One Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia



Warning: Some photographs in this post and inclusive photo links are of a disturbing and graphic nature.  It is not my intention to disturb you; however, they are essential to the understanding of this story.


Phnom Penh was my least favorite place in Cambodia.  I admit, I arrived prepared not to like it and I was not terribly disappointed in that respect.  Known as “The Pearl of the Orient,” to the jetsetters of the JFK era, it has fallen far from that lofty position.  The reasons, sadly, are closely tied to recent history and I have always been an avid student of history.

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge emptied this formerly vibrant city and turned it into a ghost town.  The residents were marched to the countryside and forced into the most harshest of agricultural working conditions.  Yale University conservatively estimates that 1.7 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  About half from starvation, famine and curable disease, while the other half were executed.  Other reliable sources place that number as high as 3.2 million.

There was no avoiding Phnom Penh without great inconvenience and unnecessary expense.  So to moderate, I booked three nights in a really nice hotel, planning one day of sightseeing and a second day of chilling and recovery from the anticipated horrific traffic, petty theft attempts, and potential emotional drain.

This plan worked rather well.  Blue Lime is a boutique hotel just behind the Royal Palace but tucked a bit down a fairly quiet alley.  It was an oasis in the hectic craziness of central PP.   Our room included a private pool off the bedroom.  We were greeted with an ice-cold wet towel and a welcome drink on arrival.




The city is notorious for bag and camera snatching from the inattentive .   Thieves are known to ride up alongside tuk tuks on motorcycle, snatch your purse and speed off before you can say “what the f*** just happened!”  Be warned, be vigilant and you will be okay (well probably).

We ended up hiring a tuk tuk driver just outside our hotel and negotiated a price of $15 to take us to all four places we wanted to visit.  Since two of them were within 3 blocks of our hotel, we were basically paying for the other two and considering the distance and Phnom Penh’s notorious traffic it was a very fair price.  Just crossing the street in central Phnom Penh is fraught with peril as traffic never, NEVER stops. 

Our hotel concierge warned me twice again about keeping a firm grip on my camera, especially while in a tuk tuk as snatch and grabs are so common.  Our Khmer tuk tuk driver was kind enough to suggest that Anna not wear her gold necklace a gift from me that she practically never removes.  I stashed it in my wallet in a secret zippered pant’s pocket for the duration.  

What a day! We bore witness to one of the heights of human history and to one of its most heinous and depraved lows. 

What a day! We bore witness to one of the heights of human history and to one of its most heinous and depraved lows.

We started our morning at the National Museum which I would easily rank in the top 20 museums of the world. I have yet to visit the great museums of Italy but I have been to the Met, MOCA, SFMOCA and Getty to name drop a few. The National Museum of Cambodia has the finest collection of Khmer Angkorian and Pre-Angkorian artifacts in the world.

The museum is situated within a beautiful classic Cambodian building within a gated park.  There is also a gorgeous sculpture garden in the center.  The complex is not huge and can be leisurely navigated and appreciated in about 90 minutes. 


Next we went to S21 which was Tuol Svay Pray High School before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a torture, interrogation and execution center. I have known about S21 and the Killing Fields (our next stop) for many years. No amount of intellectual research can prepare one for the emotional impact of this place and the scale of depravity which occurred here. Like the Nazis, the KR kept meticulous records.  The photographs of each and every person tortured before transportation to the killing fields stare out at you.  The guides explain very matter-of-factly just how the tortures were carried out to extract ridiculous confessions.  

Many tears were shed both here and at the killing fields. Even recalling and writing these words now, shakes my entire being to its core.  Although, I endeavor to focus on the positive and the heart of humanity, it is important to witness and acknowledge what we as a race are capable if we are ever to be able to move beyond a consciousness that sees others as separate and something to be feared. I would like to think we learn from our past but names like Rwanda, Serbia and Darfur make me think otherwise.

As I mentioned, we next drove 18 km out of town to the Choeng Ek Killing Fields and Genocide Museum (there were many Khmer Rouge killing fields and probably more yet to be discovered).  Much of the road is dirt and potholed in the extreme.  It is a rough ride but nothing compared to the impact of visiting this place.  

Given Cambodia’s recent and tragic legacy, it is extraordinary how far the country has come in just a couple of decades.  It is also not surprising that Cambodia has the youngest population of any country in the world with a median age of 23.7 years (source: CIA World Factbook for 2013).

Well, we did end the day on a more upbeat note. We visited the stunning Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. The palace grounds and buildings are exquisite and integrate perfectly with one another.  It is very different from the (also beautiful) Royal Palace in Bangkok which is such a hodgepodge of historical styles.  No photography is allowed inside the buildings so I will only say that the inside of the Silver Pagoda will definitely take your breath away.  

After that we walked  a short distance to the legendary Phnom Penh Foreign Correspondents Club for a drink.  This is where during the various Indochinese Wars (the one we call the Vietnam War was the second of four), the war correspondents and photographers would gather to unwind at the end of the day.  As my friend Paul stated, “It kind of has a Noir novel vibe.”  

I had my first ale (an English IPA) in six months and my third and best steak  during the last year in SE Asia.  With a short walk home in the balmy breezy evening air, it was a good end to a  most emotionally full day.  

More photos of our day in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Note:  Each of the four places we visited has an admission charge ranging from $3-$6 per person.

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6 Responses to One Day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

  1. Judie July 6, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

    Once again, thank you for sharing your experience. This time there were ups and downs and realities to contend with. Encourages one to put out more heart to the planet! xoxo

    • Philip July 6, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

      Well said Judie.

  2. Yve July 6, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    Thank you for sharing. Tears and smiles came while reading this. Sending love and heart to you, my friend.

    • Philip July 6, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

      Thank you for the kind words and wishes Yve. And thank you for taking the time to comment here. Comments help me grow the blog so they are all appreciated (except for the spam ones of course). I hope to see you next time I am stateside.

  3. JULIE DULL July 11, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

    will always appreciate your posts

    • Philip July 12, 2014 at 5:21 am #

      Thanks Julie. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. It is always good to know someone is enjoying my efforts.

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