Tag Archives: phnom penh

Planning your next trip to Cambodia? Here is what you shouldn’t miss…

I planned my trip to Cambodia sitting in an hammock overlooking the Mekong river in the Four Thousand Islands in Laos and the planning – which by itself is an amazing part of any travel – was utterly special. Even though I had a month to spend in Cambodia, throughout the planning I got a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of not being able to see everything that I wanted to see but at the end of the day, as in any other trip, the key is to make absolutely the most of every location you choose to stop, keeping in mind that a couple of places might need a bit more pre-planning.

All I have seen in Cambodia was unforgettable but here are my absolute highlights – in no particular order – that could even fit a well organized 2 weeks trip.

TEMPLES OF ANGKOR

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Angkor Wat

The site is simply superb and in my view it fully justifies the fact that it’s always on top of the list of things to visit in Cambodia. It’s the largest religious monument in the world and since it covers 162.6 hectares, it needs pretty good planning before tackling it, if you want to get the most of it without going back to your guesthouse absolutely knackered to do anything else. How long to spend visiting Angkor is down to you; we took a 3-day pass and, even though a lot more could have been seen, 3 days for us worked just perfect: start early to beat both the crowds and the heat, rest and have a quick lunch somewhere during the hottest hours and leave the site after sunset. Before starting visiting Angkor, we planned the temples we wanted to see on each day, we found a friendly tuk tuk driver with a bit of English and we agreed with him both the price and the daily route to save time each day.

PHNOM PENH

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

As a part of any trip to Cambodia, a visit to its capital should be paid, particularly since it is there where you will mostly confront yourself with Cambodia’s past: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I have dedicated a full post to my visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located right downtown. My strongest advice is – before visiting – to document yourself as much as you can (I’ve given a few suggestions of interesting readings in my post). It is true that Phnom Penh is not only Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (located about 17 km from Phnom Penh) but it is definitely a fundamental part of the city. Take your time and be prepared for one of the toughest visit you could possibly do. There is plenty more to visit in Phnom Penh, including the beautiful Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (go just before closing time at lunch time and you will have it almost by yourself) and the National Museum. I would say that you will need a few days to do the most interesting sites and get a feel for the city. Many people we met during our travels disliked Phnom Pehn; I liked it, busy, noisy and thriving at anytime of the day (particularly early morning, as any city/town in Asia) and found it extremely interesting to walk around and discover the different areas.

KRATIE

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Dolphin-watching in Kampi, near Kratie

I have always appreciated how beautiful it is when a city sits on a river. If the river is the Mekong then it’s an absolute delight. Kratie is a thriving town right on the Mekong, a few hours south from the Laos-Cambodia border; plenty of guesthouses and small restaurants make it a good place to stop. The town itself is not the main reason why you should visit but it’s a great base to explore the surrounding area, knowing that once back from your day exploring you can grab a beer and sit with the locals on the Mekong banks enjoying the sunset (don’t look down though, cause that’s where Cambodians throw all their garbage, unfortunately :-(. Hire a moped, leave the town and be prepared to be gobsmacked: lush green vegetation, almost abandoned temples with freely roaming cows, friendly and enthusiast kids keen to play and talk in English and one of the most stunning activities you can possibly enjoy in the gloaming sunset light: dolphin-watching in Kampi, around 16 km from Kratie town. The Irrawaddy dolphin is an endangered species throughout Asia and seeing it swimming in the Mekong is magical. We absolutely loved it.

SEN MONOROM

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Elephants at the Elephant Valley project in Sen Monorom

The town itself (exceptionally dusty, at least when we visited in February) is not particularly attractive and it is definitely quite a detour from any other part in Cambodia (we got there from Kratie) and you will need a couple of days on your side if you want to visit this part of the country but it is totally worth it. What really made the difference was our experience at the Elephant Valley Project. We spent a full day there and we learnt so much from the guys that manage and run that we came back to Europe wanting to learn a lot more about Cambodia and about some of the specific issues in the region of Mondulkiri (land expropriation, rubber plantations etc), all topics addressed in depth by the staff at the EVP. It’s not cheap and you will need to plan and book in advance but it’s one of those things totally worth it.

