I sat in the airport, peering at a plane with dark mascara-like lines running down the windows of an old Airbus A-whatever. “Should I even be going here?” No one I’d talked to really liked Phnom Penh. They all went there because they had a flight out on their way to see Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh was a stopping point, never the end goal on travelers’ lists. It was described to me as a sad, dirty city with not much charm. I looked on my phone, reading about the former Khmer Rouge agent, current Prime Minister who is one of the longest reigning world leaders, pinching my eyebrows together until they turned into a uno-brow. I considered getting up and stepping on a bus back to Lingnan, but something drove me onto that old plane.
And of course, I had an amazing time.
I arrive late to Phnom Penh Airport, well designed and modern, covered in a torrential downpour raining sheets and shooting bolts of lightning. “Excuse me, where does the bus leave to go downtown?” I asked the tourist information desk.
“Um…I think you shouldn’t take the bus. It’s rain too much.”
“Yes but where does it leave from?”
“JUST…Please take taxi, sir.”
With that, I hopped in a taxi and waited in the rain through an hour or more of traffic. The taxi dropped me off at Pu Rock Hostel, just two blocks from Tuol Sleng Prison Museum and only $3 a night. I walked in through the dark rain and dropped off my things in the twenty-person dorm room. I made eye contact with a guy across the room, sent him a “Hey, what’s up?” and quickly added “Let’s go get dinner” after a few minutes of introduction.
So Nils and I made our way through the rain to a little restaurant around the corner. Instantly, I’m not wowed by Cambodian food, especially compared to the perfection of Vietnamese food I ate everywhere last week. But I suppose its also my fear of Cambodian food, after getting a pretty nasty case of food poisoning on a trip to Angkor Wat six years ago. As with any food poisoning case, I now questioned the sanitary value of everything I put near me, which probably led to a pretty boring plate (but a pretty stagnant stomach). Dinner was fried rice or something else equally forgettable.
I was planning on meeting up with some couchsurfer’s downtown, so Nils came along. He’s a German engineering student who just finished his undergraduate degree and decided to go on a trip around Asia. I always envy these amazing people a little bit, the ones who don’t know where they will be in three days. But I guess that’s only because I know exactly where I’ll be in three days. We hopped in a rickshaw and headed to a restaurant along the river, which seemed to either be under construction or spend it morning hours as a furniture store. Half of the store was filled with plastic wrapped couches, while the other half had wires and broken walls. Regardless, the room was packed with expats and foreigners eating and drinking happily to loud music. One of the French couchsurfer’s said he was wearing a white shirt, so I walked up to the first table with a white-shirted white guy and asked “Hey! Are you guys the couchsurfer’s?”
“No…what makes you say that…” A drunk Brit hissed back at me through thick makeup.
“Ah sorry, okay, it’s crowded in here.” I apologized and kept looking before finally finding the right table. Down we sat, with two locals, the white-shirted Frenchman, a German, and a Malaysian who bought all our drinks. It was a cool vibe, but too noisy so one of the local women, a writer and all around awesome person, suggested we go to a live music fundraising show nearby. We hopped up, and I went to the bathroom where I met the same drunk thick make upped Brit waiting in line.
“So, why did you think we were couchsurfer’s? Did you think we looked homeless like you, like we couldn’t afford a place of our own?”
“Aw naw naw, I thought you guys looked like openminded, cool people. But I guess I was wrong.”
“Pffffffff” she fuffed through tequila breath and went back to talking to her friend.
We arrived soon after, at a little local bar where a German man in tight jeans and a lovely, Werner Herzog voice stood talking about his NGO that helps local children. He showed how metal music is helping give children in poverty an outlet for their creativity and aggression, showing videos of Cambodian kids screaming into a microphone and thrashing around. Afterward, they had a concert with some of the kids. I can approve of anyone learning music, especially when it gives people an outlet to find happiness.
The show soon ended, and we sat outside with our beers chatting. Our group had picked up a Berliner living in Hong-Kong and an Italian Hardcore singer (check his band out here). The Berliner was here on a little trip like me before going back to his exchange semester. The Italian was here to learn traditional tattoo techniques from Buddhist monks (badass, right?). Obviously, I gravitated towards the Hardcore singer, and we were soon talking about obscure Finnish punk bands and Italian Hardcore and all of those great unknown screamer musicians out there. The German NGO headman soon came out and invited us to another show, which I and the Italian guy easily agreed with. We were whisked away in a rickshaw to LF Social Club filled with expats, where cheap beer flowed and heavy live rap was dealt out by two Americans. It was a surreal setting, sitting in a Cambodian bar surrounded by expats listening to Americans rap. But this is somehow the essence of Phnom Penh, finding beauty in the weird and unexpected.
The next morning was a bit hazy, and I ended up waking far later than I had hoped. But Nils was just as sleepy as I, and we made it out for a late breakfast.
Yes, Phnom Penh is pretty dirty. But not in a bad way. Yes, we almost stepped on smooshed rat brains on our way to breakfast. But that’s always interesting, right? Definitely. Cambodia is a scrappy kind of place, where people make ends meet any way they can. I’ve seen men eat bat heads, and seen ant and bee larvae served next to chicken breasts on a menu. I’ve moved plates of brains out of the way in a restaurant refrigerator so I could get to the beers. I like that scrappiness, and I guess with the past Cambodia has had it’s the only way they can be.
