Phnom Penh Cambodia – A Buzzing & Vibrant City Rises Up From A Tragic Past

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by Anna Lynch

Cambodias Killing Fields

The Stupa Filled With The Skulls Of Khmer Rouge Victims

Phnom Penh – A Brief History

Phnom Penh entered the history books after it became the Khmer capital in the mid 15th century.

European interest in Cambodia waned until the French arrived in force in the late 19th century –  it was then in the 1860s that the capital of Cambodia relocated to Phnom Penh. France controlled Cambodia for most of the first half of the 20th century…

Many classic colonial buildings were constructed – including the refined Hotel Le Royal… I strongly suggest a beer or cocktail here at the opulent Elephant Bar during their happy hours of 4 till 9pm – ask a tuk tuk driver to take you to Hotel Raffles Le Royal.

Grand floor to ceiling french windows and a smooth playing piano somehow combine seamlessly with the pool table and many free nibbles that are brought to your table on arrival to make for a classy yet not too ‘stuffy’ atmosphere.

Happy hour cocktails are approximately US$4 – well worth it in my opinion.


Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh

Making A Grand Arrival @ The Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh

Independence from France came in 1954 however in 1974 the city was taken siege and eventually cut off, finally falling to the Khmer Rouge (KR) in April 1975.

Three days after falling to the Khmer Rouge… the city was totally evacuated, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths.

The city remained a ghost town until January 1979 when the KR fled from the invading Vietnamese army leaving behind gruesome evidence of their genocidal horrors such as the S-21 Facility, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the infamous Killing Fields of Cheung Ek on the fringes Phnom Penh.


S21 Genocide Museum

A Lasting Reminder Of Pol Pot & The Khmer Rouge

Today Cambodia’s Capital City is a vibrant blend of tradition, history, amazing restaurants, countless activities and wonderful people – albeit this can tend to hide the not so pretty side to Phnom Penh associated with prostitution, child abuse, insufficient education and homelessness.

We’ve travelled through countless South East Asian cities and hands down Phnom Penh makes into our list of favourites.

The electric mix of history, activities and entertainment draws you in and before you know it you have stayed well in advance of your planned time in this special city.

On arrival into Phnom Penh – we arrived by bus approx 8.30pm from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), we had arranged for a local tuk tuk driver ‘Lee’ who had come highly recommended to meet us.

I believe finding the services of Lee – an honest and reliable tuk tuk driver is priceless in a city such as Phnom Penh.

Should you ever require, I have included Lee’s contact details at the bottom of this post.

Lee was on time and took us to our accommodation for the evening – the lovely Bhodi Tree Umma – located directly opposite Tuol Sleng (S21).

Whilst firmly in ‘flashpacker’ territory at $AU36… the garden and sitting areas are simply serene – and the the food nothing short of delightful.

Lee helped us in with our bags and over a cold Chang we planned our itinerary with him for the next few days (which ended up turning into weeks).

After a much needed sleep we awoke to breakfast of an assortment of breads, jams and fruits – perfect energy food for the big day ahead of us.

S21, The Genocide Museum in The Heart Of Phnom Penh

Toul Sleng Phnom Penh

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum From Behind The Wire

When S21, the former interrogation prison opened at 9am we literally strolled across the road.

Now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a significant number of genocidal crimes and torture were administered inside the ex-prison walls under Pol Pot’s orders between 1975 & 1979.

It is documented that of the many thousands upon thousands of innocent Khmer (Cambodian) men, women and children that were taken to S21 a mere 7 walked out with their lives.

The S21 Museum concludes from records found at the facility that approximately 20,000 prisoners including children were processed through it’s gates.

With the exception of the ‘very important’ prisoners (who were killed on site by having their throats cut) all other prisoners were trucked off to the now famous Killing Fields known as Cheung Ek.


Foreign Victims Of Khmer Rouge

Foreigners Were Not Safe From Pol Pot Either...

