Sitting on the banks of the Mekong as the sun was going down, drinking a cold Cambodia beer from one of the many street hawkers, we saw all of Phnom Penh life. From Khmer women in their matching pajama sets working out on the outdoor equipment to expats walking their dog and even an elderly guy doing practise football headers as part of his confusing exercise routine. We watched a man catch a fish from the river with his wooden fishing rod and turned away some persistent beggars, all as the sunset over the royal palace…it felt like Cambodian life was here for us to view.
Phnom Penh is a big city…and felt it compared to our other stops in the country. The streets are bustling, traffic everywhere, and attempting to cross roads can take a lot of confidence and luck. The energy of Phnom Penh is certainly infectious, even with its sad recent history. On our first evening we walked past a street restaurant which was packed with locals eating sumptuous looking seafood. Of course we had to stop and sitting on tiny plastic stools on the roadside we knew it was going to be good! Luckily for us we were beside some locals who could speak English who helped us get the waitress’ attention and got us to try squid, shrimp and stingray. When they told us that they worked in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant we knew we’d found a gem! If fancy chefs were eating there for $2 ahead it must be good and it was!
Thirty-five years ago the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power, during their time in control the regime had tortured and murdered over 2 million men, woman and children. The two most famous memorials to the genocide are in Phnom Penh: S-21 (the museum in the former prison, where torture was inflicted on inmates) and the killing fields, where the prisons were executed and buried in mass graves. Though difficult to visit, it felt like an important thing to do to understand more fully the atrocities and in turn the country left behind. Seeing the black and white photographs of murdered children and their bones in the mausoleum at the Killing Fields was particularly distressing. Our advice would be to try not to see them both in the same day, it can be a little overwhelming, and know somewhere for a stiff drink/ice cream for afterwards (whichever would cheer you up more).
A totally different sensory experience was on offer in the city, Dine In The Dark or DID. This is a restaurant where, you guessed it, you dine in the dark. The complete dark. We had to select our style of food first (Khmer, international or vegetarian) and work out what we were eating and how to do it all in the dark. The waiters are also visually impaired and the whole experience gives you an unparalleled in site into what it would be like to be blind. Though the food wasn’t the best ever it was a really amazing experience…though probably not advice for any control freaks amongst you!
The Central Market is another spot for great food though with a local street food vibe. The yellow, art deco building houses stalls selling anything you could ever want! From clothe’s to live lobster…electronics to gold…but get your bargaining hats on, this is a haggler’s dream! It also has a great section for food, small stalls serving curries, noodles, donuts and more in the middle of a bustling market. We went for kebab type things which you make into your own spring rolls, filled with veggies, noodles and chilli sauce. Ok it sounds a little weird but was completely delicious! We also fulfilled the tourist role and tried the deep-fried spiders we’d heard so much about. The fact you could still see the hairs covering the body and fangs didn’t make it the most appealing thing we’d ever eaten but in fact it didn’t taste too bad. In fact it didn’t really taste of much at all!
So we, surprisingly, did do other things apart from eating in Phnom Penh! The Royal Palace is situated in front of a small park right on the river, and is a beautiful collection of buildings surrounded by an outer wall. Though it’s a little pricey to get in the gardens feel like a breath of fresh air after the mayhem of the streets outside. You also get to see the Silver Pagoda, so named as the floor is covered in hundreds of silver tiles, and a buddha statue covered in more diamonds than you’d see in a Tiffany’s store! It’s a really lovely Royal Palace, probably more attractive than the one in Bangkok and who knows you might even spot the King on one of his visits to the capital. We also kicked back and saw a movie at one of the Flicks movie houses, a community picture house with three venues across the city. It was partly for the air conditioning but also we hadn’t been to the cinema for over half a year…it was bliss.
One of the best things to do in Phnom Penh, but also the most challenging, is to walk around the streets, exploring the colonial architecture and daily life of the city. Find a cafe on the roadside and watch the world go by, with mobile food vendors plying their trade, sending up their goods to families living on the top floor of buildings in baskets pulled up by rope. Or go on a walking tour to see the sometimes dilapidated old colonial buildings, nestling in amongst the new (Ella even managed to get into Raffles for a look around somehow). Or spot the most people on a moped…always a fun game!
Next we head down a river into very rural Cambodia, a complete change from the mayhem of Phnom Penh.