Max, the white shirt Frenchman and I met up after breakfast at Tuol Sleng: The infamous location of one of Pol Pot’s darkest prisons during his reign of genocide and terror. From 1976 to 1979, thousands, roughly 20,000 or more, spent years here being tortured on the grounds of nothing more than having received an education. Culture and education were seen as detrimental to the utopian self-sufficient peasant economy of Pol Pot’s dreams, so anyone who could speak French or wore glasses spent a while here.
Like many sites of devastation, Tuol Sleng is now quiet and serene, with roosters walking around and only the sound of coconut palms rustling in the background. Nothing is “Disneyfied” or overdone, as the floors are still stained and dusty, as they must have been long before the barbed wire surrounding the building began to rust. It’s a place of thought and respect, and not for the faint of heart.
Quietly, Max and I grabbed a rickshaw to our next stop on our tough day: to Choeung Ek, otherwise known as The Killing Fields.
TRIGGER WARNING: I talk a bit about the Cambodian genocide and it’s horrors here. If you don’t wish to read, please continue on to the section after the photo of the skulls.
It’s unknown how many people died here, but this site, like many others across the country, served as a site of execution. No one spent more than a few nights here, and if they did it was likely tied down in a hut listening to the screams of other people being executed. The audio guide made a representation of Cambodian propoganda music blasting loudly, with a diesel motor humming in the background. This under the screams of others would have created a terrifying last moment for anyone. Over 8,000 bodies have been excavated, but more bodies are regularly discovered, and a lake near the site is left preserved with thousands of bodies lying underneath. A fourth of the country’s population was slaughtered in those few years, and many are buried here, or housed in this pagoda on the site.
Now, it’s serene and calm, but it used to be the site of unmentionable horrors. Babies were thrashed against tree stumps, and people were killed with anything blunt or sharp enough to end a life since bullets were too expensive. With the rain, scraps of clothes and bone still pop up in the dirt from time to time.
A cat sits underneath a fruit tree, chewing on a little bone he found in a mound. It’s all a sobering experience, one that leaves me silent for a while. But one that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Max and I spent the whole time walking quietly, listening to the perfectly designed audio guide, that when we took our headphones off to speak we didn’t quite know what to say. All I could think of was “…I need a beer”.
We went out, waving at some smiling local children, holding our beers before getting into our rickshaw back to the hostel to pick up Nils. Our next stop on the violence tour: a free Muay Thai tournament up town. Our rickshaw driver wanted to watch with us, so he just parked and said he’d drive us back into town. Walking into the crowd was a sight, as I was the tallest person for miles. Some random people smiled and waved at me as we found our seats before the fighting began.
It wasn’t as violent as I was expecting, but watching some actual Muay Thai fights was a treat. Especially for free. The best fight was the last one, between a short Thai veteran covered in back tattoos and a tall Cambodian. The Cambodian looked like he had the fight the first two rounds, but the veteran pulled through finally taking the win in the last round, his little fists bobbing up and down like a cobra. The rickshaw driver took us back downtown for a stop at the night market for some dinner, where I didn’t fit in at all.
At least the food was decent.
Nils had to head out early the next morning, but Max and I met up at the Russian market for a wander through the hot and hectic market the next morning. The Russian Market is a site worth seeing, just in its eclectic display of everything and anything from car parts to chicken organs to glitters of all colors.
After some lunch and a coffee, we took a rickshaw over to Wat Phnom, a huge beautiful temple that was also the first time a family has asked to take a photo with me since I’ve been in Asia. But aside from that, the temple was gorgeous.
Phnom Penh is an interesting city. From here, we walked through the garbage laid streets to the central market. Phnom Penh doesn’t have a great smell, most often it smells of rotten garbage. But occasionally, you get the smell of cooking meat or sweet fruit.
But most often, a smile from a local makes all the smells worth it. We made it to the Central Market, covered in tourists but still offering a huge array of goods to purchase at great prices.
After this, I felt as though I had seen all of Phnom Penh’s main sites. So we went for a wander, stopping into a restaurant for some great stir-fried noodles and just wandering around to see who we could meet. Phnom Penh is a city of constantly smiling locals, so anyone traveling here should be quick to smile back.
We walked along the riverfront, grabbing some beer and enjoying the “chilly” weather. Everyone seemed to be out on the calm Sunday afternoon, giving us a chance to see locals at play.
Phnom Penh isn’t the prettiest city, but it is one of the most lovely and calm cities I’ve been to. So laid back, and enjoyable in so many different ways. Yes, it’s dirty. Yes, the government is questionable. Yes, the food is a bit iffy. But if you look past these things, you’ll have an amazing time, as I most certainly did. As I sat on the plane back, most likely the same plane I took out there, I felt a strong feeling of calm. Moreover, happiness for even coming on the plane in the first place. I figure, if I want to continue living this vagabond travel and photograph lifestyle, I’ll have to wade through more dirt, dine with worse dictators, and fly more rickety planes. Cambodia is a smiling country, and for that, I thank it. Though it’s lived a sad past, Cambodia is looking up, and as long as it keeps smiling we will always cherish it.