Anywhere you read about Phnom Penh, it is described as a dangerous city. Scams, aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, bag snatching and bag razor attacks. The list is long. Not including the spoilt kids from wealthy families who have body guards carrying weapons with them. Yeah, scary stuff. However, I didn’t actually find anything like this. It looks like a nice city. A bit too hot and humid, but people are generally friendly and tuk-tuk drivers are not too much pushy, just your usual South East Asian tuk-tuk driver. Of course you have to bargain hard, but that’s how it is in Asia in general anyway, so no big surprises here.
A tuk-tuk is a motorbike which has a sort of carriage attached to it so you can jump on it with your luggage and be taken to different places on a pleasant drive (if you think driving in South Asia is pleasant anyway). They are not really called tuk-tuk originally here, but remorks. I believe they started using tuk-tuk as that’s what they use in Thailand and there it became really popular.
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and it’s a big city which attracts many tourists and people from different places in Cambodia. It’s also famous because it was the political centre of the infamous Khmer Rouge, whose leader, Pol Pot, killed a quarter of the population between 1975 and 1979. You can actually visit the prison S-21 and the killing fields where these killings took place.
To say that these places are creepy is not an accurate description. Just reading the notes on each of these places makes you want to be sick.
You can read more about the Khmer Rouge in wikipedia, but just to summarise it, Pol Pot carried an extermination of those who were against his regime, those who were educated and those who were denounced by the most minor offense.
The S-21, formerly a school which was converted into a prison, was where prisioners would be taken for interrogation. There people would be tortured and kept there without knowing what was going on. Their fate would invariably finish in the killing fields, an old Chinese grave that was used for exterminating the Khmer people.
I’m not going to talk much about this, if you feel like you want to know more, head to google or read books like The Cambodian Curse (I haven’t actually read the book. It’s been recommended by a friend and I don’t know if I can stomach this kind of book). Visiting this place while you listen to the audio guide is a truly depressing experience, albeit necessary.
Moving to other (nicer) subjects, there are nice things to see in Phnom Penh. The most interesting ones are possibly the Royal Palace and the Golden Pagoda, where you get to see a bit of Khmer architecture with its temples. It’s actually nice to walk around these places as you get to see lots of monks dressed in their traditional orange gowns. Just as you’d expect from your typical travel shots.
Cambodians are nice people. They are always smiling and they are always trying to start a conversation. They seem a very friendly group of people, even more than the Vietnamese. And their English is pretty good, much better than the Vietnamese, I have to say. I have been truly impressed by the command of the English language by the average Cambodian. One of the highlights in Phnom Penh are the shooting ranges. Or at least they seem to be very popular among tourists, where you can get to shoot all sorts of weapons. Due to the lack of tight control, what would be very difficult in any western country, is very easy here. Shooting an AK-47 is not something you get to do everyday, so if you fancy doing these things, Cambodia is your place. You can shoot from pistols to AK-47s and even bazookas depending on how much money you want to spend and how big your balls are. Rumour has it that you can also pay to have chickens as targets, alive. I was not able to confirm these though.
We visited one of these places as Robin, a Dutch guy I met in Cambodia, is basically in love with shooting weapons.
Overall I enjoyed my stay in Phnom Penh, despite of all the bad fame it had. In the end it’s not that bad ;-). It reminded me of what a friend I met in Siem Reap told me: ‘I had this idea about Cambodia that I was going to find children carrying AK-47. I was quite shocked and surprised to find out that that was not the case’