Phnom Penh Cambodia

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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Hotel Bougainvillier Room


This morning before catching the six hour bus to Phnom Penh, we went to a very slow Internet cafe to check email and find a place to stay. I launched Yahoo Messenger and the next thing you know, I have three conversations going with Dave, Harjot and John - technology can be so cool. The two monks across from me were smiling, probably trying to figure out why I was laughing as Dave and I IM’ed about monks on the Internet ("It's the best monking movie you've ever seen!").

We took the "upscale" (if that term is apropos for a bus) Mekong Express Bus to Phnom Penh which ended up being nice and easy.

Crabs and Fish at the market behind Sisowath Quay
We were even served rolls and water by our ''hostess" who occasionally would fire up her microphone and point out some landmark in 100% incomprehensible Khmenglish (a little known dialect of Cambodian interspersed with pidgin English).

When we arrived in Phnom Penh there was absolute insanity at the bus station with dozens of rabid tuk-tuk drivers screaming to take you to the hole in the wall guesthouse where they get the biggest commission. These guys were so in your face it was almost overwhelming but we picked a relatively mellow guy who did take us to our hotel, The Bougainvillier, but not until after his repeated attempt to convince us that our place was very expensive and we should check out his place first. Shades of our taxi driver in Hanoi "Lilton vey, vey spensive!"

The Bougainvillier ended up being a very nice hotel with a friendly staff right on the Sisowath Quay waterfront including a fancy French restaurant out front.

Vendor skinning frogs at the market
We thought we would save that for another night and instead tried a Lonely Planet recommendation, the Khmer Borane Restaurant which was really good with interesting Khmer food like Pork in Caramel sauce, Beef Loklak with onions and tomatoes and a salad of pomello, dried coconut and ground chicken, all washed down with cold Angkor Beer.

We are having trouble figuring out this whole Indian wedding of Harjot and Darci thing. Phnom Penh isn't as easy a place to find out Indian flight info or get answers from AA about changing our return flight. We might have to wait until we get back to Bangkok to figure it all out.


Phnom Penh is a pretty crazy city with hints of both money and development, as well as plenty of crumbling shacks, trash and poverty, often right next door to one another.

National Museum in Phnom Penh
Traffic is another crazy thing here. Between bicycles, tuk-tuks, scooters (usually with at least three people, women often riding sideways), rickshaws, cars, farm equipment and the occasional giant tractor, it is difficult and harrowing to get around. They have their own bizarre rules of the road which westerners neither understand nor could ever abide by. For example, any lights that might exist are meant more as suggestions than laws. It is completely ok to transition temporarily to driving on the left side of the road into oncoming traffic in preparation for a left turn if it makes it easier. At intersections, especially roundabouts, there is some kind of hierarchy based on size and value versus maneuverability - a Lexus SUV (which we saw many of) beats a scooter. At night, the use of headlights is entirely optional. Most bizarrely, no one seems to get upset or have road rage. Pull this kind of stuff in Los Angeles and you are likely to be shot. 

New! Video of the crazy marketplace in Phnom Penh Phnom Penh Marketplace

My head was getting rather bushy so we went to get a haircut for me and a pedicure for Cindy, each a value for three bucks.

Mom and baby prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison camp in Phnom Penh
Amazingly enough, even here in Cambodia, the beauticians are all Vietnamese - they must have a global union or something. Actually they both did a great job so we tipped big - 33%!

We walked to the Royal Palace and saw the sights including the Silver Pagoda. The entire floor is covered with over 5,000 solid silver tiles weighing over a ton and the building also houses an Emerald Buddha, a solid gold 90 kg Buddha and a Baccarat Crystal Buddha - "It’s great to be the King!"

We tried a travel agent to find out about flights to India and/or Myanmar without much luck and went to the post office since I brilliantly took the keys from Villa Loti by accident and had to mail them back.

Skulls at the memorial at Choeung Ek "The Killing Fields"

We had lunch at another little Khmer restaurant and were entertained by a very smart and well spoken book boy/entrepreneur. These kids wander the streets trying to sell tourists travel books and books on the Khmer Rouge, probably illegally copied in China. They all have lines but this kid was nice and I did end up buying a book about Tuol Sleng or S21, the infamous torture prison in Phnom Penh that we feel obligated to visit tomorrow.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon on the Internet trying to figure out what to do about our travel plans to Burma or India (once again to no avail). Guess we will figure it out in Bangkok.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial

We had dinner at Bougainvillier since it was pouring out with an expensive and not so great bottle of French wine. Kind of a funny place that seemed very unorganized (they ran out of menus so we sat there waiting for 15 minutes) with the French Chef coming out to chat and smoke with the other French patrons. Eventually we got our food which was pretty good and they did comp us an aperitif of Armagnac which was nice.

As an epilogue to dinner, Cindy is now proud that she has learned to wash her clothes in the hotel sink - as you can tell she is really toughing it!


