One day in Phnom Penh

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Although our time in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia’s capital and largest city, was limited to 24 hours, it was one of the most moving and thought-provoking visits of our entire trip. Phnom Penh is a city that is very much shaped by its relatively recent history. It possesses great architectural and metropolitan beauty, as well as warm and engaging people, but is still recovering (along with the whole country) from the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia for four years starting in April 1975.


On the architectural front, evidence of colonial times is present everywhere, from the city’s broad, open, French-inspired avenues, to some of the old buildings that still manage to stand upright after years of neglect.

French colonial building, 1918

Sadly, evidence of the Khmer Rouge is also quite visible. In April 1975, Communist Party leader Pol Pot implemented a radical scheme to turn the country into an agrarian collective, leaving the cities mostly empty from forced relocations, imprisonment, and executions. The entire population of Phnom Penh was ordered to leave the city and take on new lives as working peasants in the countryside. Additionally, under Pol Pot’s directive, the Khmer Rouge tortured and executed nearly all educated people, including teachers, doctors, writers, and their entire families. Many more Cambodians died due to malnutrition or starvation. By the end of the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule, between one million and three million Cambodians lost their lives. We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former Khmer Rouge prison, which is quite depressing, but also houses exhibits that provide very thorough historical context.

The city of Phnom Penh is still recovering from the loss of so many lives and from the lasting blow to its economy. As a result, the streets don’t seem as crowded as they do in other main SE Asian cities, and the population is noticeably poorer. Tuk-tuk drivers aggressively pursued us (for legitimate business), and once delivering us to our destination, they would often insist on waiting for us in the hope of guaranteed business in the form of a return trip, which we soon realized may be one of their only chances of additional business for the night with tourism having taken a recent downturn. Children selling postcards and photocopied books were omnipresent on the street — as well as at every Angkor temple we visited — and somewhat heartbreaking, though it was encouraging that they often did so in their school uniforms. Amazingly, despite their recent hardships and ongoing recovery, the Cambodian people were warm and welcoming.

Despite the heaviness of what its population has been through and survived, Phnom Penh today is actually quite a pleasant place to visit. The royal palace in the center of town was beautiful:


There was also a fascinating market, with concrete architecture and a wide variety of things for sale, from shirts, to shoes, to fake watches, to fried critters (a popular snack food).



Phnom Penh is very easy to get around as well, since there was no shortage of tuk-tuk and cyclo drivers to show us around:

Cyclo tour

In awe of Angkor

See our gallery of photos tagged with “angkor wat”.

After our eight-day tour of Vietnam, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, which serves as the launching point for day-trips to the magnificent temples of Angkor. We had been looking forward to this visit ever since reading about the temples while researching our trip, but especially after meeting and hearing stories from other travelers doing the SE Asia circuit.

The temples of Angkor were built by successive kings of the Khmer empire between the 9th and 15th centuries. They served as monuments both to the king and to the gods, and are absolutely stunning in their structural perfection and decorative intricacy. The best-known and largest of the temples is Angkor Wat, which is the world’s largest religious building. When the Khmer empire fell to the Siamese army in the 15th century, the entire complex of some 100 temples was abandoned and eventually completely overgrown by jungle. It remained this way until the mid-1800’s when they were rediscovered by a French botanist, which led to years of restoration work.

We spent two full days exploring the temples with the help of a fantastic guide who taught us a lot about the temples and their history, as well as more recent Cambodian history and ongoing national issues.

Highlights included:

Angkor Thom — This walled city was one of the last building efforts of the Angkor era and was enclosed by four defensive walls, as well as a moat. To enter the complex, you cross one of five causeways lined on one side with god images and on the other side with demons. The main temple within Angkor Thom is called Bayon and was one of our favorite sights. Each main tower has four smiling images — one at each compass point — that are possibly in the king’s likeness. They are huge and impressive, even in their somewhat crumbling state. These towers are surrounded by an outer wall that is chock-full of incredibly intricate bas-relief carving. Our guide explained many of the different carvings, which show aspects of daily life in the Angkor empire, as well as stories of warfare and battle.

Towers with smiling faces on all four sides

Descending one of the stairways in the Angkor Thom complex

Angkor Wat — This is one of those places where you arrive and can’t really believe that you are seeing through your camera’s view-finder the same image that you have seen in so many travel guides or coffee-table books. Walking down the causeway toward Angkor Wat gives you a first glimpse of the stunning temple, and we were more and more blown away by its scale and beauty the closer we got. Like at Angkor Thom, there is beautiful, intricate, and symbolically complex bas-relief carving on the main lower walls of the temple. We were glad to have our guide with us because he was able to explain the religious stories depicted in the carvings, and also give us background information such as how in the early ’90s an Indian restoration crew used a chemical for cleaning that ended up causing visible decay of the stone towers. Since the Angkor complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, apparently there are new and more regulated policies in that arena.

Standing in front of the Angkor Wat vista

Ta Phrom — This temple was not completely cleared of its jungle covering, so there are still trees growing from the tops of walls, as well as roots that completely penetrate and snake out of the temple walls and roofs. It is a very cool sight and also served as one of the filming locations for Tomb Raider.

The temple doorway that was featured in Tomb Raider

Benteay Srei — Some 30 kilometers from the heart of the Angkor temple complex, this tenth-century temple is well-known for its incredible intricacy and state of preservation.

One example of the amazing carvings

Floating Village — During the afternoon of our second day in Siem Reap, we drove out of town to visit a floating village located on one of the river branches leading to the huge Tonle Sap Lake. We took a two-hour boat ride through the fully functioning village and saw floating restaurants, stores, battery generators, fish nurseries, and even a floating basketball court.

Floating store pulled up next to home in the floating village

Finally, on our last night in Siem Reap, we met up again with our new German friends Joe and Bine, whom we originally met in Hanoi. We had been following a very similar route as they had been, so we ended up meeting for dinner in three different cities: Hue, Hoi An, and Siem Reap. (Hi, Joe & Bine!)