Phnom Penh beyond the Killing Fields

Cambodia remains one of the countries that ranks highest on our list of those places that most pulled at our heartstrings, and makes us long to return. There is, undeniably, the crown jewel of the ruins of Angkor Wat, the long boat trip to Battambang, and the traumatic and powerful sites of Tuol Sleng and Choueng Ek at Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. There are gorgeous beaches, that we still need to get to ourselves. But, during our time in the country we experienced so much more of this very poor, and yet vibrant country, particularly in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

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Phnom Penh became our home base for more than one week. Longer than planned due to a Vietnamese visa wait, and while it first seemed chaotic and busy (don’t all Asian cities?), we discovered a simple charm in having no agenda.

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Days were spent far away from our, so-so hotel room. While the staff was pleasant and the room large and clean, the rock-hard beds and odd red light that had no turn-off switch sent us to the streets. Ideally located to both the river and many of the city’s attractions, we walked miles each day, endearing ourselves to big city Cambodia. Hours were spent over lunch or coffee; Jim people watching while I fancied myself a foreign correspondent.

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Excellent restaurant choices are springing up around the city, and we splurged GREATLY one night at Topaz, experiencing food that would be acceptable at a first class restaurant in any city in the world. It was a silly expenditure, for we still had months left on the road, but after a day spent among the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, we wanted to be transported to another place and time, if even for a couple of hours.  After a superb dinner, however, I found myself stricken with enormous guilt, for the people of Cambodia are incapable of “escaping” a place that is their reality.

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Determined to make better choices, we searched out the Friends cafe, a delightful little restaurant, also serving up delicious food. Part of the Mith Samlanh NGO,it trains and employs local street kids, giving them a chance to rise above their life on the streets, and not turn to the more common path of crime and prostitution.

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We toured the Royal Palace, getting slightly irritated, and then slightly amused, by the rules that a sleeved shirt must be worn. Thus, even though I had a large scarf covering my shoulders, I also “got” to purchase a dingy, white t-shirt for $1.00 USD from the sleeve patrol ladies.

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We wandered into a screening of The Killing Fields, and understood a bit better, some of the back story behind the involvement of the USA, Vietnam, and other countries, in the ability of Pol Pot to decimate an entire country in a matter of a couple of years.

We chose a massage at a Massage School for the Blind, not getting the best massage, but at least feeling as though we helped a few local residents out.

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We were shocked to wander into a pharmacy and find shelves and shelves of La Roche Posay products. My sunscreen of choice for years now, La Roche Posay is virtually impossible to buy in the United States (I order mine online), and yet in little Cambodia, the products abound! I, not much of a shopper, was in paradise finding items not before readily available.

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And we walked. We spent hours wandering the streets, loving the vibrant street scene that is SE Asia. The blaring horns, street side markets, exotic fruit, and local life is a favorite part of travel. One we never get tired of; and one we dream of when away. SE Asia may not see us again for a bit of time, but there is no doubt we will be back for more!

We said goodbye to Cambodia and boarded our bus to Vietnam, knowing this complex, beautiful land will forever hold a piece of our hearts.

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6 thoughts on “Phnom Penh beyond the Killing Fields

  1. Cambodia is such an fascinating place…with such a terrible history. But the people, the food, the places are all so memorable, we hope we get the chance to return one day. Your post has got me thinking about it all over again.

    • I know Emma. Some of the faces of the people, especially the children, are burned into my brain forever. So heartbreaking and yet so hopeful for a better future.

  2. It seems to be such an interesting part of the world, so far it’s not on our radar, but maybe one day. For some reason it doesn’t yet speak to me. I the intense heat and chaos aren’t a big draw, but I’m sure there is beauty in the country. Seems as if you enjoyed your stay. 🙂

    • Hi Patti. Well, perhaps after surviving the Camino, you’ll be ready for a tropical vacation in SE Asia! It is certainly steamy, but it draws us back over and over again. Hope those blisters are healing!

  3. Our time in Cambodia moved me more than I expected. We were able to spend almost a month, we did a Habitat for Humanity build and got to know some of the locals, and we saw all four corners of the country. (And yes, we did the loooooong Battambang-Siem Reap boat trip.) I really want to go back for a more meaningful visit soon… Thanks for the fond memories.

    • Hi Jen… we’re with you there. We sort of considered Cambodia just another country on our tour of SE Asia and the gateway to Angkor. We were a little surprised to find how deeply the people affected us. We hope to go back one day as well, and get an even better feel for the place… lol.. and maybe take that lonnnnnng boat trip again 🙂

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