Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital. It’s a city that really ignites your senses, there are bustling markets pouring out into the streets, motorbikes whizzing by and restaurants oozing the smell of Khmer dishes.
Phnom Penh was once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia‘ but it suffered greatly during the war. Since then the Cambodian people have worked to rebuild the city back to its former glory.
Something which struck me was the visible difference between the classes. Range Rovers and Porches cruised the same streets as beat up motorbikes. Boutique restaurants and shops on one road, compared to local market stalls and convenience stores on the next.
Phnom Penh has an international airport with regular flights in and out from most regions in Asia.
We were travelling from Ho Chi Minh City and could have flown on a short 1 hour flight from capital to capital. This would have set us back around £60-£80 each though.
Instead, we booked a bus to cross the Vietnamese/ Cambodian border at Moc Bai, with CatMekongExpress.
The bus costs$12, it picks you up just down the road from hide out hostel, and takes 7 hours in total.
We have had some pretty unpleasant bus rides in the past, especially over borders, but this was plain-sailing.
The bus had air conditioning, comfortable seats, and they even handed out water and croissants at the start of the journey.
The operation was organised and structured, leaving only a few minutes late due to delayed passengers.
Once on the bus you are provided with visa application forms and arrival/departure cards.
The cost of a visa into Cambodia is $35 for UK citizens. If you pay 850,000 dong which is approximately $36.5 dollars the bus operators organise everything for you.
Now I know this is going to set hairs running for all you seasoned budget travellers. ‘You’re getting scammed’ ‘they’re ripping you off’ I hear you say. But frankly, I didn’t care!
I didn’t feel as though I was scammed as I made the decision to pay en extra $1.50 just to be lazy and have it all sorted for me.
The border crossing was smooth, off the bus through the Vietnam border, passport stamped. On the bus, drove to the Cambodian border check, off the bus, through the border, passport stamped and on my way.
We stopped for lunch for half an hour, but there was a lot of flies and the smell wasn’t great so I just had an ice cream and stretched my legs.
All in all, the bus journey was pleasant and easy.
We stayed at Mad Monkey hostel in Phnom Penh, this chain has hostels dotted all over Cambodia and we had heard good things.
The rooms were clean and cool, the showers were cold but not freezing (common for Asia) and there was a real social atmosphere.
The hostel organised various tours for the killing fields and S21 and also has a pool and sun loungers, great to relax and cool down in.
There’s a bar where everyone gathers in the evening to play games and get drunk. But don’t worry, you still get a goodnight sleep as everyone leaves for a bar crawl at 12am latest.
A friend of mine, Morgan, had been volunteering with children in Phnom Penh so we timed our arrival for when she had finished helping the kiddies.
She volunteered with projects abroad, an organisation that facilitates safe sustainable volunteering in regions of poverty.
The volunteering experience isn’t cheap, she had to pay for her flights, accommodation and food as part of the package, as well as a donation to the centre.
That didn’t deter her though, before coming to Cambodia she also set up a fundraising campaign to raise money to buy supplies for the children.
Well done Morgs!
Exploring Phnom Penh
The killing fields are one of Phnom Penh’s main attractions. Though be warned, it’s not a happy day out.
The killing fields tell the story of Cambodia’s tragic past during the Pol Pot regime.
It is a morbid and traumatic place, with death on every corner.
I recommend getting the audio tour during your visit here, it allows you to here survivors accounts and gives you all the facts surrounding what occurred in the not so distant past.
The part which got to me the most, was a large tree. This tree was used to smash babies heads against to kill them, before they were tossed into a mass grave. The thought of that to me is incomprehensible.
Something else which really upset me here was some tourists complete lack of respect. I saw people taking selfies, smiling with human skulls and posing next to the monuments for Instagram snaps. If you visit, please be mindful and consider the fact people lost their lives here, and this is not a selfie spot!
S21 was once a prison camp used to detain and torture people considered a risk to the regime.
Today’s it’s a museum that explains the events that occurred here and gives recognition to those innocent civilians who lost their life.
If you come to Phnom Penh I think you must visit both the killing fields and S21 as a sign of respect and solidarity against cruel regimes such as the Paul Pots regime.
Eating in Phnom Penh
Despite the main attractions being plagued with sadness Phnom Penh is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city in some areas.
There is an abundance of luxury restaurants along the riverside and we were lucky enough to visit a few.
This is a stunning restaurant, with both western and Cambodian dishes. They also have a wide range of cocktails.
We all went for pizzas based on the waiters recommendation and they were delicious. But also massive, I only managed half!
We went on ladies night which meant 2 for 1 cocktails, they even let Stephen get involved.
It wasn’t cheap but it was lovely!
This was a restaurant not to far from Mad Monkey hostel, the menu is small but reasonably priced.
They pesto pasta was delicious and the chorizo burger tasty too!
Service was slightly slow, but we did have a brand new waiter so we let him off!
11 happy backpackers
A stunning rooftop bar, with comfy chairs, atmospheric lighting and a pool table.
We enjoyed some drinks here in the evening with friends and views over the city.
The bathroom was smelly, but not uncommon for Asia and the drinks were well priced so in my opinion a winner.
Despite being told by many travellers to spend minimal times in Phnom Penh I actually enjoyed the city and could have easily stayed longer.
The killing fields and S21 are a tough day, and upsetting to see, but a must visit place when in the capital.
The restaurant scene is great with a significant amount of choice.