Excessive records were maintained by the ultra Communist Khmer Rouge Regime, which has provided an insight into the daily operations of the facility.

Most of the prisoners were accused of some form of plotting against the Pol Pot Regime… and forced to write long (often completely ficticious) confessions to the satisfaction of their torturer – before being disposed of at the Killing Fields.

Please be prepared to be emotionally moved as you walk through the holding rooms and cells.

Witnessing first hand the horrific conditions imposed upon the occupants and the torture implements utilised to obtain confessions.

Be prepared better still for the hundreds upon hundreds of ‘mug’ shots of the prisoners (including women and children) entering S21 lining the cell walls… all frightened – but unlikely knowing that entering this prison meant a certain death sentence.


S21 Prison Phnom Penh

Some Of Pol Pots Many Victims


Given the extremely moving nature of both the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek, we had been advised by former visitors to do both in the same day so as to try to keep the high emotionality confined to one day – a piece of advice we are glad we followed.


There is a documentary played in the far block at 11am each day. We arrived at 9am and really had to rush to be finished in time for 12pm at the arranged time for our pick up.


I had read the book Cambodia – Year Zero prior to experiencing Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and highly recommend it. In my opinion it gives an excellent unbiased, facts based account of the Khmer Rough Genocidal activities at S21 plus an overall insight into the operations of such a ‘Government’.


I highly recommend arranging a local guide (they are located within the Museum) and are well worth the small price you pay them.

The Infamous Killing Fields – Where Prisoners Went After S21

Lee was waiting outside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, ushering us into his tuk tuk… and taking us 15km out of Phnom Penh to the Chenug Ek Killing Fields

The place where nearly all 20,000 prisoners of S21 were taken to be brutally slaughtered.

The centrepiece of the memorial is an imposing Stupa…

Filled with the skulls and remains of many thousands of prisoners who were executed here… many of the skulls have been shattered as a result of being smashed across the head with blunt objects like hoe’s and hammers.


Stupa At The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields - A Heavy Day in Phnom Penh

An audio guided tour of points of interest is available (US $3) – and identifies such landmarks as the large pits Pol Pots victims were tumbled into after being struck on the back of the head or neck…

The execution tree where babies were held by their feet and violently smashed against the tree, before being flung into a separate pit…

And the piles of clothing and areas were specific buildings once stood.

There is also an informative documentary run at certain times during the day.

You will no doubt read too… and perhaps witness for yourself the ever emerging human bone fragments that continue to rise up from the exhumed burial pits especially after heavy rains.

Whilst most of the pits were excavated, it was decided that some pits would be left untouched.

I would estimate we spent 2 1/2 to 3 hours here.


The Mass Graves Of The Killing Fields

The Mass Graves Discovered After Cambodia Was Liberated From Pol Pot

The Russian Markets… After A Heavy Day

Trusty Lee was waiting for us and suggested a trip to the Russian Markets on the way home in an attempt to lighten the somewhat sombre mood.

The Russian Market is jam-packed with locally produced crafts, everything from brightly weaved silks, to sun dried fish fillets and all forms of souvenirs in between.

Not immune from the talented sales people… we couldn’t help but pick us up an intricately painted, porcelain Opium Smoking pipe –  something of a Dita Von Tease number with the long slender smoking pipe.


The Russian Markets Phnom Penh

The Russian Markets Phnom Penh

We finished the evening off in the most uplifting style – delicious cocktails at the stunning Hotel Raffles Le Royal

Included with the drinks is the biggest selection of peanuts and treats, easily keeping your stomach occupied until dinner.

Last but not least… we ended the evening with a nightcap at the infamous FCC – Foreign Correspondents Club.

I couldn’t guarantee the extent to which the establishment is still patronised by Foreign Correspondents, however the atmosphere & view from the French Inspired building on the river is worth the cost of one or two of the higher priced drinks.

