After a wonderful, albeit brief, trip into Vietnam, we headed back into Cambodia just before New Year’s Eve. The plan was to spend 3 days in Phnom Penh, plus an extra day exploring the Choeung Ek Killing Fields nearby.
Our second entry into Cambodia was slightly less traumatic than our first, and being able to show our first $30 visa meant we had considerably less hassle paying the correct amount second time around. We were through the border in fairly quick time – once we’d politely declined to pay the border guard’s original suggested price of $32 – and back on the bus for the final few hours to Phnom Penh. After a long (10 hours) but surprisingly bearable bus journey from Can Tho, we pulled into Phnom Penh’s bus station and jumped in a tuk tuk. We paid $4 for the short ride which was madness – the going rate for a short tuk tuk journey within Phnom Penh is never more than $2. If you ever find yourself at Phnom Penh’s bus station and the tuk tuk drivers won’t accept less than $4, just walk down the road a little bit and hail one down. Repeat after me: the touts of the bus station are not your friend. Trust me, I know.
Our home for our 3 days in Phnom Penh was the newly opened Hotel Zing, and very nice it was too – all shiny white surfaces, clean white paint and the odd purple wall thrown in for colour. Located near the Central Market, it was an easy base for us to explore the city from.
A great way to get your first views of the city is to head to the Foreign Correspondents Club for sunset cocktails. A Phnom Penh institution, the FCC (as it is known) is a beautiful colonial-style building with a great terrace that looks out over the Tonlé sap river. More importantly, it serves great cocktails which are perfectly affordable at their nightly 5pm happy hour. Craig had a mojito while I sipped a spicy passionfruit concoction infused with chilli and Kampot pepper – it was delicious.
For a NYE treat (and a taste of Bangkok-style luxury) we headed to the AEON Mall further downtown ($3 in a tuk tuk) to head to the cinema to finally watch the Hobbit. A little more expensive than Bangkok’s cinemas, we paid $15 for posh seats and snacks – a nice treat before we headed out to the bars!
New Year was definitely one of my more memorable ones – we made a friend called Alan while staying on Otres Beach, a saxophonist who played with a few bands around Cambodia. So we saw in 2015 on a rooftop bar watching Alan play, followed by food and drinks until about 4am with another friend from Chester who happened to be in the city.
The next morning, definitely a bit groggy, we headed out to see the Royal Palace. Quick tip here – if you don’t cover your shoulders you will be made to buy a giant $3 t-shirt of shame to wear. This deeply unattractive garment only comes in size XXL, and is emblazoned with pictures of the Royal Palace. Cover your shoulders and knees, kids.
Anyway, sartorial crime aside, the palace is a stunning complex of golden roofs, open courtyards and treasures and relics from times past. We hired a guide, who was helpful in explaining some of the artefacts and the history of Cambodia’s royal family, although it did raise the cost of our visit slightly as they cost $6 for their tour. They can rush around slightly, so make sure you are happy you’ve seen everything with them and asked all of your questions before you reach the ground gates; you can then go back in and explore at a more leisurely pace or take some more photos if you like, provided you haven’t passed the guards and fully exited the palace complex.
Our final visit was to the National Museum – a collection of Cambodia’s ancient sculptures; some date back over 1,000 years. We spent a happy couple of hours walking round and enjoyed learning about some of Cambodia’s history which didn’t feature the more recent atrocities; the quality of the sculptures considering their age is fantastic. The building is a very elegant place outright, and we enjoyed having a drink in the cool courtyard. It is a great place to head to the day after Choung Ek, and helped us to remember Cambodian history is so much more than the Khmer Rouge and killing.
It’s difficult to be bored in Phnom Penh of a night; the city has a range of bars to suit all tastes, from seedy “hostess bars” (which I found still generally tolerate female punters, although inevitably not with such a warm welcome) to the expensive bars sitting on the river front to the lively backpacker hostel pubs. I can’t say I was blown away by the restaurant scene, although we did enjoy a (relatively expensive) meal at Friends restaurant, which trains disadvantaged young Khmer in the hospitality trade and does imaginative tapas-style dishes.
Did we love our 3 days in Phnom Penh? Opinions were divided; Craig enjoyed the chaos and the buzz of the city. I found it dusty and frustrating to navigate – the pavements frequently turn into cafes/ scooter parking lots/ a pile of rubble, so we often took tuk tuks which bring their own brand of tedious negotiation over a $2 fare. Would I rush to return? No. Am I glad we came? Yes – the city has a lot to offer a brief visit, provided you can navigate Phnom Penh’s particular brand of crazy.