Phnom Penh: 23-26 August 2013

Having been impressed by the temples at Siem Reap, Cambodia, Phnom Penh was a natural city of interest to me. Besides, the return air ticket cost only SGD117 only by Jetstar. [Read my post on Siem Reap in 2009]

I should warn you that this post contains pictures of human skulls and photographs of dead people (I use thumbnail-sized photos on this page. Click them to view the full size photos). If you find such pictures disturbing, you'd better not read on.

23 Aug - Arrival

The flight duration from Singapore to Phnom Penh was 2 hours. The corridor just outside the arrival hall is conveniently lined with vendors selling prepaid SIM cards with data and taxi coupons (USD8 for taxi). My trip was for only 3 days over the weekend so I wouldn't be needing a SIM card. The hotel charges USD7 for tuk-tuk and USD12 for taxi. I had pre-booked a tuk-tuk transfer to avoid getting lost at night. It took about 30 minutes to get to the hotel so I think it was a fair price.

Arrival hall
The main currency used is USD with their local KHR currency used for amounts less than 1 USD. The exchange rate is 4000 KHR = 1 USD. This means that if something is USD 0.50, you'll pay 2 pieces of 1000 KHR notes. You'll come across 10000, 1000, 500 and 100 KHR notes. There are no coins. Try to get rid of all your KHR currency before you leave the country. They are worthless elsewhere.

I stayed in a standard single room for USD34 per night with breakfast. I selected this hotel because the central market and Sorya Shopping Centre are 3-5 mins' walk from the hotel while the Museum and Royal Palace are 15 mins' walk away. It was basic but clean. There is a safe and fridge in the room. Wifi signal was weak in my room because it is far from the main area. The Wifi signal in the restaurant and around the pool was good.

Hotel room
Hotel room
Hotel entrance
Hotel pool
Breakfast area/restaurant in the background
24 Aug - Killing Fields and Genocide Museum

The buildings are very close to other buildings and the kitchen was one floor below my room so I could hear the noise from the neighbouring buildings and from the hotel kitchen from 6am. I could also hear noise from the TV of other guests through the walls. The bed was very hard. It was rather cool at night. I think the temperature was 24 degrees.

The breakfast was excellent. Breakfast includes 1 item from their breakfast ala carte menu, free flow of white and grained bread, a small fruit platter and free flow of milk, coffee, tea and juice.

The weather looked fine so it was a good day to go to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This was the monsoon season so rain was expected. Booking a half day tour through the hotel would cost USD15 for 4 hours. It would be pointless to book through the hotel when the same tuk-tuk drivers were waiting outside the hotel and they can speak English. I negotiated a price of USD12 to visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum. It took slightly more than 4 hours to complete the tour because of a traffic jam.

Tuk-tuks outside the hotel
She doesn't look pleased at being photographed
Funeral palour

The driver had to take another route through the countryside where I saw many cows, dogs, ducks and waterlilies. The road was so bumpy that I could not even sip water from my water bottle without having it splash up at my face. It took more an hour to reach the Killing Fields, 45 mins from the Killing Fields to the Genocide Museum, and 15 mins to get back to the hotel. The total time on the road was more than 2 hours!

I spent hour at the Killing Fields. The entrance fee including an audio tour cost USD6 for foreigners. The Killing Fields used to be a Chinese cemetery. It was used by the Khmer Rouge to execute people and bury them in mass graves. The site area open to the tourists is small but the actual site area is larger. 129 mass graves were found. 86 were unearthed. A grave of victims were found without heads and another grave of women buried naked with their babies. The bones and clothes that were removed from the mass graves were cleaned and stored. The skulls in the memorial are neatly places and systematically categorized by the victims' age. Many mass graves were left untouched. It seems when it rains some bones rise up to the surface. Visitors are advised to remain silent on this site and to respect the dead by removing their hats and shoes when they enter the Memorial Stupa/monument where the skulls and clothes are displayed.

If human skulls make you squeamish, do not go to the Memorial Stupa/monument. From the photos I've taken, obviously the skulls didn't have such an effect on me. But these were human beings and now these are all that are left of them - many were buried without their heads. An estimated 1 on 4 people living in those times were killed. So if you have a family of 4, most likely someone in your family would be killed. And if that happened, the rest of the family would very likely be killed too so that there would be nobody left to seek revenge.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Having been to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, I found this site rather bare. The real reason was that the people were angry and upset so they tore down whatever there was in these fields. The sign posts and shelters over the mass graves are built by those who wish to honour the victims.

