Tourists with only a few days to dedicate to Cambodia make a bee-line for the town of Siem Reap and the nearby ruins of Angkor Wat, with perhaps a night in Phnom Penh if they land late in the day.

Of course, Angkor, one of the largest, oldest and best preserved religious ruins in the world shouldn’t be missed. However, if you can spare a few more days, Phnom Penh deserves to be explored in its own right.

Sure it’s chaotic, and noisy, and choked with traffic at rush hour, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Coming out of the airport, I braced myself for the usual frenzy of taxi drivers with inflated prices. Nobody was there. Odd. I had to walk around a few times before I even saw a driver.

The streets of Phnom Penh are arranged in a French style grid pattern, so it’s relatively easy to orient yourself and find your way around, especially with the river forming the eastern border of the city. The waterfront boulevard (Sisowath Quay) is also where many of the restaurants and travel agencies (as well as tourists) are located.

The staff at my guesthouse, two blocks from the waterfront, spoke sufficient English. I had some interesting chats with the guesthouse bartender, Dara, who seemed mystified that I wasn’t married… at my age. This is a common attitude in Southeast Asia. Women travelling without men are often asked by locals (both men and women) how old they are, and if they’re married. They mean no harm. They are just curious and amazed at our strange ways!

Although I was a woman travelling alone, there weren’t really any hassles during my 4-day stay except for the drivers of tuk-tuks (or moto-remorques) constantly calling out “Tuk-tuk Madam? Where you going?”. Phnom Penh doesn’t have buses and the moto-remorques (small carriage with two facing benches, pulled by a motorcycle) act as the only form of “public transit”. Most left me alone after I said “No, thanks”. On the plus side, if you are tired and hot, they will take you through town for only a couple of dollars (Cambodia uses $US along with Riels). I saw few beggars.

If you’re interested in the dark period of Khmer Rouge history and Pol Pot’s failed communism during the late 1970’s, this is where it all began. If you want to learn more about it but get bored by museums and dry descriptions of events, find yourself a copy of “First they killed my father” by Loung Ung, and carry lots of tissues while you read it. It’s an account of the Khmer Rouge regime seen through the eyes of a young girl (she was 5 years old when Phnom Penh was evacuated in 1975).

Most interesting and memorable experiences

  • Take a ride in a tuk-tuk and marvel at the way cars, motorcycles, and bicycles cross intersections with no traffic lights or stop signs, without colliding, in a kind of well choreographed ballet.
  • Visit Tuol Sleng Museum a.k.a. S-21 (the school turned Khmer Rouge prison) and weep at mankind’s cruelty.
  • Take a sunset cruise down the Tonle Sap river into the Mekong.
  • Shop at the Central Market.
  • Visit intimate Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple on a small hill, where the locals go to pray.
  • Try fish amok, a thick fish coconut curry steamed in a banana leaf (a traditional Khmer dish).
  • Have a beer or a snack under the ceiling fans of the Foreign Correspondents Club, where journalists from around the world gathered while reporting on the genocide in Cambodia.
  • Goggle at the mounds of fried insect snacks sold by vendors along the street in the late afternoon.

How much things cost (2012 prices in $US)

  • Guesthouse/small hotel: $10-30/night
  • 1 hour massage: $10 or less
  • 230 kilometres by bus: $5
  • Main dish (Khmer food) in a restaurant: $4-6
  • Mug of local beer: $1
  • 1.5 litre water bottle: $0.50

Stay at: Sary’s Guesthouse, $25-$30 a night for a large bedroom with AC, balcony and ensuite bathroom.

Eat at: Many restaurants along the waterfront (with Happy Hour). The quieter area behind the Royal Palace also has some relaxed restaurants with good food.

Based on this article, would you visit Phnom Penh if you weren’t with a group? If not, why not?


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