My trip to Cambodia was a beautiful mess. I arrived in Phnom Penh intending to visit four different cities. I left five days later on a late flight with a broken computer screen.
I left my Bangkok hostel at dark thirty to catch a 7 am flight to Phnom Penh. If you’ve traveled through Asia, you know the lines are looooong. So it’s worth the hassle to arrive early. It’s only an hour flight from Bangkok to Cambodia, so the cat-nap I took was underwhelming. After paying $30 USD for a Cambodian Visa and being cleared by customs I headed straight to the currency exchange.
Tip: Riel and U. S. Dollars are both accepted currencies in Cambodia. If you opt to use USD make sure there are no rips or tears in your bills. I tried to pay with USD that I’d received from the airport money exchange. I hadn’t noticed a small tear in the note. The restaurant could not accept my money so I had to find the nearest bank, exchange bills, then return to settle my check. It was more than a little annoying.
After less than ten minutes in my over-priced Tuk Tuk ($10 USD), I learned three things about Cambodia;
- Stop signs and red lights are more of a suggestion.
- Honking means move.
- Tuk Tuk drivers will tell you they know where you’re going, but they usually don’t.
I was staying at the Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh and when I mentioned it to my driver he said he knew where to take me. Thirty minutes later, we’re parked on the side of the road trying to figure out how to get there. Luckily I’d taken a screenshot of the address and was able to show it to him. However, once we got closer, he still had to ask others exactly where it was.
Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh was my ideal hostel. It was affordable and in a central location, so I could walk to many landmarks and restaurants. It was always full, so I met a ton of great people. And although it’s considered a “party hostel” I stayed in the girl’s dorm which was near the pool. On the opposite side of the street from the restaurant and the rooftop bar. So I was able to spend my days working, walking and sightseeing. Then get a good night sleep and do it again the next day. The 10-bed girl’s dorm even had free tampons which are notoriously difficult to find in Southeast Asia! Good lookin’ out Mad Monkey!
I feel like an idiot admitting that I knew nearly nothing about Cambodia’s history, the Khmer Rouge or the Cambodian Genocide. I’d been both warned and encouraged to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields. Nothing would prepare me for the things I saw and heard.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, better known as S-21
Tip: Although it’s emotionally exhausting, give yourself enough time to visit the Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields on the same day. Visit the museum first if possible then go to the Killing Fields. Prisoners were often brought from the prison during the night to fields to be killed. Visiting in this sequence made the experience even more surreal.
The Khmer Rouge was a communist party that took control of Cambodia from 1975-1979. During this four year period, 2 million lives were lost to political executions, disease, starvation, and forced labor. This holocaust is not taught at schools in the U.S. because our government turned a blind eye. Despite the fact that our secret bombings of Cambodia during the Vietnam War was one of the catalysts.
The only way to truly grasp the severity of these atrocities is to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields. Pay the extra money for the audio tour, it’s worth it. I would also suggest watching First They Killed My Father.
I don’t want turn this post into a history lesson. Nor do I want to ruin what made this trip an extremely emotional and impactful one for me. Still, I want to share some of the photos and stories from both of these haunting sites.
A corridor at Tuol Sleng better known as S-21 Prison. Men, women, and children were arrested, brought here and tortured before being sent to the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge kept impeccable records of all of the victims. Walking through the museum you see shocking photos and hear heart-wrenching stories from various inmates. While 20,000 Cambodians were sent here for execution. There were 7 known survivors, only two remain.
The Dark and Gloomy Detention once stood here. Victims were brought here directly from S-21. This is where they were held for up to a day until they were murdered. To save money on bullets, tools like hatchets, knives, and shackles were used to as killing tools.
Most of the structures at The Killing Fields were dismantled in 1979 so the illustrations and audio tour explain what once was.
This is one of the many Mass Graves. After victims were killed their bodies were thrown into one of these Mass Gravesites.
The Magic Tree is where the loudspeaker was kept. Music was played to muffle the moans of victims being executed.
In the center of The Killing Fields is a Buddist stupa that houses thousands of skulls.
