I’m always taken over by emotions when I first enter a new country. I’m overwhelmed by how much travel and culture moves me. I love the new food, strange currency’s, different mannerism, the beautiful children and being welcomed by smiles and genuine kindness. Cambodia was no different for me when I arrived. I pulled back the curtain of my bus and felt like I could cry because I was so excited to get out and meet these people and learn about their lives.
Cambodia has definitely seen its suffering in the past years. The ruling of the Khmer Rouge was brutal and ugly. I had only read about their struggles and wasn’t particularly excited to visit the killing fields or the museum that really lays it out for you. However, I never want to be blinded by the past or look the other way. We are who we are because of what we endure in life. Cambodia is a country that has overcome so much loss and sadness but still finds a way to prosper with a smile. They have a beautiful demeanor and culture that glows with resilience and strength. I wanted to support their strength by being educated instead of ignorant
My first two days I spent getting the hard tourist things out of the way. The first day I went to the S-21 Prison called Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. They have an option to buy headphones for a few extra dollars and you can listen to stories and facts. I have the attention span of a squirrel so I opted out of the headphones. It seemed like too much to have to focus on. Before the Khmer Rouge took over the prison it was a high school. They turned the class rooms into tiny cells where the prisoners were detained and tortured. It’s terribly sad and creepy walking through the rooms of cells that are not much bigger than a human. I couldn’t believe the things I was seeing and all the reading material. I was almost in tears reading about the way children were taken in by the Khmer Rouge and sent out to work far beyond their means, taken from their parents and basically starved to death. I spent a few hours walking the entire museum and reading every board. When I left I was feeling sick and drained so I called it a night and watched some Netflix to let my mind rest
The next day I visited the actual killing fields, Choeung Ek, which used to be an orchard before it became a killing field. At this site more than 8,800 men, woman and children were killed and then thrown into mass graves. I opted for the headphones at this spot, not wanting to miss out, although I found it very hard to focus on the audio. It was a very rough couple of hours walking the fields and listening to the testimonies and stories of what took place at this site. Bones and clothing are still being found and brought to surface when it rains. There are several huge mass graves where hundreds of bodies were dug up in one single grave. Each of the mass graves were fenced and around the fences were bracelets left behind by family, friends and strangers to say “we were here, and we remember”. There is a Stupa built on the property that houses more than 5,000 skulls and bones that have been extricated there. You are able to walk inside the stupa to see the skulls up close and they each are labeled with a sticker color system to show how they were killed, many of them being bashed in the skull. This site was almost too much for me.
I was feeling in the dumps after leaving the killing fields and had my driver drop me off at a little Korean dessert shop that I had found so I could eat my feelings. I had a coconut Bing-su. If you don’t know what bing-su is then you must find it. Its basically a shaved ice dessert with different toppings and sweet syrups. It’s the most amazing indulgence ever. It was huge and I thought surely I can’t eat this entire thing, but I did. For the rest of the day I wandered the streets mindlessly. Phnom Penh has several different monuments and parks to explore and take touristy photos.
The hostel that I stayed at was called Panorama Mekong and was actually really nice. It was right on the river edge and up four flights of stairs so you can imagine how amazing the panoramic view was. They had three different restaurants within their building, and was also surrounded by food of all kinds on the block. It was situated in a busy, more swanky part of town, being just a few blocks from the Royal Palace and the National Museum. It’s location was on point. It’s part of a neighborhood called the Riverside, which sits on the popular Sisowath Quay road which stretches the length of the river coast and is a common meeting and hang out spot for locals as well as foreigners. The building was decorated with dark colors, the rooms had awesome working AC and the big beds had curtains, which I’m a huge fan of. They had a bar /sitting area that stretched around the building offering amazing views of the water. If it hadn’t been raining the majority of the time then it would have been a great sunset spot. The only down point of this hostel was the four flights of stairs. Definitely got my workout in.
I stayed longer in Phnom Penh then I usually stay in one spot. My average is 2 or 3 nights stay in one city. I wanted to get my Vietnam visa all squared away while in Phnom Penh because I needed to get it through an Embassy since I was applying for a special 3 month multiple entry visa. I got that out of the way on my first day, it takes two business day to process. I went in on a Friday so I couldn’t pick up my passport until Tuesday which meant an extended stay in Phnom Penh. It’s a big city, so there’s plenty to do, I just had to find ways of staying busy.
Everyday I would get up and find a new café with good WIFI, luckily there were plenty scattered all over. I tried to pick a new one everyday in a different part of town and then walk there. By the end of my six day stay I had pretty much walked around the entire city. I would stay and work for a few hours before setting back out to explore some more. It’s a dirty, stinky city, with lots of trash and muck on the streets and side walks, but I still loved it.
One of my favorite parts of Asian culture is how they turn their homes into their businesses. No matter what they are selling they just sell it out of the front of their homes. Wake up, open the front door and “boom” open for business. I know this wouldn’t appeal to the average American who likes to separate their work from home, but I see the benefits. I especially love when the children are the ones to come help sell items, they are always so proud to be a part, which warms my heart.
The food scene is huge, with just about any cuisine you could imagine. As in many of the SE Asia countries the French influence is strong with French bistros on every corner, which was great for getting my bread cravings under control. There was also plenty of Italian, Indian and of course traditional Khmer food. I was surprised to find another fun cuisine called “Happy Pizza” which is apparently quite popular in Cambodia. A Happy Pizza is a usually cheap pizza made with sprinklings of marijuana on it, hence the name. I guess its legal here, but the shops are literally on every corner and they can add marijuana to anything if you ask. I wonder if this will ever be a thing in WA State?? I didn’t eat the Happy Pizza guys, that sounds horrible!
I decided my next move and after collecting my passport I decided to high tail it out of Phnom Penh and head to the south of Cambodia. I headed to Kampot, known for its pepper. I needed to see what that was all about.
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