Home > Cambodia > Three days in Phnom Penh…..

Three days in Phnom Penh…..

……and if you are anything like me, you’d want to move on!

The National Museum in PP is set in beautiful grounds.

The culture and feel of a city comes from it’s residents, it’s architecture, it’s heritage. Some cities are built on tourism but even they attract the kind of tourist who is looking to explore the people, the city and the unique history of that city. And so it is and should be that cities are organic in their development.

Phnom Penh has an ancient heritage. Some of the buildings are breathtakingly beautiful. Much of the centre of the city seems to be much cleaner and more relaxed than it’s neighbour Saigon. But pretty much the entire city centre seems to be dominated by tourism alone.

Markets sell tourist tack. Restaurants feature four European cuisines on one menu. Every tuk-tuk driver tries to sell you a tour around the city. This could be true of many cities but here in Phnom Penh what is striking to me is the distinct lack of women tourists. The place is swarming with Western men travelling on their own. Though I did meet three men travelling together – on a vacation from their security jobs in Iraq. In the evening, pretty much every bar has young, scantily dressed local girls. You get the drift.

Like Vietnam, Cambodia’s recent past has seen a lot of violence. All around Cambodia there is evidence of this. Below is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Life in ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ was strict and brutal. In many areas of the country people were rounded up and executed for speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, scavenging for food, and even crying for dead loved ones. Former businessmen and bureaucrats were hunted down and killed along with their entire families; the Khmer Rouge feared that they held beliefs that could lead them to oppose their regime. A few Khmer Rouge loyalists were even killed for failing to find enough ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to execute.

A torture room at S21 - a photo taken of one of the victim's hangs on the back wall.

Yesterday, we went to S21 – a school which was converted into a prison for torture by Pol Pot’s regime. After visiting the War Remnant’s Museum, I wasn’t expecting to be shocked but I was. This was a dictator who captured, tortured and killed a quarter of his own people. In S21 – it’s estimated that 17,000 prisoners were brought to it. Only 7 walked out alive. The photos inside S21 are gruesome at best. How one man can do this to another (and to women, young children and infirm) always surprises me.

After spending almost half a year in South America where at least I could converse with the locals even if in my broken Spanish, here in Asia I find it difficult to get to know anything about the people and their view of their recent past and the hopes for future. The language barrier is of course the biggest problem, but there is an even bigger difference in our cultures than in S America.

Cambodia produces textile and it’s their major export but their next biggest income comes from tourism. For a country which is only just beginning to be able to cater to mass tourism – even that is only in the two or three areas/cities – this is bad news. The world economy has slowed down tourism and Cambodia is suffering.

Perhaps this is the reason the people of the country are desperate to make a quick buck out of any tourists who do visit. Unfortunately this attitude sometimes manifests itself in people being scammed, inflated price on food/drink/accommodation for foreigners and seedy city centres.

It’s not all bad and we arrived on the coast of Cambodia yesterday to a sleepy hollow where things can’t be more different than what I have described above. Perhaps Phnom Penh is just not for me!

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  1. May 18, 2011 at 13:05

    Wow, interesting read. We always wanted to go to Cambodia. It is still high on our bucket list. Have safe travel going onwards!

    • May 18, 2011 at 21:21

      Thomas, it’s just Phnom Penh – we are now on the coast and it’s beautiful, stress free and has friendly locals. So, not all of Cambodia is like that. Will be heading north soon to Siem Reap and that’s meant to be fantastic!

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