I won’t go on to bombard you with our day to day activities of our extended stay in Phnom Penh, but I will give you a highlight of some of the things we certainly enjoyed, and you might want to consider if you’re planning your own trip to Cambodia.

Cambodia’s Currency

Cambodia’s local currency is the Riel however they just as frequently use the $US – on a fixed exchange rate of 4000 R = US $1

To Do In Phnom Penh…

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum & Cheung Ek Killing Fields

The reason most come to Phnom Penh.  See detail above.

Shooting Range

Well I am a country gal and all – but that still doesn’t mean we all ride horses and shoot rifles – (well actually I did…) but nonetheless an M16 automatic is just a tad different to the 22 calibre rifles I’ve used before.


Anna Shooting The K54

Anna 'Pistol Whipping' The Shooting Target

Strangely enough I highly recommend a couple of hours of shooting – quite therapeutic after being ambushed constantly by loitering tuk tuk drivers all day… we couldn’t decide which gun we wanted to fire from the weapon buffet…

Revolver? K54 handgun? M16 or maybe an AK47 automatic rifle?

Uh screw it give us all 4…

Apart from the exercise itself, its always more fun when you get to do something cool in another country that’s illegal in your own country!

Just ask Lee to take you!


Shooting Range Phnom Penh Cambodia

Shooting Guns (Big & Small) In Phnom Penh

Russian, Central Markets and weekend Markets.

We found the Central Markets to be less ‘exotic’ than the Russian Market and a bit more expensive, however still worth a visit.

Wat Phnom

Believed to be the hill after which the City was named – where as history goes ‘Penh’ – a Khmer woman was, walking by a river at the site when she noticed 4 Buddha images.

They were collected and relocated by Penh to the Phnom (hill) where a Wat (temple) was built to house them.

These days the site provides a nice lookout venue in the City Centre. Hence the Capital’s name Phnom Penh.


Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh

The Hill Where Phnom Penh Derives It's Name 'Wat Phnom'

Royal Palace / Silver Pagoda

A little costly to get in we thought (25,000 Riel or $US 6.25) but ultimately quite a pretty Palace grounds.

Be sure to look for the raised flag in front of the King’s Palace – announcing his current residence. Originally constructed in 1434 – from timber and then again in 1866 from concrete its construction follows the conventions of traditional Khmer architecture.


Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Phnom Penhs Royal Palace

Independence Monument

Also known as the Victory Monument – I recommend you have your driver take you past just on dusk as you will be sure to get some amazing pics.


Independence Monument PP

PP Independence Monument - Stunning At Night

Visit An English Teaching Volunteer School

Whilst not for everyone, we really enjoyed visiting the S.C.A.O (Save Children In Asia Organisation) English teaching volunteer school.

We arrived on the last day before their new years break, so whilst we didn’t see any classes in action, we spoke with the Thai Director – Mr Sameth as well as a Western Co-ordinator… and a few of the existing students.


Save The Poor Children In Asia Organization

Save The Poor Children In Asia Organization

The school provides children who can either not afford government school… or those who wish to further their learning of English with a means to do so.

The school also housed 17 children who otherwise could not afford the daily travel to receive such an education.

We spoke at length with Mr Sameth who was only too pleased to share his story and progress with us.

In return we brought with us stationary supplies for the school… and a 50kg bag of rice for which they were most grateful.

If you would like to help the S.C.A.O in any way here are the contact details


012 336 501


Diamond Island Fair Ground

A must for the ‘young at heart’.

A short ride over a little bridge for an evening of fun on Diamond Island… you will find a mini wonderland including all best things associated with a good fair… a sideshow alley – small rides, games, ice-cream, fairy floss, young lovers loitering in the car park, and best of all dart shooting galleries.

You will need to take a tuk tuk to get there.

To Eat in Phnom Penh

Be prepared to encounter some amazing food and even better prices as you indulge your way around this City of scrumptious offerings.

