Thursday, 16 July 2015

Phnom Penh

After spending a week in Thailand with our partners over there, it was time for my holiday! I was a little apprehensive about spending a week alone in Cambodia, but excited at the same time.

When I was planning my trip, I couldn't decide whether to use the second week to see more of Thailand, or whether to head over to Cambodia. I decided on the latter option mainly because I'm a history geek, but also because it's easier to cover Cambodia in a short period of time. There are obviously bits I want to go back and explore further, but I've done most of the things that were top of my list, whereas I'll need a little longer in Thailand.

Because I had such a short amount of time to spare, I planned every day as much as possible before I left. On my return to Bangkok, I explored the Grand Palace before heading to Dong Muang airport for my Air Asia flight to Phnom Penh at 3.20pm.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was a big fan of Dong Muang airport. It's small, easy to navigate, but has some great options for food and drink that won't break the bank. It's where all Air Asia flights fly from, as well as most domestic flights, and I got there early enough to spend some time watching the planes before I departed. For some reason (as I'm terrified of flying), this always help reassure me before a flight.

The journey from Bangkok to Phnom Penh took just over an hour, and I have a lot of great things to say about Air Asia. I plan to do a separate post on them later (I'm aware my trip has already taken me a few months to blog, but in my defence I didn't have a laptop for a while...) but I'd highly recommend flying with them.

On arrival into Phnom Penh airport, I headed to immigration to apply for my visa. It's an incredibly simple process - $30 and a passport picture gains you access to the country. I also had to fill in a quarantine form on arrival, which I found fairly pointless. Surely I could just lie if I had any medical issues?

I had a few dollars with me just in case I got stuck in the airport, but made sure to take some more out before heading into the city, as the last thing I wanted was to be caught short. The main currency in Cambodia is the US dollar, and they only accept relatively recent notes. They will charge you in USD, but don't be surprised to receive change back in Riel, the local currency. You can't buy much with this, other than water and snacks, but it's always good to have some handy. You can also use it to pay tuk-tuk drivers.

Whilst the tuk-tuk is the way to get around in Cambodia (unlike Thailand where it's mainly used as an attraction for tourists), I wanted to gain confidence first, and to gain my bearings, so I used a metered taxi to find my hostel. The taxi rank is signposted, and there are airport staff there to help tell the driver where to go. I found English to be spoken to a much better standard in Cambodia than in Thailand, so fortunately I didn't have to struggle for words. My friend Chris lived there for a year, so I'd got some key phrases from him before I left, but I'm ashamed to say I didn't say anything more than please and thank you the whole time I was there. English is widely spoken, and the Khmer language is much more tricky to say than Thai!


Deciding where to stay was one of my biggest problems in Phnom Penh. I'm not a big party-goer, especially when travelling alone (I prefer not to drink when this is the case) so I decided not to stay on the riverfront. This is where most of the cheap hostels are, but I thought I wouldn't see much of the culture there, and it's less safe as it's obviously a magnet for tourists. Similarly, as I was travelling alone for the first time, I still wanted to meet people and didn't want to be in the middle of nowhere.

After going backwards and forwards a few times with suggestions from Chris (who lived in Phnom Penh), I decided on the Envoy Hostel. I trawled through the reviews on all the hostel websites, and this regularly had good ones, and the place looked clean and cheerful.

Envoy started as a hostel in Armenia, and has recently spread to Georgia and Cambodia. The staff are incredibly helpful and the building itself is stunningly modern and clean. For Phnom Penh, as I wanted to meet people preferably, I booked a dorm room for the only time during my entire trip. I chose a female 6 bed dorm, purely because I thought it might mean I met people that were on a similar wavelength to me, and the price was good at around $10/night. I was in Phnom Penh for two nights in total, but three full days as the third night was to be spent on an overnight bus to Siem Reap.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately for some) the hostel was very, very quiet while I was there. This meant that I had the entire dorm room to myself for the entire time I was there. It was great to get a big, essentially private, room to myself, but didn't exactly help with the meeting people part! The hostel communal area was perhaps the only downside - there were some sofas in reception and a few tables in the kitchen area, but not really space where people could relax and meet each other. There was also a roof terrace, but as the hostel was so quiet, I never saw anyone else up there.

Envoy Hostel Dorm

I got chatting to a couple of girls in reception on the first night, but they were leaving. The only other people I saw whilst I was there was a mother and her young son, and a few groups of boys. I think had I been there longer, I'd have met more people as I was chatting to some others on my last day, but for two nights I wasn't too bothered to be alone; particularly as I'd just spent a frantic week meeting lots of different people. It was quite nice to relax, and I do enjoy my own company, but I'd perhaps have felt a bit more confident had I been with others.

The hostel is a bit out of the way, and it's still quite new so not many taxi/tuk-tuk drivers know it yet. Fortunately, all the streets in Phnom Penh are labelled numerically, so it didn't take them long to find it. On the first night, I was completely exhausted, so I stocked up on food from the supermarket just down the road, and used the (free!) Wi-Fi to catch up on the comings and goings of the world, and generally just to relax. I also managed to wash my clothes for the first time - the laundry service was super cheap (you pay by the kilo) and it was so nice to have some non-sweaty clothes for the first time in a week! I'm still unsure on the etiquette of giving hostels your underwear to wash, so I washed them in the shower just in case. Not quite the same, but it did the job haha!

