48 Hours in Cambodia's Friendly Capital: Phnom Penh
“Phnom Penh, capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia, located at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers”. When I read that description I immediately got excited about visiting this leafy South-East Asian city. To me, it sounded like one of those Indiana Jones-cities I love with bustling streets and interesting scenes to photograph. And yet, most people skip Phnom Penh to rush towards the temples of Angkor or the beaches. A few times I even read that some people find it a city to avoid... Did they visit the same city?
Unfortunately, we didn't have much time in Phnom Penh and in hindsight we would've loved a few more days exploring the streets filled with friendly locals and Asian charm. Even though there aren't that many tourist attractions and the main one is a memory about the horrible events that took place in Cambodia (more on that later), it's one of those cities where you just want to get lost and relax for a few days. It's surprisingly easy to walk around and there's a vibe that no other Asian city has.
We didn't know the best areas to stay so we were lucky to have booked a guesthouse close to the promenade along the Tonlé Sap river. It's the place where everybody goes at night and the views over the river when the sun sets are amazing. We happened to be there in the weekend during the celebrations of the king's birthday so it was crowded but not in an uncomfortable way like some other cities. You can feel that Phnom Penh has not yet been jaded by mass tourism and that's a joy to explore and photograph.
The promenade was filled with locals celebrating the birthday of the king by eating and drinking together on the banks of the river. No touts trying to scam you, no pushy vendors trying to sell you stuff. If you ever go to Cambodia, don't skip Phnom Penh because now is the time to visit. High rise buildings and Western style shopping malls are popping up so it's just a matter of time before the vibrant and friendly capital of Cambodia starts losing some of its charm.
Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
What it will never lose though, is the horrible history and the main reason why I wanted to visit Phnom Penh. The Cambodian genocide took place before I was born so I only know about it from history classes in school. Visiting Cambodia meant I could finally learn more about what happened.
Tuol Sleng is a former high school used as Security Prison S-21 by the Khmer Rouge in the late seventies and the Killing Fields or Choeung Ek is the place where thousands of people were executed after being tortured at S-21. One million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during those horrible years.
Our visit started with a bad tuk tuk experience. The tuk tuk driver that took us to both places was visibly exhausted and by the time he took us from the Killing Fields to the Tuol Sleng Museum he was literally falling asleep behind the wheel. We arrived at the museum really late because of the slow, dangerously wonky drive and ended our agreement with our driver telling him he didn't have to wait for us anymore. We didn't pay him the full amount and later thought we should have paid even less.
While visiting the Killing Fields was an experience that gave us chills, the Tuol Sleng Museum was even worse. Roaming around the haunted school building, going inside the rooms and seeing the metal beds on which prisoners used to be tortured was a much needed wake up call. What took place there was far worse than what I learned in school and I'm not going to describe it because it's not possible. The audio guides are a must and are really well done.
Visit wonderful Cambodia and don't forget Phnom Penh to learn as much as you can about the horrible events that took place during the genocide. You'll appreciate the incredibly friendly Cambodians and their country even more...
How to get there - The border crossing from Laos to Cambodia
From Don Det to Phnom Penh or Angkor Wat
The border crossing from Laos to Cambodia at Stung Treng is notorious for scams but if you do some research it's actually not that bad. Here what you need to know:
Don't hand over your passport to someone insisting they will arrange the visa for you because it's too difficult. It's not. When you arrive at the border, either independently or booked before hand with your guesthouse in Don Det, just get your exit stamp and walk to the border. Ignore the little booth insisting on a health check for which you have to pay: SCAM! The lady is a bitch and will tell you she 'will call the police'... seriously, woman?!
Go inside the larger building and fill in the form. Hand over your passport with the form and pay the fee. Normally $30 but they ask for $35. We saw a couple insisting on paying $30 by stubbornly waiting on the floor until the officers gave up and handed over the passports for $30. So that might work... Just make sure you haven't booked a bus that won't wait for an extra hour.
Cambodian border crossing to Stung Treng, Kratie, Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh.
After all the paperwork is done just walk across the border to the little restaurants where you can hop on your pre-booked transport or get a ticket for wherever you want to go. We booked our transport from the Cambodian side of the border to our next destination online with AVT just like these guys did and it worked like a charm... Booking the whole border crossing trip from your guesthouse in Laos is a lot more expensive...
Make sure to read their detailed description about the Lao-Cambodian border crossing at Stung Treng because it will save you money and stress...
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
We stayed in a simple guesthouse called RS Guesthouse. For just $11 per night you get the perfect location, a clean room with air conditioning and a tiny supermarket that serves as a lobby. The perfect budget option for a stay in Phnom Penh!