Backpackers often skip Phnom Penh, or else stay for a night on the way to somewhere else. We decided to give it a few days to get a feel for the city. I had hoped to be writing a blog telling everyone how wrong that they are to skip Phnom Penh, but sadly for me it fell short.
Our first night out started quite well. Pushing our awful guest house (complete with signs of previous forced entry to our room) out of our minds we went wandering. Along the riverside we came across a man who seemed to be giving free dance lessons to Gangnam Style. People had stopped their scooters in the middle of the main road to watch and everyone from young children to an emaciated paint huffer seemed to be enjoying themselves, joining in on the dancing.
The poverty is very apparent and as we walked home we noticed stall holders bedding down for the night in their stalls on the side of the road. It also became very noticeable that most people in bars were middle aged western men and scantily clad Cambodian women. That’s not a huge shock, Cambodia is widely known to have sex tourism. I guess I just hadn’t expected it to be so overt and it bothered me to see solicitation at one table and small children at the next.
We decided that we wanted to visit the Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum. I usually get very bored very quickly in museums, but was absorbed for hours in the photographs of victims and stories of Khmer Rouge. Both the Killing Fields Museum and S-21 handle the subject matter in a very tasteful, matter of fact kind of way. The aim here seems to be to educate rather than to shock into an emotional reaction – an approach that I really agree with.
That’s not to say that none of it was shocking. At one point in the Killing Fields we looked down and realised that there was a human bone sticking out of the path we were walking on. Whilst they have done their best to exhume the mass graves, every time it rains more bones, teeth and clothing are exposed.
We hired a driver/tour guide for the day who told us that he had been 8 when the Khmer Rouge drove his family out of Phnom Penh. When we asked his year of birth he first said 1975 and quickly corrected to 1965. Whatever the case, we hadn’t hired him because of his past so we ignored the alarm bell even though he didn’t look old enough to have been born in 1965.
Throughout the day, between friendly conversation he casually mentioned several times that because he now has no family, foreigners are his family and sometimes his family give him charity. He also repeatedly tried to sell us into other trips and started trying to tour other people at the same time in hope of a tip. The icing on the cake came shortly after he told us that he had no money for an oil change of his bike. We came out of a stop sooner than he expected and he was nowhere to be found. After some directions from a shop keep who saw him leave, we found him gambling on the side of the street! When we got back to the guest house we quickly paid and hightailed it out of there.
We showed ourselves around the city, ate really good food for really cheap and drank our fair share of 50c beers. Coming home late one night we found our guest house staff sleeping on the footpath beneath huge mosquitoe nets. No wonder they were so surly!
I have to say that there were a few occasions where we had 1-2-1 conversations with locals and were rewarded, but overall we just didn’t really like Phnom Penh unfortunately. Oh well! Onward to Vietnam!