Mass grave of victims buried without heads
Clothes of victims
Bones of victims
They beat children here and dumped them into the grave just beside this tree
Mass grave of children, naked women and babies

The old trees here look peaceful but they had their uses. One tree was used for children to stand at so that they could be beaten and then killed and thrown into the nearby grave. Another was used to hang a loudspeaker to broadcast music to mask the victims' cries.

Doesn't this tree look serene?
This was what this tree was used for

It started raining heavily so I took shelter in the small building. There's a little museum with displays of the ropes and tools used to bind and kill people. There's a video room in which you can watch a 15-min video. I didn't stay to watch it.
Ropes used to bind people and clothes of victims
Farming tools that were turned into killing tools
Now butterflies, dogs, chickens and ducks roam the site without concern about the terrors that occurred here. A family of dogs were busy eating and puppies were wrestling.

A puppy was digging the ground. Perhaps it was looking for a bone. I suppose it made no difference to the puppy whether it was an animal or human bone.

The Genocide Museum is rather bare too. (The entrance fee was USD3). This was a school that was converted into a prison and torture chamber. It looked like it used to be a very nice school with many classrooms and large fields to play in. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, all the residents (including children) in Phnom Penh were made to move out of the city into the rural areas to work on farms, so the entire city was empty except for the presence of soldiers, victims of torture, and the king on house arrest.

Those who worked on the farms were fed porridge with a few grains of rice. This was the pot used to cook porridge.

Torture area
Barbed wire for the prison building
Brick-walled prison
If you are lucky you cell would have a window
Wooden-walled prison
Tiny cells
Torture room
The prisoners here were held under poor living conditions. At best, they had a shower twice a week in a communal room with water sprayed on them from the outside. Some did not even get the chance to shower in 3 months. Perhaps most of them were dead already by then.

Actual photo of the living conditions

Torture devices such as the metal road of an umbrella are on display too. The museum guide said that the metal road was heated over fire and then used to probe the victims. The torturers used whatever they could find as torture tools. And if the victims would rather kill themselves by jumping off the building? Not an option! The prison is wired up with barbed wire to prevent people from attempting suicide. The torture was so bad that by the end of it, the victim would have admitted to anything to make the torture stop. By then they would have implicated their family and friends and everyone would get executed.

Tank for water torture
Torture devices

If I had lived there in those times, I would most certainly be among the dead. They targeted artists, intellectuals, Chinese and Vietnamese. Pictures of the victims who died after torture are displayed in this museum.

Children were not spared. There's a photo of a young boy in the bottom row
Photo of a young girl in the top row
Tortured to death. Click to enlarge
Tortured to death. Click to enlarge
Skulls and prayer room

Cats have taken over this school. It's a nice place for them to take shelter from the rain.

Cat in the garden
Skinny kitten

I spent about an hour at the Genocide Museum before heading back to the hotel. I was rather hungry but I had to shower before going for lunch. I suppose there must have been much bacteria in those places. The Central Market was a short walk from the hotel. I thought I would find food there but I didn't see any food sellers. So I went to the foodcourt (on the 4th floor) in Sorya Shopping Centre instead. A small bowl of noodles with meat cost USD2. It's not exactly cheap compared to the food in Singapore. The same good as in the Central Market can be found here. There are some restaurants such as Swensons ice cream and fast food outlets here.

After that I went for a 1-hour massage. It cost only USD6. The masseuse was pretty. During the massage, I heard giggles and a woman's voice from the private room. I wonder what she was doing (or what was being done to her).

For dinner, I had noodle soup and I bought a USD0.75 sandwich for supper from a shop near the hotel (exit the hotel and turn right at the junction). I saw many locals queuing to buy it so it must be worth a try! Although it was against my "travel rule" not to eat anything from a roadside stall that isn't freshly cooked, this was a short trip and I felt it was worth taking the risk.

Noodle soup for dinner

I enjoyed "meeting" all the cats and dogs in the neighbourhood. I believe that the kindness of the people are reflected in the number of stray animals. I think the Cambodians living here are peace-loving and they respect that the world belongs to animals too. I felt safe walking alone in the streets.

Dog in nearby apartments
From 2 cats having a standoff
2 cats having a standoff
Cat at the corridor outside my room
Kitten on the roof one level below the corridor
Cat outside a room by the pool
The most groomed dog in Phnom Penh
Skinny cat searching for food

I placed the sandwich beside me while I surfed the internet by the pool. Suddenly, I heard a rustling of the plastic bag. When I turned to the look, a cat jumped down from the table. It was trying to steal my sandwich! If the local people and local cat think it's good, then it must be!

