// May 2015 //
I remember arriving in Phnom Penh and feeling excitement rise in my chest as my eyes tried to take in what was going on around me. Beeping horns, exhaust fumes, worn faces peering through street food stalls, tuk tuk bells ringing, lights shining from every direction as our taxi crept through the dark to our hostel.
What immediately struck me most was the complicated maze of the city itself, I was used to the frenzy of London and loved the chaos of Bangkok but this place was different. Busy main roads snaked off quiet side streets. Expensive cars lined pavements that joined dank alleyways overflowing with locals living on the breadline.
It’s common for cities to be made up of ”rich” and ”poor” areas; we become accustomed to expecting a degree of sharp difference, it’s essentially part of what a city is. In Phnom Penh these lifestyles are entwined, living directly on top of, underneath and alongside each other.
We partied on a roof on our first night, gliding upwards in a lift adorned with gold mirrors to a vast outdoor space. We stepped out of glimmering gold only to crouch down through a grubby concrete hole in a wall to reach the bar; that moment was Phnom Penh.
From jam packed dance floors, to world class cuisine. From haggling in shops, to history that makes you think, Phnom Penh quickly cements itself into your memories.
A snippet of my Phnom Penh experience
Keen to enjoy a little more comfort than a hostel? Phnom Penh has an abundance of 5* stays. The city itself is huge, you won’t be dissapointed with its extensive choice! Check Trip Advisor for current deals to suit your spends and be sure to treat yourself to luxurious meals out too.
I was determined not to read too much ahead as I travelled South East Asia, it was just how I wanted to do it – I consciously chose to ”learn on the road”. So although I had already been to Siem Reap and Kong Rong in Cambodia, my knowledge of the country was still fairly limited. What I came to learn during one day at the Killing Fields shocked me and will stay with me for life. In short; one man, Pol Pot, instigated a mass murder spree, with nearly 3 million of the 8 million Cambodia population being wiped out from 1975 – 1979.
One of the things I found most difficult to understand was how this had taken place only a few years before I was born. This happened during my parents lives, my grandparents lives, yet the UK seems fairly protected from it all. I felt like I should have been educated more about this as I grew up but it seemed shrouded in secrecy. It was current and it was awful.
Although Phnom Penh is undoubtably enveloped in a history of misery and despair the people came back from it! They live happily and grateful for their chance to live on and rebuild what they lost.
It is known that every person in Cambodia today lost ”at least one” close relative to Pol Pot. The devastation was country wide, not just focused in the capital city. But if you didn’t visit the Killing Fields or S21 with a willingness to learn about the place you were passing through you would never know – skip to the calm of Koh Rong or the bright city of Siem Reap and you find smiling locals at every turn.
The people of Cambodia have been through so much but they genuinely are some of the happiest people you may ever get the fortune to meet. As my nan would always say ”make do and mend”, that is how they live, it’s hard not to be struck by their strength.
Phnom Penh was my last stop in Cambodia, as I went onwards to Vietnam. I wished it had been my first, so I could have explored with a wider understanding of its admirable people. But all was not lost; I looked back in awe and will always remember the undeniable charm of the country and its people.
For everything I remember of Cambodia, most clearly I remember the happiness. Faces like these, taking their country onwards in a future solidly built around positivity
(First & last photographs courtesy of Mad Monkey & DirectRelief)