I didn’t know much about Asia when I decided to visit Cambodia in 2009. I had been warned about the culture shock but I could never have expected what I saw. Airport employees covering their mouths with breathing masks, a heat wave slapping me in the face, a dozen of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers trying to grab my backpack and drag me to their vehicles, a hotel room to share with cockroaches and a shower which only dispensed cold water. My first thought was : ‘why on Earth did I decide to come here ?” Then I left my hotel room to grab some food, and I remember standing in front of the road and trying to figure out a way to cross. I looked at the Cambodian crossing between the cars with wide-open eyes, afraid that they’d be hit. It took me a little while but I eventually arrived to a market where vegetables and meat laid next to clothes and shoes.
I came back to my room, filled with delicious food, shocked, and in love with the country.
A lot of travelers told me they didn’t like Phnom Penh, mostly because there is nothing much to see. It is true that apart from the Royal Palace and the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh doesn’t offer much. But I personally loved it. I especially loved to walk along the riverfront after sunset and look at people talking while their kids played, wondering what delicious meal I would buy from the food carts.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace is situated along the riverside and is the official residence of the King. Its construction started in 1866. One of the most interesting building is the Napoleon III pavilion. It was donated by the emperor in 1876 and stands out because it is the only one made of iron. Another interesting building is the Wat Preah Keo Morokat, also called Silver Pagoda for the 5000 silver tiles that cover its floor. It also houses the small but beautiful emerald Buddha. And all around the pagoda stand the high stupas, towers that contain the ashes of the former kings.
The Palace is open every day but closes between 11h and 14h and don’t forget to cover your knees and shoulders. The entrance fee costs $10.
Tuol Seng Genocide Museum
The site was a high school until it became the torture headquarters of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Also known as the Security Prison S-21, it was the largest detention center in the country and imprisoned 17 000 men, women and children. The prisoners were tortured until they admitted to being CIA or KGB spies. They were chained to the walls and the barb wire prevented them from jumping and committing suicide. They were later on sent to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and executed.
Out of all the prisoners, only 7 survived, thanks to their skills as artist or photographer.
Even though Siem Reap is the most touristic city of Cambodia for its proximity to Angkor and the floating villages, it remains the cheapest compared with Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. It is also the best city for hungry travelers who prefer street food and Khmer dishes over pizzas and hamburgers.
There is nothing much to do or see in Siem Reap, but the atmosphere is pleasant and relaxed. At the night market you will be able to find plenty of souvenirs such as clothes, jewellery or beautiful paintings.
I will not cover the temples of Angkor in this article. If you want to know more about the amazing temples, check my article Explore the temples of Angkor.
Out of the three floating villages around the lake Tonlé Sap, I decided to visit Kompong Phluk. I paid $10 to get there and $20 for the boat. You don’t need to wait or share the boat with other tourists. As soon as you arrive, you will get onboard and start the tour alone or with your group. Every building in the village is built on stilts: houses, school, church and police station. The inhabitants wash themselves and clean the dishes in the lake, keep pigs and chickens in small cages on the wooden platform under their houses and breed crocodiles that will end up as wallets and handbags.
You will then get off on a floating restaurant from where you can take a smaller boat to the mangrove for $5. The tour takes 15 min and leads to a floating market where you will be suggested to buy a drink for your guide or books for the local school. You;re supposed to hand the books to give to a guy on the platform who should give them to the school director. I suspected he puts them back on the boats instead, to be sold again.
You should avoid the village of Chong Kneas. The organizers will tell you you need to pay this and that extra and ask you to buy rice for the orphans, at $10/kg.
I took the night bus from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. It was like traveling in a freezer. The air con is always placed straight over the heads, blows very strong and cold, and can rarely be closed or turned off. You will have to let your backpack in the hold so make sure you take warm clothes before getting in the bus.
Sihanoukville has changed a lot in 7 years. The restaurants at Victory Beach where I used to go in 2009 have all been demolished. Independence Beach, on the contrary, was desert in 2009 but is now the busiest beach with its hundreds of well-aligned deckchairs. Cocktails cost around $2 so the bars are full of young travelers who just want to get drunk for little money. Most restaurants offer western food, making it easier to find pizzas, spaghettis or hamburgers than it is to find an amok or a curry.
The beaches are not very clean in Sihanoukville, so it is better to go to one of the island. I went to Koh Rong Samloem and loved it. The boat takes 30 min and cost around $6 one way. There aren’t many bungalows yet on the island so it is still pretty quiet. The beach is long and clean, the water warm and clear. I wished I had stayed on the island rather than staying in Sihanoukville.
Wandering in the markets is one of my favorite activities in Cambodia. There is always something surprising to see, from apples at $10/Kg to pigs heads, from dressmakers to women in their meat stall swinging in their hammock and waiving flies away, from tropical fruits to udders, from clothes to muffles, from dishes to snails (heritage of the French colonies ?), and the list goes on and on. The worst were the meat and fish stalls with the dead animals and the dying ones, the blood running on the floor and the flies dancing on the meat and on the flypapers… it looks disgusting, it smells terrible but it is a must-see.
Grilled insects are one of the Cambodian delicacies. Well, not only insects actually, but tarantulas, scorpions, frogs (Oh ! that’s French as well), chicks, snakes, larvae and crickets. I saw a tourist try a scorpion. He found it so tasty he threw half of it away and vomited the other half.
The biggest market in the country is the Central Market in Phnom Penh. In the center of the building you will find jewellery. There are four wings that radiate from the center and offer different range of products such as fruit, vegetables and meat, clothes, souvenirs or dishes. For souvenirs, the best places are the Russian Market in Phnom Penh and the night market in Siem Reap. In Sihanoukville you will find little souvenirs. The market is mainly for locals but still worth a look.
You should know that :
Hotels will charge you 50% of the price of the room for a late check-out or an early check-in.
Your dollar notes need to be in perfect condition. If you try to pay with torn notes, you will probably hear the seller tell you his bank will not accept it. And if you insist, he will tell you he has to check with his supervisor. They might even charge you for accepting your note. I even had the problem with a 1995 note that the hotel-restaurant manager didn’t want to accept because it was too old. The funny thing is that I got it from the hotel when I paid for the room.