Phnom Penh Cambodia’s River Capital

Phnom Penh is a river city, particular as it sits at the confluence of the Mekong River, one of Asia’s greatest waterways, and the Tonle Sap, which has dramatic increases and decreases in size between the wet and dry seasons.  Phnom Penh is also the Capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia, a country that has suffered a very unfortunate recent past.

The city is still in the process of being rebuilt following the purges and killings by the Khmer Rouge who, under Pol Pot, were responsible for emptying the cities and wiping out most of the population due to their hard line anti-intellectual policies.  You can understand part of the Cambodian tragedy if you visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former school that was used to torture then kill prisoners.  Of the 14,000 prisoners that went through here, only eight survived and it is a vivid reminder of just how brutal humans can be.

The architecture in Phnom Penh is a curious mix of French colonial buildings, wide boulevards, traditional Buddhist temples and palaces, ugly slum areas and contemporary buildings.  It’s a very dusty town, or, at least, I found it to be so and there is little in the way of parkland, but there are some large open spaces, which are sometimes used to play football on.

One of the most attractive parts of Phnom Penh is the Sisowath Quay, which is also called Riverside.  This street runs alongside the riverfront and is crowded with cafes, shops and bars.  Cambodian cuisine seems to have many influences such as Thai, Vietnamese, curries and French, as well as the usual westernised foods that you get in cafes which cater primarily to the tourist trade.   Unless you try out some of the finer restaurants, food here is very reasonably priced.  It’s actually quite pleasant to stroll down Sisowath as far as the Royal Palace.

There are a couple of interesting places for shoppers.  One, the Central Market, is a large covered Art Deco building that is filled with traders selling all types of goods from dodgy DVDs to clothing.  Bartering is essential, but I wouldn’t be making too many major purchases here and would just buy the odd souvenir, of which there are some wonderfully tacky ones available.

The other popular market for tourists is the Russian Market where you can get factory seconds for reasonable prices.  Many of the goods here are genuine seconds, and are called so because they may have a minor flaw or two but are otherwise ok.

One of the more unusual tourist attractions in the city is the Thunder Ranch Shooting Range, where you pay to shoot anything from pistols to AK-47s to rocket launchers.  Naturally, the bigger the firearm, the more it costs to shoot.

English is not widely spoken in Phnom Penh so getting around can be a hassle which requires some mime skill.  The cheapest form of transport are the motodops, or motorbike taxis.  These are cheap, and have the ability to weave through Phnom Penh’s chaotic traffic, but they are risky as accidents are reasonably common.  Tuk-tuks are also available; they are more expensive than motodops, but also marginally safer, and more comfortable.  Taxis are probably the safest form of transport.  As you would expect, they are also the most expensive, but this is a cheap city, and they don’t really cost more than a few dollars to get you across town.

Getting to and from Phnom Penh is quite easy.  There are frequent air services to a number of Asian cities.  Buses are quite common to, and link all the major regional cities such as Bangkok, Vientiane, and Ho Chi Minh City.  There are also regular ferries down the Mekong to Vietnam.

Most tourists who visit Cambodia go there to see Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, but the city is now also a hub to get to the beaches near Sihanoukville on the coast, which are becoming popular.

I found Cambodians to be delightful people, and I felt quite at ease as I wandered around Phnom Penh.  One of the things I liked about it was that Phnom Penh was not over commercialised, and it is still a relatively compact place, so easy to negotiate.  Cambodia suffers many social problems, and a large proportion of the people live in poverty, so you should expect some third world conditions if you visit.  It can be very confronting and heart rending, particularly if you visit the site of the Killing Fields, and the Genocide Museum; to do that will also give you some understanding of the toughness of the Cambodian people.  Anyone who has gone through the absolute trauma the Cambodians suffered and pulled through as well as they have deserves respect, and they deserve to have their story known in the hope that such barbarism is never again repeated.

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