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Phnom Penh is the capital and the most populous city of Cambodia. Once known as the Pearl of Asia, it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920s.

I got in Phnom Penh after a long day trip from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It was almost night when the Giant Ibis bus left me by the night market entrance, near the river. From there to the place I booked, Velkommen Guest House, it was only a 5 min walk. I got a double room for 14$ a night without breakfast. The location is great, the young guys working there are great, but there is not much going on, so if you’re looking for a social place to stay this is not your best option.

I stayed in Phnom Penh for 3 days and they happened to be during the Water Festival, an annual three day celebration that marks the reversal of the current in Tonle Sap river and the end of the monsoons. It is one of the most important festivals in Cambodia along with the Khmer New Year.

Water Festival celebrations.

The one thing that I really wanted to see in Phnom Penh was the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. These are a number of sites where more than a million people were killed and buried by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. The mass killings are widely regarded as part of a broad state-sponsored genocide. The remains of 8985 people were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves and 43 of the 129 communal graves have been left untouched.

The site is about 7.5km south of the city limits and I arranged a private transportation (tuk tuk) from one of my Guest House’s young employees. I paid 15$, but I think this was a little bit expensive for the service provided that was basically only the return journey.

On my way to the Killing Fields.
Monks on their daily routine of getting offerings.

You should allow at least 1.5/2 hours to explore the whole area. When you buy the ticket, a free audio guide will be handed to you with multiple languages available. This audio guide is amazing, and if you aren’t very familiarized with the Khmer Rouge history, this will be your best friend. It includes stories by those who survived the Khmer Rouge, a Choeung Ek guard and executioner talking about some of the techniques they used to kill innocent and defenceless prisoners, including women and children, among many other interesting stories.

Overall, this experience is very intense and, because the audio guide is so good, that place will get into your head. Ultimately, you will reach the Memorial Stupa, built in 1988 and with more than 8000 skulls arranged by sex and age. After the tour, still inside the complex, you can visit the museum where you can learn more about this site and even watch a movie if you want to.

I really recommend this experience as it is still one of my favourite ones in Cambodia.

A mass grave on the right and a killing tree on the left.
Some of the skulls inside the Memorial Stupa.
The skulls are arranged by sex and age.
Our tuk tuk, very different from the ones you're used to see.

The one thing that I really didn’t like about Phnom Penh was the sex tourism scene. It’s something impossible to miss when you walk around the streets. The sex tourism is prohibited by law, but nobody seems to really enforce it since it’s a big source of money income for the country. I know that this is also something that happens a lot in Thailand, but I felt that here it was too much.

In the afternoon people gathered by the river to see the boat races with their picnic mat while eating and drinking. Personally, I didn’t find the races very appealing, but for the local population this was a really big event with all of them cheering for their teams.

Event the young monks were interested in the races.
Huge crowd watching the races.

On my last night in Phnom Penh I had the opportunity to attend a parade of illuminated boats on the river, each one of them equipped with thousands of neons with different patterns representing services, ministries and institutions.

Next day I was off south to Kep & Kampot. I paid ~7$ for my ticket to get there by Sorya bus company. You can find the ticket booth on the station near the Night Market and the trip should take about 4.5-5 hours.

One last thing about money in Cambodia:

When you go to an ATM you’re able to withdraw both Cambodia Riel and US Dollars! Yes, you read it right, US Dollars… While in Cambodia you’ll have to deal with 2 completely different currencies when paying for stuff. It is completly fine to pay 2 Dollars and 4000 Riel for something and getting 1 Dollar and 1000 Riel in change. It is very very confusing at first, but you’ll get it right in no time. 1USD = 4000KHR as of November 2016.

One of the illuminated boats at night.
This time with a reference for the tourism.
And the last one!

How to get there and away

  • Giant Ibis bus from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Phnom Penh.
  • Sorya bus from Phnom Penh to Kep.

What to do/see

  • Killing Fields
  • Boat Races (if you're in the city during the water festival)
  • Wat Phnom

Where to sleep

  • Velkommen Guesthouse, 14$ for a double room without breakfast. Location is great but there is not much happening there.