One of the best things about staying at Mad Monkey Hostel was that anytime I stepped outside there was a line of Tuk Tuks ready to take me wherever I wanted to go. The only downside was I didn’t know if I was being quoted a fair price. I was scammed or nearly scammed on numerous occasions.
I decided to walk to S-21 from the hostel because it’s only about 20 minutes away. Little did I know, I could’ve negotiated a better deal if I’d hired a Tuk Tuk through the hostel. Some of my hostel mates booked through Mad Monkey and paid between $5 for a group and $20 for a solo tour. Which brought them to S-21, The Killing Fields and back. I hired a Tuk Tuk from S-21 and we agreed on $10 to The Killing Fields and back. When we got to The Killing Fields he told me I had to pay $20 if I wanted a ride back to the city.
Take a ride in my Tuk Tuk
On a separate occasion, I took a Tuk Tuk to a restaurant. I paid $2 to get there. On the way back I was quoted $4, but I was willing to pay the price to get back as quickly as possible. I gave the driver a $10 bill, but when he gave me my change he tucked a couple dollars between his ring finger and pinky. So if I hadn’t looked, he would’ve taken even more money!
Tip: Check your change! Better yet, try these two transportation apps. Uber hasn’t made it to Cambodia just yet, but I’ve heard good things about iTsumo and PassApp.
Where to Eat
I was surprised by the amount of Western food available in Cambodia. From pizza and burgers to popcorn and Cold Stone the use of dollar and the steering wheel on the left-hand side weren’t the only things that made me feel like I was back in the states.
After a much-needed nap on my arrival day, I woke up to find one of my hostel mates getting ready for a night out. We started chatting and she invited me out to dinner and drinks. We walked to Friends the Restaurant. It was about a thirty-minute walk from the hostel, near the National Museum. I’d been too exhausted to explore when I first arrived, so I was down for an evening stroll through town. We walked past the Independence Monument, through Wat Botum Park, past The Royal Palace and National Museum and we were there. The city sparkled at night as the trees were decorated with twinkling lights.
Friends the Restaurant is a TREE training restaurant. A social business with the goal of providing young people, many of them former street youth, with the skills they need to become employable in the hospitality industry. Among many delicious desserts, they offered pumpkin pie. It was just days before Thanksgiving so you KNOW your girl had to partake! The service was great and the food was so good I returned for an early dinner on my last day.
Brown Coffee and Bakery was basically home base. Not even a block away from Mad Monkey I found myself here every morning for breakfast. I brought my laptop with me and got some work done while I ate my eggs benedict and sipped on the best mango smoothie I’ve ever tasted.
My go-to grub at Brown Coffee and Bakery
Mad Monkey also has a great restaurant that offers western dishes and Khmer specialties. The food is affordable and the location couldn’t be any more convenient. Head upstairs to the rooftop bar or grab drinks in the restaurant and people watch.
Where to Shop
After a long and emotional day of visiting The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, I decided to watch Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father. In an emotional state, I decided it would be a great idea to put my laptop under my pillow instead of in its bag. In the middle of the night, I heard something hit the floor.
I’d knocked my laptop off the bed. I picked it up dreading the damage. I opened it up to find the screen black and cracked. The next day I woke up on a mission, find someone to fix my broken computer screen. I was on a work deadline and needed to get it fixed ASAP. After about 4 hours of searching and emailing companies, I learned that it would be nearly impossible to get it fixed in Cambodia. My only option was to book a flight to Bangkok.
I hadn’t planned on doing any shopping. And the added expense of a last minute flight to Thailand left my budget busted. But instead of wallowing in regret, I took a Tuk Tuk to the Central Market for some retail therapy. Window shopping never hurt anyone right?
The Central Market is an art deco masterpiece by design. This cross-shaped building was once the largest market in Asia. It’s now one of the major attractions of Phnom Penh. The four arms act as hallways which hold stalls selling everything from clothing and art to food and flowers. The center dome is home to jewels both precious and costume. Which explains the armed guards at every entrance.
My trip to Phnom Penh was a rollercoaster of emotion. It was beautifully chaotic and financially draining. It taught me to stay on my toes, always have a plan b and to never sleep with my laptop under my pillow.
Thanks to the Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh for hosting me! As always, all opinions are my own.