Travel tips – Visit Phnom Penh, Cambodia – May 2015


A glimpse of Cambodia’s sprawling capital, Phnom Penh

// 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


Mad Monkey’s; one of the best hostels I stayed in during my 4 months in South East Asia. With 100 beds its likely to fit you in if you’re backpacking but still book ahead!


Neat, massive beds and cleaners that hide in the cupboards under the bunks to avoid doing work … you’re guaranteed to have fun and meet great people in these big dorms

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.


Our friends booked  a shooting range experience through the hostel and we went along for the ride! The range was basically a couple of old outhouses, dodgy but they had fun!


There was also an unwritten option to ”Bazooka a live cow”


… Enjoying a kind of freedom not as easy to come by back home in England!

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.


The Killing Fields grounds are pretty but as you go deeper into them and learn about Cambodia’s tragic history you quickly lose sight of now and get lost in the torturous times gone by.


Sadly, this tree is exactly what the sign says. Young children and babies were beaten to death against this very trunk under Pol Pot’s horrifying regime. Standing here was chilling.

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.


A high school in the middle of the city was turned into the ”S21 prison” where innocent people were tortured and killed.


Disturbing rules of S21


17,000 people were taken into S21, only 7 survived


Only 3 of the 7 survivors are still alive today. We met one; Chum Mey, now in his later years and living an inspiring life educating others to learn about Cambodia’s alarming history.


One of my favourite photos of the few I took; city children of Phnom Penh

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)


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