Its tough to come to Phnom Penh and not visit Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, on the other hand, it is not a pleasant place to visit since they are the infamous prison and torture camp also known as S21 run by the Khmer Rouge and the execution site of all the S21 prisoners.

Our Tuk Tuk driver to Choeung Ek
Apparently of the roughly 20,000 people detained and tortured there, only seven survived. All told, it is estimated that between 1975 and 1979 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed between two and three million people, roughly one of every five Cambodians, through famine, overwork, disease and torture/execution. Unfortunately, this does not seem particularly uncommon amongst megalomaniacal, totalitarian, communist regimes.

Imagine a society with no family, no private property, no education, no currency, no food, no individuality, no religion nothing but farming and "the party". Imagine a society where to be accused as an "enemy" (which could be anything from being educated to being "bourgeois", to being a party member out of favor with the ultra paranoid leaders) automatically means you are guilty. The penalty for this starts with a stay at Tuol Sleng with ankle shackles, degradation, torture, severe malnutrition and forced written confessions to imaginary crimes.

Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh
It ends with a 15 km trip to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek with a hopefully merciful blow to the back of the head with an ox cart handle and burial in a mass grave.

Sounds like some Orwellian or Kafka-esque horror vision but it's not. It happened right here less than thirty years ago and to date nobody has been held responsible.

Here area couple quotes from the leaders of "Democratic Kampuchea".

"We must rid each Party member, each cadre of everything that is of the oppressor class, of private property, stance, view, sentiment, custom, culture which exists in ourselves, no matter how much or how little."


"It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.

Baby girl in Phnom Penh

This would appear to be the antithesis of democratic law. These poor people were guilty because they had been arrested rather than being arrested because they were guilty.

Tuol Sleng was originally a high-school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison. The somber and surreal tour starts with a nondescript building that was reserved for "special prisoners" such as political enemies or party members who came under suspicion as the leaderships paranoia increased towards the end. In each cell is a metal cot, the ankle shackles used to immobilize the prisoner, a metal box which served as a toilet and one disturbingly powerful poster sized black and white photo, usually of an executed prisoner in a pool of blood still shackled to the bed.

The next building had wall after wall of black and white face shots of the prisoners, literally thousands of men women and way to many children staring despondently and hauntingly into the lens.

Royal Palace roof in Phnom Penh
For whatever reason, the Khmer Rouge verged on being pedantic about documenting and photographing their atrocities. Most of the pictures were "mug" shots but every so often a set of disturbing pre and post-mortem shots were displayed, the limited frequency of these making them much more compelling.

Scattered around another room were various heinous torture devices as well as paintings by one of the survivors depicting scenes of pain and torture. Another building showed classrooms hastily converted into brick or wooden cells, about two feet wide and six feet long, all very horrifying.

There was an interesting hour long movie at the end that bizarrely had the painter/survivor mentioned above talking and walking with his arm around one of the former guards (Buddhism believes in forgiveness but c'mon). At one point the guard proudly states that he “only killed five people at Choeung Ek, usually I just documented their deaths”, all the while smiling.

Choeung Ek Memorial at the Killing Fields

Somewhat numb, we hopped in our tuk-tuk and bounced our way down the insane roads to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. This was the end of the line for most S21 prisoners and was turned into a memorial to commemorate their lives and the destruction of them by the Khmer Rouge. A large Stupa, the center of which houses thousands of skulls and bones unearthed from several of the mass graves rising up several floors has been erected at the entrance.

The rest of the site is marked by barren pits that are the previously disinterred graves, all incongruously set against beautiful scenery of brilliant green rice paddies and rivers. It is hard to imagine how such an innocuous place could turn so evil.

We ended up having dinner at Khmer Bhorane again and finally decided to try going to Sihanoukville (beach in Southern Cambodia) tomorrow, despite of the weather.

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Hotel Bougainvillier Room
Hotel Bougainvillier Room
Crabs and Fish at the market behin…
Crabs and Fish at the market behi…
Vendor skinning frogs at the market
Vendor skinning frogs at the market
National Museum in Phnom Penh
National Museum in Phnom Penh
Mom and baby prisoners at Tuol Sle…
Mom and baby prisoners at Tuol Sl…
Skulls at the memorial at Choeung …
Skulls at the memorial at Choeung…
Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial
Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial
Our Tuk Tuk driver to Choeung Ek
Our Tuk Tuk driver to Choeung Ek
Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh
Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh
Baby girl in Phnom Penh
Baby girl in Phnom Penh
Royal Palace roof in Phnom Penh
Royal Palace roof in Phnom Penh
Choeung Ek Memorial at the Killing…
Choeung Ek Memorial at the Killin…
Phnom Penh Hotels & Accommodations review
Hotel Bougainvillier The Hotel Bougainvillier in Phnom Penh is a nice, small, upscale hotel right on Sisowath Quay on the waterfront with large, very… read entire review
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk