WHY SHOULD YOU GO?
Phnom Penh is a real look at current Cambodian life. As most visitors to Cambodia target the ancient wonder Angkor Wat I don’t believe a visitor would leave understanding Cambodian culture seeing as the entire city of Siem Reap is dedicated to tourism.
So why make a stop in Phnom Penh? The understand the recent history as well as part take in writing its present story. The past consists of a genocide linked to WW2. There’s a very heavy and moving Genocide Museum which is a preserved high school turned death camp in the middle of the the city. The stories range from hopeful to devastating but ultimately understanding this recent history (1970’s) gives context to not only how much pain was here not too long ago gives perspective on how far things have come.
Here’s a video of my time there including a bit where I ate a tarantula. And althought it’s not nearly as Instagrammable as other things I’ve done I would say Phnom Penh is not an obvious place like Bangkok but for the individual who is willing to wander to discover your soul will be handsomely rewarded.
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh it was uncomfortable. The driving was a shit show. It was unnerving walking down the streets feeling like I always had to look over my shoulder. People were literally driving motorcycles on the sidewalk during rush hour.
Then there’s the signs at the hostel warning me not to take any bags outside for fear of theft. The local shop keepers reinforced that as they saw me walk around, telling me people on motorbikes will snatch your phone or bag if they see an opening whether you’re walking on the street or sitting in the comfort of a tuk tuk in transit.
That level of paranoia and feeling of being targeted doesn’t exactly make you feel welcome from the start. The chaotic driving made walking the city streets sketchy. Personally I didn’t find the city to be that bad but I heeded the warnings.
It sounds pretty bad right now, and frankly, after my first day I couldn’t wait to leave. I checked my VISA approval process to Vietnam every few hours hoping to book my ticket ASAP.
What I didn’t yet know was I was about to be stuck in Phnom Penh for an unknown amount of time. You see I submitted my e-VISA late on a Friday and it takes 3 business days to process. Today was Saturday. I had yet to feel the sinking feeling of being stuck in a city I wanted to leave.
But when you’re forced to stay in a city you start digging under the surface. Finding the places which aren’t clearly labelled on a map.
The second day I went to the local Russian Market. Here’s a link to that experience. I badly wanted to use my gimball to capture the experience. It felt mildly safe but still I didn’t want my stuff to get gaffed. I saw some genuinely amazing artwork that I wish I could carry home. A 3D woodworked piece of Angkor Wat as well a rice paper pressed artwork.
When I walked out I walked a block out and saw a Pizza shop. When you are somewhere that you’re not sure you belong there is nothing like finding something that reminds you of the comforts of home. In my case that came in the form of Andreas from South Africa, the owner of said pizza shop. I ordered a piece of eggplant lasagna with a orange soda and plopped down in my seat. Across from me a guy about my age from Johannasburg gave me a warm greeting that I couldn’t quite make out but freindliness crosses all language barriers. This was Greg. We started talking as he was in the midst of working on a healthy food service business with Andreas. He was so bright when we started discussing my trip, there’s something so positive about the South African tone of voice. Made me a bit envious of how flat my American accent comes across.
All of a sudden, Cambodia started to feel a touch more welcoming, even if through the hands of expats rather than locals.
In walked Joe from New Orleans. Now I was feeling alive and I struck up conversation with him. Joe had been on travel for 1.5 years and today was coincidentally his last day before heading back to the states. I asked him about his philosophy on how to travel. For him it was all about doing all the things you never got around to doing. That meant reading a giant book he always wanted to tackle as well as start a book of haikus. He shared some of his struggles as well as some of his favorite peaceful secluded hidden gems where he spent a week on a beach or small village without a tourist in sight. Exchanging these stories for me is what travel is all about.
It’s a funny thing when you bump into a fellow english speaker. In the majority of cases they saw goodbye with “I hope you find whatever it is you’re seeking.” For me I don’t feel I’m actively seeking anything in particular but I am aware change is on the horizon.
Traveling for me began as a way to better understand the world through its cultures. But two weeks in and one week solo I find myself undergoing more of a self rediscovery than anything.
The genocide museum was a wake up call. Realizing that the USA was bombing the hell out of Cambodia for being neighbors of Vietnam during the war then having these Cambodian’s step in perceived to be savior’s but ultimately plunging the people deeper into hell. This is the history of Cambodia, a tremendous amount of misfortune and much of it unwarranted.
Seeing the thousands of photos hung throughout the prison puts opportunity and freedom into clarity. There are many losers in war. This type of genocide meant many spent their entire lives in a hellscape.
Doing something with my life has been a bit of a wandering experience devoid of the typical coercion, rather full of options. I’ve hen I first arrived in Phnom Penh it was uncomfortable. The driving was a shit show. It whad the polar opposite of these victims and I can only imagine how lucky, and spoiled, they would consider me to be.
The symbol of a high school being turned into a death camp is sick. The rooms which are stained with dark colors of sickness, death, and misery. There were several rooms intact with the tiny cinder block cells that measured no more than 4 feet wide by 5 feet long with a tiny gap which i had to turn sideways to walk through. Standing in that space and trying to even contemplate what was going through the mind of a prisoner is a ticket straight to being grateful for any type of life today.
The number of stories that are told from the few survivors as well as the family members of the few that were identified is a stark reminder of how much good or bad luck plays a part in life.
It’s a lost generation. Seeing Angkor Wat amazes you and explains Cambodia’s past kingdom in its undisputable glory. The Genocide Museum takes us much closer to the present and when you walk around the streets of Phnom Penh and see the hardship on people’s faces it’s apparent that it comes from a very distant past that everyone is trying to escape.
Smiles are harder to come by in Cambodia than in Thailand. But when you get a smile back or a thumbs up returned in Cambodia it feels earned in the best of ways.
Phnom Penh is a bustling city where the people are resilient and hungry to opportunities. They are in need of much infrastructure but they have an incredibly scrappy pull yourself up from your bootstrap mentality. A friend I met in Siem Reap described it as “a special dust” that only Cambodians have.
Note: Jasmine tea over ice on a hot day is the asian equivalent to American sweet iced tea.
I like the fact that breakfast here looks a lot like lunch and dinner. BBQ pork over rice, beef noodle soup, the only thing they add to the morning is the concept of an omelette of egg
Brandon from Cal Poly Pomona who studied chemical engineering but moved back home to help his parents run their corner restaurant.
In my hunt for true Cambodian food, the only restaurant I found which branded itself remotely closely was Romdeng. I walked in and the place was beautiful. When I looked at the menu I was in for a shocker. The first item on the menu was tarantula for appetizer. Down below that under main courses I spotted red tree ants with beef. I picked them both as this was one of those “you’re never gonna believe what I did in Cambodia” crossroads.
Just after I ordered a group walked in with a guide and sat down just across from me. The waiter brought out a live tarantula followed by a cooked one and I felt my stomac get tight and my heart began to race in fear.
When the tarantula showed up there were 3 of them on and they were giant! I poked them with my fork and the whole thing freaked me out. I don’t like spiders to begin with let alone the idea of consuming one. It has a soft shell to the touch. It kept it’s shape. It is crunchy to the bite and once you hit the body it just tastes like insect guts. It’s not sweet or sour or savory. It’s like a very mild indescribable mushy pudding. Let’s be honest, never again. Bear in mind it’s 100% a mental issue. If you didn’t know it was tarantula you’d like it was just a bit unpleasant. But once you brain starts thinking “tarantula” all the alarm bells start going off.
The rent ants with beef was a no brainer after the tarantula. After tarantula nothing fazes you.
I tried watching the footage directly after my meal but had to turn it off. Couldn’t stomach it.
The exchange rate is 4000:1 so it’s pretty tore up here. I’ve never been anywhere with a standard practice of using two currencies simultaneously. Meaning you use whole US dollars mixed with Cambodian riel dollars for change. So something that’s a $1.50 is 1 US dollar with 2000 Cambodian riels. It’s second nature to locals and takes a second to get used to.