.
Shots: No shots are required but if you are worried it's recommended that you get vaccinations for tetanus, diphtheria, meningitis, as well as a polio booster and gamma globulin shots for hepatitis A.
Internet Access: Free Wi-Fi is ubiquitous in Cambodia. In the unlikely event that your hotel doesn't offer it you'll be able to find free access points around the city and in many restaurants. Naturally, it's recommended that you take the necessary precautions to safeguard your computer or Wi-Fi-enabled phone to prevent malicious attacks, data theft, and secret malware installations but we experienced no problems.
Language: Cambodians speak Khmer [ phrasebook ] but most in the service industry will speak at least a limited amount of English.
Local Customs: The sampeah gesture is a greeting and a way to say thank you that shows respect. Place your palms together and bow slightly - the higher the hands and the lower the bow, the more respect you are showing. Don't worry too much about the intricacies - your attempt is what will be appreciated.
Photography: Certain tourist attractions have rules, which are clearly displayed at the entrance, that may, for example, state that you may not take photos inside specific buildings. However, for the most part you are welcome to take photographs, especially outdoors. If you're not sure, just ask. In more rural areas it's important to ask people if you can take their photograph before doing so.
Markets: Price haggling is a requirement at the markets and it can become taxing for those not used to it, especially since almost everything is already well priced so you feel as though you're getting a bargain even before you start haggling. You can knock down a lot of prices by at least half, although sometimes merchants refused to negotiate at all and I never learnt the intricacies of when one should and shouldn't. Be willing to walk away if you aren't happy with a price. The markets in Cambodia are filled with goods such as spices and teas that are sold in small pots made of woven palm leaves. They're high quality products that are cheap to buy and make for perfect gifts. T-shirts can be bought for about US$3.00 [?] but the quality may vary.
Tourist Attractions: Roving merchants will try and sell you postcards and other trinkets at most tourist attractions and their persistence can be overwhelming. Don't pay more than US$1.00 for a pack of 10 postcards and a dollar or two for other small items. Speak to your hotel staff about buying stamps if you don't know where to get them. Ours in Siem Reap ran a side business that sold stamps for a slight premium and then mailed the postcards - all of which were received by their intended recipients around the world.
Time Zone: UTC+7
Tipping: Tipping isn't required but it will be much appreciated as the country is so poor. A dollar or two will make a huge difference. Drivers and guides should be tipped a few dollars per day, and consider making a small donation to a wat (temple) after a visit.
Tourist Info: Pocket Guide (Cambodia) publishes city maps, drinking and dining guides, and night-life guides that are packed with information on places to go, things to do, and things to know that will enrich your experience in the country. Most of the guide books and maps are free and you can pick them up at hotels and in restaurants. The more detailed publication, Streetwise is US$3.00 [?].
Transport: Your transport options are tuk-tuk, radio taxi, and motorbike. Negotiate the prices beforehand. A tuk-tuk, which can take four people comfortably and is the recommended means of transport, will cost around US$3.00 [?].
Visas: Although many nationalities are exempt, South Africans require a visa to enter the country. An e-visa can be applied for online (a digitised passport-size photo is required) at a cost of US$25 [?]. Print out two copies: stick one in your passport and hand over the other when you arrive at passport control in Cambodia.
Water: There is debate as to whether the tap water is or isn't safe to drink. Err on the side of caution and boil it before you consume it. Your hotel should provide free bottled water each day, as will your tour company if you are using one. Bottled water can be purchased quite easily and cheaply.
Weather: The monsoon and summer season is between May and September. The Tonlé Sap lake and the rivers that feed it flood the delta, therefore it's best to travel just before or after the monsoon season, in March or November. The country is hot and humid so it's important to remain hydrated and to take it easy if you are prone to heat-related ailments. The breeze from a tuk-tuk ride is a great, though temporary, antidote to the heat.

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