Cat eyeing my food
I am innocent!
I admit it seems gross to wrap the sandwich in used paper. But remember the times when we used to eat kacang putih from a cone of rolled newspaper or paper from the yellow pages? The sandwich contained some minced meat and meat slices. There was a packet of chilli to pour into it. Indeed, it was good!

Sandwich made from half a french loaf, wrapped in paper

25 Aug - National Museum and Royal Palace

Scrambled eggs for breakfast at Billabong hotel
After breakfast, I shopped at the Central Market. There are clothes, shoes, pots and pans, watches, jewellery, handphones and, yes, I found the food section. There was no segregation between the cooked food section and the uncooked food section. I found the market rather dusty. The dust gave me a runny nose.

Central Market

I went back to the hotel for lunch to get away from the dust. I had Buffalo meat Loklak (USD5.25). The meat was a little tough but I suppose that's what buffalo meat is like. It was pleasant to relax in the restaurant by the pool. The Royal Palace opens for its second shift at 2pm so I wasn't in a hurry. If I go to the national museum at 1pm, then the Royal Palace after that, I would still have plenty of time to enjoy the evening.
Buffalo Loklak

I walked to the National Museum. It took about 15 minutes. Along the way, I saw a number of interesting things.
People having their hair cut by the roadside
Guesthouses, restaurants and massage shops

This row of guesthouses, restaurants and massage shops reminds me of Pattaya, but sans the horniness.

From Pattaya Aug 2011
A Singapore company markets themselves in Phnom Penh
There are many hotels and guesthouses.
Strange name for a guesthouse?
I wonder whether this is owned by the same person as the Nana Hotel in Bangkok
Bolina Palace Hotel
Frangipani Fine Arts Hotel
At the ticket counter, a man was sitting on the floor with a box of books and DVDs for sale. I didn't buy any because I know it would be a white elephant. During every trip, there is always some grand plan to research into the history of the sites I visited but it remains as a plan. National Museum is housed in a lovely building. Visitors are allowed to take photos of the building exterior.
Across the road from the museum
Building exterior
To take photos inside the garden, they would have to pay extra (but nobody really cares whether you pay or not).
Visitors are not allowed to take photos of or touch the exhibits. There are staff members in each room to see that nobody misbehaves. I did not even have my camera in my hand but one of them looked suspiciously at me. There are flower ladies in each room offering flowers to visitors. Fortunately, I had read beforehand that each stick of flowers would set me back by USD5 so I did not accept the flowers. True that it would be a contribution to their country but USD5 is a rip off!

There are many cravings and statues on display. Many are from the temples at Siem Reap. There wasn't much explanation to the exhibits so after a while it all just looked like stone. I believe that the wealth of the country is reflected in its national museum. This one was in a rather sorry state. There were many broken or missing tiles in the floor.

Exhibits exposed to the sun

I spent an hour here. My nose my still runny. Could it have been because of the lack of caffeine in the diluted tea provided by the hotel? I crossed the road to try the local coffee. There were many local men having drinks there. Some of them were smoking. They gave me a few curious looks and then got back to their conversations. The stall owner saw me looking at the drinks. She asked me, "Iced coffee?" So I said yes because that was exactly what I wanted. However, their iced coffee comes without milk by default unlike in Singapore where it comes with milk by default. It cost USD0.38. Anyway, it was nice and strong. But it didn't cure my runny nose.

Iced coffee
Public toilet. I did not go in

It was another 10-min walk to the Royal Palace entrance. I was feeling tired because of my runny nose. So perhaps I was hungry? I went to a roadside shop and order fried rice noodles. Besides, I had also run out of tissue paper to blow my nose.

Fried rice noodles

I felt better after eating and blowing my nose with the "tissue paper" provided by the eatery. So armed with extra blowing ability, I proceeded with my tour of the Royal Palace. The toilet for tourists at the entrance was a unisex one. The urinals and cubicles for the men were on the left, and the cubicles for women on the right. They must be rather open-minded here.

It was one hour to closing time. I bought a ticket for USD6. A tour guide said that a 1-hour tour costs USD10. I thought it was rather expensive. I didn't know whether I was being ripped off. We negotiated a little and then he agreed to render his services for USD8.