KEP

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Kep restaurants overlooking the sea

Personally, I would only need one reason to go to Kep: amazing crab. That to me would be enough reason to visit. On top of that, Kep area offers some of the most amazing natural scenery and wildlife, just a moped ride from town. The fact that we chose to stay at The Boat House made the difference. The French owner was extremely helpful and keen to show us the best spots around town by handing us out a hand-drawn map with the most interesting things not to miss: buffalo herds, hidden beaches, salt mines, temples etc all via countryside unpaved roads that made the moped ride far more exciting. And the best thing of all? During your exploration you will rarely cross your path with any other tourist. I can’t recommend it enough but make sure to leave a full day in Kep, enough to explore the outdoor. If you can pay a visit to the daily market, do it. If not, in the evening head to the restaurants at the Crab Market to get some of the most delicious crab fried with Kampot pepper. We tried a few and Kimly was by far our favourite (in terms of portions and taste!).

BATTAMBANG

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Phnom Banan Temple

A town with a thriving market (that is worth a visit itself) set in an amazing natural setting with plenty of history to soak into. We spent 2 nights in Battambang and it was enough to explore the town and spend one full day exploring the area. In all our stops we usually rented a moped and explore the countryside but on this occasion we decided to get an English speaking tuk tuk driver to make sure we were not missing anything out since there are plenty of things to see and quite away from one another: beautiful hill-top temples with gorgeous views (Phnom Sampeau and Phnom Banan), amazing caves with thousands of bats flying out every evening creating one of the most stunning natural “show” I have ever seen (you will not be the only one enjoying the phenomenon), trees completely covered in giant fruit bats etc. A day spent in the countryside outside Battambang is the best way to get to know this corner of Cambodia.

If you still have a couple of days on your side and fancy a bit of seaside, you may want to check out Koh Rong Samloem, a small island off Sihanoukville and definitely my favourite island/beach so far! Plenty of info in my post, how to get there and where to sleep!

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Not a bad spot to spend a few days…
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The day I had a coffee in Tuol Sleng

 

I am not ashamed to say that I stepped into Cambodia knowing very little of what this beautiful country and its people had gone through in the last century (and still go through). I am not ashamed now but, back home from my 6 months travelling in SE Asia, I felt terribly guilty for not knowing enough at the time I visited.

Following my month in Cambodia, I started to read as much as I could on the country and on the Khmer Rouge. It’s still an ongoing process but my biggest regret will always be having visited without knowing what I know now.

For this reason, if you have got the amazing opportunity to visit Cambodia in the future, here are my genuine thoughts on one site that you will surely visit in Phnom Penh and that has inevitably marked me: Tuol Sleng. A former high school located in downtown Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng was converted into a maximum security prison (infamously known with the code of “S-21”) during the Khmer Rouge regime. Of the 20,000 people known to have entered, only 7 survived. It is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and you should visit it not because it is on Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or on any travel guide or blog (including mine) but because you cannot really understand Cambodia and its people without visiting it. Cambodia is a lot more, but this is an absolutely necessary stop.

If you don’t know anything about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and never heard about Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek, a good starting point is to dedicate some of your time to a couple of extremely interesting readings: “The Elimination: A survivor of the Khmer Rouge confronts his past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields by Rithy Panh and “The Lost Executioner: A story of the Khmer Rouge” by Nic Dunlop.

Starting from two completely different perspectives, in my view they are excellent accounts that helped me to understand a lot more about Cambodia, its people and the Khmer Rouge regime. Not easy readings (you wouldn’t expect so, given the topic) but definitely very informative.

The Elimination. When the Khmer Rouge took power and entered Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975, the 13 years old Rithy Panh (now the most acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker worldwide) and his family were forced to abandon the capital. During the course of the following years, he lost his parents, siblings and other relatives under the Khmer Rouge regime. He survived and was able to escape to Thailand and later on, to France. It wouldn’t do any justice to such a great book to say that it’s mainly about his interviews with Comrade Duch, the Commandant of Tuol Sleng. It’s a lot more. It gives you an astonishing and shivering account of the “life” of the author and his family in Cambodia from the time the Khmer Rouge took power onward and at the same time it leads you inside Tuol Sleng, the corridors, the interrogation rooms, the cells and the mind of Comrade Duch.