Here’s our list of our favourites:

Lemongrass Restaurant – 130 Street

Rice Paper Rolls From Lemongrass

Amazing Rice Paper Rolls From Lemongrass

Just off Sisowath Quay – exceptional Cambodian & Thai Food at great prices in a cosy restaurant – be sure to try their Rice Paper Spring Rolls.

Java Cafe – 56 E1 Sihanouk Blvd

Java Cafe Phnom Penh

The Delicious Food At Java Cafe, Phnom Penh

Lip-smacking good milkshakes, coffees and pastries, not to mention cookies, muffins, oh and yes they do a good lunch too. Great to hangout in if you want to catch up on some reading or writing.

A little off the Quay so would be better to get a tuk tuk.

Daughters of Cambodia – 130 Street

Daughters Of Cambodia

Daughters Of Cambodia - Helping Woman Get Off The Streets

‘Daughters’ was established by Ruth Elliot of the UK.

It’s a Christian based operation that works with Phnom Penh’s sex workers – helping them to get off and stay off the street.

Daughters – among other things offers woman training in food preparation and service, sewing, beauty services and jewellery making.

It’s well worth a trip to visit their shop, watch their heartening documentary and sample their delicious coffee and chocolate brownies at the Sugar and Spice Cafe.

All the while knowing you are supporting a great cause.

Lucky Pho – 130 Street

Lucky Pho Phnom Penh

We Were indeed Lucky To Find 'Lucky Pho'

Just up from Sisowath Quay Wonderful pho noodles at only US$2.5 ( I think we must have eaten here once a day).

Bhoddi Tree, Umma – 50, 113 Street

Bhoddi Tree Phnom Penh

The Incredible Bhoddi Tree Guest House/Cafe

Down right awesome food – a combination of Cambodian and Western including great cakes and muffins. Worth a visit for lunch even if not staying here!

Indian Phnom Penh – Sisowath Quay

I don’t tend to opt for Indian much when travelling but we we given a tip off on this one… and glad we were – the food was absolutely brilliant – couldn’t understand why we were the only customers in the restaurant?

Roof Top Bar – Siswowath Quay

The view is amazing over the river however you would need to down a few drinks pretty fast if you are to bear the sewer smell that wafts up from the sewer junction directly below on the street.

Khmer Surin – 9, 57 Street

Delicious Khmer & Thai food in a much larger restaurant – be sure to try the Fish Amok – amazing.

To Sleep In Phnom Penh

Bhoddi Tree, Umma – 50, 113 Street

US $36 a night for an double aircon room with ensuite and free WIFI, this place is a firmly in ‘flashpacker’ territory – we’re normally able to find well located & nice accommodation for between US $20 – $30.

Breakfast was included. We stayed a couple of nights here and only have good things to say. The peaceful garden atmosphere was lovely and the food delicious.

It was a little far out from the riverside precinct but was located close to some points of interest we wanted to visit so in all it worked out well.

Paragon – Sisowath Quay

The room at the Paragon itself was basic but adequate – double bed, aircon, TV, free WIFI but the shared balcony with the beautiful view of the river at dawn and dusk was the ultimate.

We managed to negotiate a room rate of US $25 per night on the basis we were to stay a few nights (which we well and truly did).

During my stay for some ungodly reason I felt compelled to take morning runs along the river – it turned out to be the most beautiful time of the day in my opinion, not to mention entertaining as large groups of all types undertook riverside street aerobics – under the instruction of a somewhat pudgy but enthusiastic instructor.

Tuk Tuk Driver in Phnom Penh – Recommended, Knowledgeable and Reliable

Lee Tuk Tuk Driver

Lee - The best Tuk Tuk Driver In Phnom Penh

Mr Lee Chhun
Mob: +855 77770015

Without a reliable driver waiting for you, you will be quite seriously hounded to the point of exhaustion by swarming tuk tuk drivers.

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