A Day in Phnom Penh: A Bustling City with a Dark Past

From Krabi, Thailand we flew (via Bangkok) to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Although many tourists head straight to Siem Reap to visit the ancient Angkor temple ruins and completely bypass Phnom Penh, we took an extra day to see this interesting city. I had heard about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge when I was a child and our visit allowed us to learn more about what had happened. More below on this.

As we talked with our taxi driver from the airport to the hotel, we ended up arranging with him to give us a tour of Phnom Penh for $15 per person, which we felt was reasonable to take the four of us around all day.

Our overall impression of Phnom Penh was that it is a little less wealthy than Bangkok and definitely less clean.


My daughter, son and wife enjoying a typical street scene in Phnom Penh.

Royal Palace

One of the major attractions in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace, not unlike the Royal Palace in Bangkok, but a little less ostentatious in décor.


Part of the beautifully landscaped Royal Palace.


Another view of the Royal Palace grounds.


An emerald Buddha in the Royal Palace.

It was also fun to just wander the streets a bit. We went into a large covered market that had about anything you can imagine.


I wonder what kind of animal had the nice long tail, hanging in front of the counter?


More delights available in the market!

We enjoyed Cambodian cuisine – many curry and seafood dishes, along with other oriental delights.


One of our meals in Phnom Penh.

We even tried fried tarantula (yuck)! All kinds of insects and other creatures were available for adventurous snacking.


A nice street food pile of big spiders and beetles.


The Wat Phnom, a famous temple in Phnom Penh.


Inside the Wat Phnom.

In addition to various temples and the Royal Palace, the other primary sights relate to the tragic period of the Khmer Rouge regime (during which time Cambodia was known as Democratic Kampuchea) which lasted from 1975 to 1979. About 25% of Cambodia’s population perished during this period and many people were kicked out of their homes and relocated to other parts of the country.

The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone who was educated, especially those who might be sympathetic to Western values or beliefs, or anyone who was well-off economically. As a sign of how absurd things became, anyone who wore glasses was thought to be an intellectual and therefore an enemy of the state. So many people with poor eyesight got rid of their glasses. Undoubtedly many of the brightest minds in Cambodia perished during this period. I am old enough to remember hearing about the Khmer Rouge on the news and about the terrible atrocities. It was a bit surreal being here, where so much suffering had taken place.

Tuol Sleng Museum

Tuol Sleng prison, now a museum, was created from what was a high school. It was the most secretive of the country’s 196 prisons.


Exterior view of the Tuol Sleng Prison, now a museum.

Most of the prisoners taken to this prison were accused of fictitious acts of treason, such as collaborating with foreign governments or spying for the CIA or KGB.


Photos of some of the unfortunate victims at Tuol Sleng prison.


An interrogation cell with shackles.


Prisoner rules.

Typically, the entire family would be imprisoned. Most often, prisoners had no knowledge of the charges against them when arrested, but they were tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes they had been accused of. They were then marked for execution. At least 12,273 prisoners (and possibly many more) passed through this prison and only about 200 survived.


Cells at Tuol Sleng prison–in an area that used to be classrooms.


Some of the torture instruments used on the prisoners.


My son and I with Mr. Chum Mey, a survivor of Tuol Sleng prison.

Eventually, the Khmer Rouge regime was ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979 after about four years of absolute hell. This museum is well done, with explanations posted throughout the site.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields)

This outdoor museum is another “must do” in Phnom Penh. It is located 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) south of the heart of the city (the drive out to the site is interesting in itself).


Homes along a waterway (covered in foliage) on our way out to the Killing Fields.


The dusty road out to the Killing Fields museum.


Entrance to the Choeung Ek Museum or Genocidal Center.

This site is where many of the prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were brought to be slaughtered and buried in open pits.


In the foreground are the burial pits. The tall structure contains neatly arranged skulls of many of the victims.


In the tall pagoda-like structure, the victims’ skulls are arranged by how they were murdered – axe, hammers, rods, etc.

There is a marked path with explanation signs and also a good audio guide available to explain what happened here.


As the sign says, babies were bashed against this tree trunk.

To say the least, it was a very somber experience, but well worth the visit to understand what the Cambodian people have suffered in their fairly recent past.

Even today, as you walk among the burial pits, it is not uncommon to find bits of clothing and bone.


The sign says “Don’t step on bone”. Bits of clothing of the victims is visible in the lower right.


A bin stacked with bones from excavations.

We enjoyed our day in Phnom Penh. It was a very worthwhile stop on our journey. From Phnom Penh we went on to Siem Reap, home of the world famous Angkor temples, including Angkor Wat. I will write about these magnificent temples in my next couple of posts.

Note: During our day excursion, our taxi driver stopped by a tourist agency, and we arranged bus transportation for the following day to go to Siem Reap. The cost was $15 per person for a decent bus to take us on the approximately 6-hour drive to Siem Reap. While you can also fly there, it was fun to drive through and see the countryside. Beware: Part of the road to Siem Reap is unpaved and VERY dusty. Our suitcases (in the lower storage area), were coated with fine dust by the end of our journey. You may want to consider wrapping your bag in cellophane before placing it in the storage area!

 Also, although Cambodia has its own currency, the US dollar is widely accepted and many prices are quoted in US dollars, so take plenty of small bills. If you pay in US dollars at a store, you will get Cambodian currency in return. These transactions make many prices more expensive than Thailand, although prices are still relatively cheap by U.S. standards.