The Lost Executioner is another excellent book that starts from a completely different point of view. Nic Dunlop, an Irish photojournalist based in Bangkok, in 1999 tracked down and interviewed Comrade Duch in Samlaut (Northwestern Cambodia). On this interview/confession Dunlop was accompanied by Nate Thayer, an American freelance journalist also known for being the last Western to have interviewed Pol Pot, just before he died (the interview is still to be published in his book “Sympathy for the Devil”). After the publication of Nic Dunlop’s interview in 1999, Duch gave himself in and was later tried, thus becoming the first former Khmer Rouge to be tried and sentenced by the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh.

When you start reading about Cambodia, it can get truly addictive. I started with an old and half destroyed copy of The Killing Fields by Christopher Hudson that I found in a guest house on Koh Rong Samloen (an island off Sihanoukville). The book is adapted from the screenplay The Killing Fields by Lord David Puttnam (that, regardless of the book, should be seen) and tells the strong and suffered story of the American journalist Sydney Schanberg and the Cambodian newsman Dith Pran through the Khmer Rouge regime. I also read First they killed my father written by Luong Ung, another survivor of the Pol Pot regime that gives a shivering account of those days. I moved then to River of Time by Jon Swain (the journalist portrayed in The Killing Fields) and Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley, another great book useful to understand more about Cambodia today (though I probably do not fully agree with some parts of the book).

Here is my account of a day in Tuol Sleng (visited in February 2014).

We spent the morning in Phnom Pehn wandering around the Russian Market and, as previously planned, we head to visit Tuol Sleng.

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon when we entered, warm and bright. I thought hiring a guide was the best option to get an in-depth accurate explanation since I didn’t know a lot about Tuol Sleng before visiting (apart some readings on our travel guide and some websites) and I was pleased we did it.

But then, as soon as our guide left us to try to quickly catch another group of tourists before closing time, I thought it was far better to be on our own in that place, taking our time. If you have a good knowledge of what happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, I would encourage to visit the site without a guide – that’s my opinion, without taking anything away from the local guides that undoubtedly supply relevant and accurate information on the tragic events that occurred in Cambodia in those years.

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View of the former school courtyard
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Barbed wire on the 2nd floor.
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Mugshots of Tuol Sleng prisoners
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Map indicating the killing sites, the security prisons and the genocide memorial all over Cambodia (Documentation Centre of Cambodia)

We were still wandering in the former classrooms on the first floor of the school when, looking out of the window, I saw a little girl in her school uniform; she must have been not older than 5 and she was busy playing on her own with something I couldn’t see in the middle of the courtyard, right there where thousands of children, women and men not long ago had been imprisoned, tortured and killed. I looked at her for a while and I shivered thinking that she was actually able to play in such a dreadful place. She found herself a spot on the arid grass, just under the former school gym bars and, using half a trunk as a coffee table, she laid a small cup and saucer, a cafetiere and a tiny plastic purple hand bag.

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By the time my boyfriend and I had walked down the stairs heading towards the exit, she was still there; she had brought from somewhere another cup and saucer, a tiny pink stool and she was having a cup of (imaginary) coffee. On her own.

As I walked past her, she looked at me for a while and she shyly smiled. She was absolutely beautiful, sitting like a little lady on the minuscule stool. I smiled back and I leaned over, taking the cup that she had left on the trunk, and pouring in a bit of the water I had in my bottle and started sipping. She smiled back at me and that’s how we had our cup of coffee. Coffee had never tasted that good!

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I assume she was the little daughter of the woman that worked in the Tuol Sleng bookshop because, at the end of the afternoon, when the site and the bookshop were about to close, the woman called her loudly and in seconds the little girl had packed her coffee set, her tiny stool and was running towards the woman, ready to go home. Probably the following day after school she would have been sitting there, at the same hour, on the same stool, having her afternoon coffee.

In Tuol Sleng you will see a sign that reminds you not to smile (not that you will be particularly willing to do it, anyway). But when we left, I realized that I had actually smiled in there, not as a sign of disrespect but as a sign of happiness in seeing that right there where life had ended for many, a little girl, most likely unaware of everything, was able to play. And smile.