Phnom Penh is the capital city in Cambodia and had been on our list to visit, not least because of the museums in the area.
We arrived in the morning in Phnom Penh, with our bus dropping us off near a busy intersection in town. As soon as the bus doors opened, there were copious numbers of tuk-tuk drivers starting their hustle, shoving their heads through the bus door shouting “tuk-tuk?”. We managed to get off the bus and secured one to take us to our hostel. We have noticed a similar issue to Laos in that a lot of tuk-tuk drivers can’t seem to understand a map, so pointing to a spot on a map is not of much use. Eventually we agreed a price and were on our way, with some direction from us we arrived at our hostel, it was located right next to the Grand Palace, National Museum and riverfront, location wise this place was 100% and the beds were comfy to boot.
By now it was lunch time so we tucked into some noodles at a local restaurant before heading on to the National Museum. Unlike the National Museum in Luang Prabang and the one in Vientiane, this one was actually open and informative. After considering the many artefacts it had to offer and boosting our understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism from little to some, we went on a mission to plan our evening activities.
Andy had heard that there were a couple of TV studios around town which has live Khmer fights on weekend evenings, given it was a Sunday we thought we may be in luck. Khmer fighting is similar to Thai boxing with the main difference being the ceremonial elements before and after the fights.
There was little to nothing informative online and our hostel reception didn’t seem to have a clue what we were talking about, two different tuk-tuk drivers gave us conflicting responses, we were just about to give up when the waitress at a restaurant told us to look up Bayon TV on Facebook and message them to get the fight details. Result!!
That evening after an early dinner, we hopped in a Pass App. Pass App is like the uber of Cambodia offering discount tuk-tuks that you can order through your phone. We arrived and followed the crowds of Cambodians heading in through the main door, at this point Andy was called away to go through a side door, luckily, I followed him as he was led backstage to ring side seats in the segregated westerners section, we didn’t complain as these were great seats.
The fighting had already begun when we arrived with some teenage boys kicking each other. Khmer fighting is a violent sport. After a couple of rounds the TV show began, we watched as the cameras flew around and the heavily sponsor clad presenters began. The headline events of the night were the Cambodian vs. Thai fights, which rallied a lot of noise from the local crowd. Between fights there was a singer and a dance crew keeping us entertained.
The night came to an abrupt end when one of the fighters got KO’d, we waited for the crowds to disperse before heading to a local bar for a beer and utilisation of Wi-Fi to book a Pass App back to the hostel. This was not a tourist part of town and we provided a lot of entertainment to the locals, in what we soon realised was a Karaoke bar, our exit after this realisation was swift. Once back at the hostel we enjoyed a drink in the rooftop bar before calling it a night. All in all, a great day.
The next morning, we made an early start, we had decided that this was the day we would visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as Section 21) and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (more commonly known as the Killing Fields). These two museums where the main reason for our visit to Phnom Peng, we had also planned on visiting the Russian Market that day, but we hadn’t anticipated how long we would end up staying at both.
Tuol Sleng was originally a school, when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh they turned the school into a prison and torture centre, its estimated that during its operation 20,000 people where sent to Tuol Sleng and only 23 survived. The audio guide is really informative and incredibly moving, as much of the museum has been left as it was found. People where sent here for so many reasons, it could be because they were educated, a doctor, a government employee, a teacher or related someone who was. The philosophy adopted by the Khmer Rouge was that it was better to kill an innocent than risk a guilty person going free.
When the museum opened there was a flurry of Cambodians who came to search the archives of all of the prisoners to help uncover the fate their loved ones.
By far the most shocking lesson learnt was the reaction by the rest of the world to the situation at the time and still to this day. For years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge rule, they were still recognised internationally as the leaders in Cambodia and its leader Pol Pot held seats at the UN until very recently. The man in charge of Tuol Sleng – “Duch” still lived and was only convicted to life in prison in 2010.
The Killing Fields were also incredibly moving, this was a bit of a way out of town and was the location of only some of the mass graves used by the Khmer Rouge, although a number of the graves have been excavated there are still so many bodies and clothes still buried.
As a result of the heavy rains, some of the bones and clothes rise to the surface, every few months the centre collects what has surfaced, as we walked around we saw numerous bones and clothes which had risen this really took away the distance you usually feel when visiting museums, it was shocking. Not much stands between these being bones of a stranger and those of a loved one.
As we walked around the Killing Fields we saw the plot of mass graves which had held only mothers and babies, we passed a tree which had been thought to be the site where babies would have been killed by having their heads bashed against it.
If this hadn’t been disturbing enough we also learnt that they didn’t kill people with guns, as this would be a waste of bullets and would draw attention to what was going on. Instead they used brutality in the form of sticks and knifes through the head and chemicals to finish off anyone who had survived the former and was buried alive.
The government had recently had a memorial constructed to remember those lives lost, it holds the bones excavated at the site. This is only one of such sites in the country, no-one knows how many bodies still lay undiscovered.
Travelling back towards our hostel we were emotionally drained and it was rush hour! Rush hour in Phnom Penh is crazy, I was glad to be in a tuk-tuk and not attempting to walk as the pavement was now for motorbikes. We jumped out of the tuk-tuk along the river front and strolled along watching the locals take part in their evening aerobics class and the kids playing football.
That evening we had a quiet drink enjoying some Indonesian cuisine and a game of cards over a beer. While playing, a kid came up to us and tried to sell us bracelets, he was funny so I bought one. The kid spotted our cards and decided it was time to show off his mad shuffling skills, we all started playing and he beat me every time. Tired from the day we called it a night.
We didn’t feel ready to leave Phnom Penh yet so had booked another night in the hostel and decided to have a lazy morning and spend the afternoon looking at the Olympic stadium and the Russian Market. The Olympic stadium was an interesting one, the astute reader might question when Cambodia hosted the Olympics, the answer would be never, nor have they ever applied to. It seems they just wanted an Olympic stadium so built one.
The Russian market was impressive, a jam-packed market with aisles and aisles of knock off clothes. As a lot of big name sports companies produce their clothes in Cambodia so you can pick up some nice bits for not a lot. We even came across some Primark clothes! We needed some quicker drying bits for when we went hiking and kayaking and this was perfect. To reward ourselves for a morning of walking around town in the heat, we checked out a highly rated vegan café just next to the market, it was a welcome change to the usual Cambodia cuisine.
In the end we enjoyed our time in Phnom Penh a lot more that we had anticipated.
Next stop Kampot.