While doing a little research on Phnom Penh I found that people either really loved the city or really hated it, but whichever way they swung they felt really, really adamant about it. Although I didn’t love or hate it, I ended up spending three days in the “Pearl of Asia” and have come to respect it. It can definitely be overwhelming at first, and mildly overwhelmed I was considering the capital of Cambodia is a busy place that squishes in 2.2 million bustling people. It seemed that everyone was always doing something or ready to go at a moments notice. Fixing bikes, cooking on the streets, conversing in cafes, honking incessantly at nothing in particular, yelling the words “tuk tuk!” to anyone within a 50 foot radius, sweeping water with brooms… they’re a busy bunch, let me tell you. Maybe it just seems that way after being in Indonesia where everyone just kind of hangs out lazily doing nothing in particular at all. I’m not exaggerating here, Indonesians are seriously some world-class chillers. Another contrast to my time in Indonesia is that Indo is primarily a Muslim country where being conservative is necessary, whereas Cambodia is mostly Buddhist or Hindu, making it a little less strict. Basically what I’m saying is that I can put my shorts and tank tops back on and breeeeeaaaathe (and I’ll thank whoevers God for that). My main goal in visiting Phnom Penh was to learn more about the history of Cambodia, particularly the Khmer Rouge and the massive genocide that occurred at their hands. Cambodia, and Phnom Penh especially, is still reeling from a grim past with effects that are still felt today. In the span of four years the Khmer Rouge, a communist regime led by Pol Pot that overtook Cambodia in the late 70’s, murdered 1.7 million of its own citizens without even batting an eye. And to think this occurred only 35 years ago is absurdly baffling. Sadly, over 50% of the population today is under 25, but Cambodia is coping and rebuilding themselves beautifully and Phnom Penh is no exception.
My favorite parts of Phnom Penh:
1. It is quirky (and lord knows I love a little quirkiness in my life)
They use a mix of Cambodian Riel and U.S. dollars (for what reason I do not know) and in one transaction it is common to use and receive both. But here’s the kicker, everyone wants your money, but they don’t want all money. They are picky and only accept crisp bills made after 1980 and if it is ever-so-slightly bent or even minutely crumpled, they don’t want it. I rarely paid without hearing, “do you have another bill? This one is broken.” What? Broken? How? “Right here lady, right here, see!?” they would say pointing at the near-invisible tear in the corner. Oh, sorry, I forgot to pack my magnifying glasses and missed that small detail. It’s all very odd and mysterious. Even more amusing than the money situation is their idea of cocktail garnishes. At a pretty nice place I ordered a drink and got a piece of bread crust (complete with jam) inside of a broken eggshell that was clipped to my drink with a clothespin. What? Quirkiness overload.
2. It is budget friendly
You can go nuts here without breaking the bank, or even a small fraction of it. Admittedly I did a little pampering and a wee bit of splurging. There are a few really great cafes and I am all about that coffee life. My favorites were The Shop and Nuk Café. I also got a massage and exfoliation for $20, which is kind of expensive for this part of the world actually (Bliss Spa, Street 240) and deep-tissue massages apparently include a stomach and elbow massage, each of which had a healthy rubdown. I’m not going to say it wasn’t weird, but did I mention that they’re quirky?
3. The history
Like I said before, Cambodia isn’t really famous for their peachy past. In an effort to establish a complete communist society, the Khmer Rouge killed those appearing intellectual, wealthy or anyone against their idea of a revolution. So if you wore glasses, had soft hands or even a pulse, you were at risk and likely killed. Pol Pot promised the people better lives and they believed him; instead he murdered them. The Killing Fields is a popular “attraction” where visitors see exactly what the name suggests: fields where thousands were brought to be killed. The site is emotionally moving for obvious reasons, but what got me was how real and accessible it was. The tragedy is so tangible. There are even bones still in the ground and signs kindly asking you to not step on them. One moment I was looking at a sign and out of the corner of my eye I saw trash on the ground and thought, how insensitive for someone to litter in such a place. Then I looked down. It wasn’t trash. It was clothing. I was stepping on the rags of a person murdered years ago. That’s the moment it all hit me. I was informed that the staff spends a few days each month to clean up more bones and tattered clothing still laying in the Earth. 35 years later. It was all incredibly heartbreaking.
Equally moving was my visit to S-21, a high school turned prison and torture center. You can explore the whole complex by walking in the cells, learning the history and seeing the pictures of the prisoners and victims, some more difficult to view than others. I found the interrogation rooms to be the toughest ones to see. Inside each room sits a single bed and a photo on the wall shows the room as it was originally found- with a dead body lying on a bed or splayed on the floor. The same bed and foot shackles in the picture are the very ones right in front of your eyes. It was startling how close I was to such immense pain and suffering. As I was leaving, I had the honor of meeting one of the survivors, of which there were only seven out of thousands. He and the other survivors, alongside the government, seek to end crimes against humanity and ensure peace for Cambodia. I bowed to him and he smiled. After unfathomable pain and emotional destruction he still showed a beautiful toothless smile. Humanity may really suck sometimes but it is incredible to witness it’s perseverance and ability to maintain hope for peace despite falling victim to its repulsively evil side.
4. Genuine Kindness
On a much happier note, Cambodians are genuinely cheerful people and are so stinking nice! They go above and beyond to ensure you are comfortable and it is rare to not see a smile on their faces. Our tuk-tuk driver even walked us across eight lanes of traffic! This may not sound like much, but is something you really appreciate after realizing that Asia is really just a massive game of Frogger without any of the do-overs or extra lives. Cambodians honestly give Canadians a run for their money when it comes to downright kindness.
Overall, I don’t think I need to go back to Phnom Penh but I am sure glad that I went. At first I didn’t get why it was called the “Pearl of Asia,” I mean, it’s not exactly known for its cleanliness and shiny buildings. Yet after spending some time there it all started to make sense; it may have experienced a horribly gritty past, but it is finally turning into something beautiful and it deserves to wear that pearly title with all the pride in the world.
Oh, and I almost forgot… Here’s a picture of a monkey digging through the trash. Just typical Phnom Penh things.