I believe the wealth of the country can be seen in its Palaces and places of worship. This place is nice and appropriately grand, i.e. it's not overly lavish. The king's residence is a good size but not large. Although the silver pagoda's entire inner flooring is made of real silver and there are many solid gold statues with diamonds on them, I was told that those were gifts.
Behind me is the Throne Hall were the king was coronated and where he receives guests and foreign dignatories. The king's residence is the building on the right hand side of the picture
Khemarin Palace - King's Residence
Hor Samran Phirun - King's private museum containing gifts received. This is not open to the public
Pavilion where King would address the public
Public area facing the Pavilion
Silver Pagoda temple
Ashes of previous kings and of one princess (sister of the current king) are stored in the grey coloured structures built around the Silver Pagoda

A wall surrounds the Silver Pagoda and its garden. There are painting those walls. Much of it is faded and damaged because there was nobody to maintain and repair the walls during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Repair and restoration works have just started.
The lower part of the wall is being restored
I was very interested to see the Napoleon III Pavilion but it was being restored and therefore closed to the public. It was originally built for Empress Eugenie of France, wife of Napoleon III, in 1869 for use in the inauguration of the Suez Canal. It is constructed entirely of iron. In 1876 Emperor Napoleon III made a gift of the building to King Norodom of Cambodia.

The tour lasted 30 mins. Perhaps that was all USD8 could buy. But I think that was sufficient. The site wasn't very large. It was much smaller than Beijing's forbidden city. I'm glad I hired a guide because there were no sign anywhere to explain anything.

I was left on my own to view other exhibits such as the wooden houses, king's coronation photos, elephant howdahs. There was a live demonstration by a lady weaving cloth, and Khmer music played by a 3-man orchestra. I left just as the museum closed. I spend at total of an hour here.
Khmer orchestra
Traditional costumes-wow so hot
elephant howdah
elephant howdah
cloth weaving

I took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for USD1.50. For dinner, in the spirit of the forced-farmers who ate porridge with only a few grains of rice, I had fish porridge at a restaurant by the roadside. This restaurant had an extensive menu of Chinese food. Thankfully the porridge contained more than a few grains of rice. It was tasty and smooth.
Fish porridge

One of the waiters was very keen on having his photo taken and I was forced to oblige because he jumped in just was I was taking the picture.

For my Muslim readers: you can find Halal food there. I went for another massage before going back to the hotel. This time, there was no giggling from the private room but a Caucasian man came in as a customer. His friend or guide said that the masseuse said he is hot. Our compartments were seperated only by a curtain. My massause then popped her head across to look at the hot customer. I'm not sure whether he was really hot or they say the same thing to any Caucasian man who looks half decent.

When I returned to the hotel, guess who I saw? The thief waiting for its next victim!

26 Aug - Departure

Breakfast at Billabong: fried rice with chicken and egg
My flight was at 12.50pm so I had some time to go to the Central Market again for last-minute buys. I bought 2 embroidered cloth purses, a pair of canvas shoes (USD10), 2 bowls for my home (USD3.50 for 2), a scarf for my mum, and 2 t-shirts for my dad (USD2 each). The cotton was exceptionally soft. I also had time to buy another of that fanastic sandwich to eat at the airport. It was just as great!

I paid for the hotel with my credit card. As luck would have it, the power went off just as the receptionist was printing the receipt. It took another 15 mins for them to call the credit card company and resolve the issue.

I had pre-arranged tuk-tuk transfer with the same driver who fetched me from the airport. The direct rate was USD5. However, the driver was unavailable and the driver who took me on the tour to the Killing Fields brought me to the airport.

My dad just called me and said, "I really like the t-shirt. It's very soft. If you go there again, can you buy the exactly the same one?" I had to break the news that I wasn't likely to be going there again.

Return air ticket SGD117 Tuk-tuk to hotel USD7 Hotel USD34 per night with breakfast Tuk-tuk for 4 hours USD15 Killing Fields plus audio tour USD3 Genocide center USD3 Lunch-Soup noodles USD2 Swensons Ice cream USD3.80 Massage and tips USD7 Dinner-Cambodian rice noodle soup USD2.60 Sandwich USD0.75
Lunch at hotel USD5.25 National Museum USD Coffee USD0.38 Fried noodles Royal Palace USD6 Tour of Royal Palace USD8 Tuk-tuk to hotel USD1.50 Dinner-Porridge Massage and tips USD7
Sandwich USD0.75 Tuk-tuk to airport USD5


Mike said...

I've been thinking of visiting some of Thailand's neighbors, but haven't had any thoughts about where I might go. Your blog has been very helpful. Great info. and descriptions. Thanks!

Chin Ee said...

Seems like a great trip. What do you feel about the presentation of horror/violence for tourists' viewing?