Cambodia, or “the Kingdom” as it may fondly be referred to, can be a culture shock for some, an assault on the senses for others, as well as a treasure trove of cheap drinks and over the counter pharmaceuticals.
The following article and photos have been supplied by our good friend Desiree Wehrle.
I moved here just over a year ago to pursue my desire to work for a Non-Government Organisation and do my part for an organisation making a difference in the world. The Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF), who I have been working for since I first arrived, is doing just that, supporting people living in one of the most impoverished areas of Phnom Penh. The communities of Steung Meanchey developed around the city’s municipal rubbish dump as families scavenged recyclables from the garbage to eek out a living until closure of the dump in 2009. These families still live in the area, many now just walking further to collect recyclables. CCF started helping 45 kids get an education in 2004 and now has over 2300 children enrolled in its comprehensive education program and supports over 10,000 people in the community through its healthcare, childcare and community outreach programs.
Find out more about The Cambodian Children’s Fund at https://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org.
Most think of Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples in Siem Reap when they think of visiting Cambodia. Many overlook Phnom Penh, the capital, altogether – but if you have time it’s worth a visit.
I definitely would not recommend self-drive options. I know of first time visitors to Phnom Penh who close their eyes in order to remain calm as they are transported through the traffic. The only way to describe it is organised chaos, with what many outsiders would think of as too many close calls and sometimes a complete disregard for rules, but usually they are in fact well thought out and fine tuned maneuvers. Tuk Tuk (motorbike with covered passenger carriage attached) and car is the main mode of transport for tourists. There are some cars labeled as a “taxi” but most car services are just a normal car, with a driver.
A Tuk Tuk from Phnom Penh airport to central Phnom Penh is around $7-$10 USD one-way. A car will be around $12-$15 USD. When travelling around town most rides are $2-$3 one-way, $4 if it’s towards the edge of town. There is the odd place where Tuk Tuk drivers have to pay to park to wait for potential customers and so they may try and charge you more (eg. Sorya Shopping Center, Central Market), and if you load up your Tuk Tuk with lots of passengers then it would be fair to expect to pay a little bit more as well.
Khmer is the local language and the level of English varies greatly amongst the Cambodians. Since you’re unlikely to become fluent in Khmer in any hurry it is helpful if your driver speaks English, at least to the extent that you can communicate over where it is you are going, how long you will be and how much it will cost. In Phnom Penh I would recommend Tony’s Tuk Tuk Tours, which you can find on Facebook and for car services [email protected]. Both have a good level of English.
Where to go and what to see
From 1975 to 1979 Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 25% of the countries’ population of 8 million people, through torture, forced labour and mass executions. The Khmer Rouge starting by forcing the populations from the cities into the countryside. Phnom Penh, then a city of approximately 2.5 million people, was a ghost town within 3 days. To find out more about this important part of Cambodia’s history you can visit the the Killing Field of Choeung Ek and The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
The Killing Fields are further out of town and is essentially an outdoor museum of one of the sites where there were mass executions and burials. The audio tour is fantastic and lets you monitor how much you want to hear about the history of this death camp and stories from survivors of the regime.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21 as it is also referred to, is a museum set in school buildings which were repurposed by the Khmer Rogue for imprisoning and torturing those who were suspected of being against the regime, as well as any one considered educated such as doctors and teachers.
The 1984 Academy Award winning movie “The Killing Fields” is shown most nights at one of the three Flicks cinemas in town (http://www.theflicks.asia/welcome/). These community movie houses aren’t your traditional style cinemas, they have a mixture of comfy floor cushions for lying on with rattan couches/chairs instead of the usual type of cinema seats, but all have air-conditioning!
The two main Phnom Penh markets that the foreigners tend to frequent are the Russian Market and the Central Market. The latter is set in an architecturally significant building with a domed centre and four wings stretching out from the centre and is more spacious and probably easier to navigate than the Russian Market. However, the Russian Market is often a favourite with tourists. Both markets have clothes, shoes, wallets, bags, souvenirs, sunglasses and electronic equipment with many branded items at a fraction of the price of what you will get back home – obviously unlikely to be the genuine article!
You can also get clothes and shoes made here. I would only recommend this if you are going to be in Phnom Penh for a week or more as it will take that long to have them made, and if not quite right you want to give them time to remake or adjust. I have had boots, dresses, shorts and skirts made while I have lived here and I am officially addicted.
Other ideas while in Cambodia
There is something for everyone in Phnom Penh. Some ideas to consider within central Phnom Penh or easily accessible from there include: street food tours, a visit to the national museum or the Royal Palace, sunset river cruises, rooftop bars, architectural tours, silk island bike tour, manicure/pedicure, massage or you could just try and eat your way around Phnom Penh considering the range of cuisine that is available here.
If you need dental work done this is the place to do it. My dentist here in Phnom Penh is a New Zealander currently finishing her PhD. I got my caps tidied up for a third of the cost it would be back home, even with cost of x-rays and a clean included. If you are needing major dental work done you may even save yourself the price of your plane ticket by coming to Phnom Penh.
Prescription glasses and contact lenses are also a great buy here in Cambodia. Come and stock up on your contact lenses, bi-focals, prescription sunglasses and transition lenses.
When to visit
Avoid April and May if you can. They are definitely the hottest months. September through to November is the rainy season but this usually just means a monsoon type of downpour for an hour or two during the day, rather than a constant downpour, so isn’t really a problem unless you have to be out in it (or need to get around the flooded streets while the drainage system catches up to the deluge). December and January are definitely the most pleasant months temperature wise, although you probably still won’t need a cardie or jumper even at night.