Our only other stop in Cambodia was the capital city, Phnom Penh (pronounced nom-pen). The most important thing we needed to achieve whilst here was to get our Vietnam visa sorted which was super easy; it just took two visits to the embassy to pay for it and then pick it up. I was also keen to learn about Cambodia’s recent history, namely the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime that was in power in the 70s by visiting the famous historical sites. Aside from this, we had no plans for the city and didn’t know what to expect. Oddly we ended up staying in the city for a week – I don’t know how – despite me quickly deciding I was not a fan of the place at all.
Our first mistake was staying in a hotel waaaaay too far out of the centre. Although actually we never really found out where the tourist centre was… so every time we wanted to go anywhere we had to walk for a long time through very hot, very polluted and very congested streets, which was rubbish. In fact I hated it. Phnom Penh is the worst city to be a pedestrian I’ve ever been. There are seldom any traffic lights, crossings or even pavements. If there is a pavement you can safely assume it’ll be blocked by parked cars, scooters, a restaurant or even just a fence, meaning you’re forced to walk in the road with the racing traffic on every street. It was a nightmare and made getting around an absolute chore. Bear in mind it was always >35°C and the streets are piled with trash so it stank – vermin were a common sight… absolutely horrible.
What we did manage to see was the National Museum. Inside were a load of old dusty sculptures taken from Angkor Wat and other historic sites around the country. The museum was set inside a beautiful building with a lovely courtyard, and besides from a lack of English signage, we had a good time (we just didn’t learn that much).
We also visited the S21 Genocide Museum, which is set up inside an old prison established during the Khmer Rouge regime. You walk around the atmospheric and somber buildings with an audio tour, learning what life (and death) was like here. Obviously it was pretty awful, especially the shocking photographs of tortured people. It was particularly moving to hear about individual people’s experiences, like when fortuitous events happen that allow people to defy the odds and survive.
Other things we came across on our travels included sampling many different kinds of cuisine. Food was a little more expensive than we expected, especially because the local Cambodian food we had was rubbish. On our first night we ate some fried noodles that had more bones in than meat (not even exaggerating a little bit). Other times we had local food we found it really bland. Consequently we ate in a lot of western style restaurants which is a bit of a cop out… but we needed those burgers to feel better about how horrible the city was!
So with bland food, oppressive heat, limited culture, terrible traffic and polluted streets, I was not in the least bit sad about leaving Phnom Penh. My only regret was staying an entire week there! It was a waste of time and I would only recommend visiting the city for about one day so you can see the Genocide Museum and then move on.
Cambodia as a whole hadn’t been that impressive for us. The locals seemed friendly – the staff in our hotel in Siem Reap had been lovely, as well as many members of wait staff we came across in each city. But the rest of our experience had been disappointing. The country has been through some devastating hardships recently and clearly it is having difficulty keeping things together now. It’s terribly poor and the government is woefully corrupt. The infrastructure is a nightmare and the country’s attractions are limited. Staying in the country for almost two weeks was muuuuuch too long for us and had kind of got us into a funk. We still have almost two months left of our trip and at this point both of us were kind of wishing it was over. We were really hoping things would be different in the next country and were pinning all our hopes on it. Don’t let us down Vietnam 😉