The Killing Fields and S21

I'd planned to visit the Killing Fields and S21 museum the next day, as this was my main reason for visiting Phnom Penh. Everything else would be a bonus. It's really easy to book a tour of these, although I went through the hostel. Envoy have a great system where you can put your name down for a tour, and others can do the same so you can share the cost of a driver. Sadly, I just missed the first tuk-tuk which filled up before I went to reception, so I did end up on a tour alone as the hostel was so quiet. Fortunately I had budgeted for this, and it meant I could go at my own pace, but it would have been nice to share it with someone. In the busier periods, this is a great system, and something I'd recommend doing.

Chris had told me to do the museum first, before heading out the the Killing Fields, but most tours do it the other way around. I do agree with Chris' reasoning for this (the museum gives you the history so you can understand what you're seeing at the Killing Fields), but as I'm a history geek and had done some research anyway, it didn't make much difference to me.

Spirit House S21

I'm going to do a separate post about Tuol Sleng and Choeng Ek (the museum and Killing Fields) as this post is already long and I have a lot to say about it. It's absolutely incredible what the Khmer people have suffered in such recent history, and I felt incredibly emotional at the end of the day. I wanted time to reflect on what I'd seen, so headed back to the hostel rather than into town, and spent the rest of the evening there. There are some lovely restaurants within a short walk from the hostel, and I went to the Blue Pumpkin, a prolific cafe all around the main areas of Cambodia, which serves ice cream, cake, pizza and soft drinks. More than that, the decoration is white and minimalist, with amazing air conditioning, and it gives you a huge sense of calm and relief from the frenetic city outside.

The Royal Palace and Wat Phnom

The next morning, I checked out of the hostel after breakfast (they provide you with an egg, fruit and toast for free), but left my bag there as I was due to get the overnight bus to Siem Reap that night. I headed into town to visit everything else there is to see in Phnom Penh, with the main aims being the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom and the river. There were always tuk-tuks outside the hostel, with rides into town at a very reasonable price ($5 for about a 10 minute trip), but I had all day to kill. I looked at the map, and the Palace looked really close to the hostel (pretty much just down the road and no more than a 30 minute walk), so I decided just to saunter there instead. My plan was to walk there, visit the palace and the national museum; then to have lunch and get a tuk-tuk over to Wat Phnom. I then wanted a boat trip on the river and to grab some dinner before heading back to the hostel to get my bag and then my bus to Siem Reap.

That didn't happen, for the most part. I walked to the Palace, but had massively underestimated that kind of distance in the heat and humidity. It was really difficult to cross the road in some places, I was constantly hassled by tuk-tuk drivers, and by the time I arrived I was a sweaty, dehydrated mess.

I sat down for a few minutes and downed a bottle of water before heading inside, which certainly helped a little. The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda is much nicer to visit than the Grand Palace in Bangkok. When I was there, it was very quiet and it felt much less like I was being herded round like a sheep. The benefit of being alone was that I could casually lean places and listen in to the various tour groups without seeming obvious/paying for it. There were a few English and French guides around, so I milled from place to place so I could listen, before wandering around on my own. The buildings are absolutely stunning, and it's definitely worth a visit.

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

Silver Pagoda Phnom Penh

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

I spent a couple of hours here, then headed over to the National Museum, which is only a short walk down the road. By this time I was feeling really hot and bothered as I'd been outside all day, so was glad of the shade of the building in the museum. It was really interesting, and great to read more about the ancient history of Cambodia, rather than just its gruesome past, but at this point I needed food and air conditioning, so I left after around 45 minutes in search of lunch.

I'd had some great recommendations for restaurants from Chris before I left, and I'd seen on the map that the Laughing Fatman (yes, that's really its name) was close by on Street 172. Sadly, I hadn't really got a grasp of where I was on the map and, after half an hour of wandering around in circles, I ducked into the nearest Blue Pumpkin for some relief, as I was starting to feel ill at this point. The cold drink and air conditioning helped - I managed to locate myself on the map (I was too close to the river and needed to head away from it), and so decided to try again to find the restaurant. On the way, I passed another place Chris had told me about - Friends. This is both a restaurant and a shop; they train local people to cook and make crafts so they have a trade and a future, and the proceeds go to help this. The shop was really close, so I had to nip in and buy a few gifts.

National Museum Phnom Penh

National Museum Phnom Penh

I eventually found my way to the Laughing Fat Man, and it was worth all the hassle. I wasn't blown away by traditional Khmer food, so I treated myself to a veggie burger. The staff were lovely and the location was great; I was the only person in there, so didn't really get an atmosphere, but I can see that it would have had one if the town was busier. By this point, I'd also realised that I was close to giving myself heat stroke - I'd been on my feet in the hot sun since around 9am because I was too stubborn to get a tuk-tuk, and as a result felt sick and dizzy, and needed to stay out of the sun for a while. I stayed at the restaurant and read my book for a while, then decided to get a tuk-tuk across town to see Wat Phnom.

This is a really cool temple on top of a hill, close to the river and with gardens surrounding it. I climbed to the top and had a look around, then wandered around the gardens for a while. I still felt pretty ill by this point however, so I decided that, rather than wait in the sun to do a boat cruise at sunset, or to head to the busy Russian markets, I'd done most of the things I'd wanted to in Phnom Penh, and it was best to head back to the hostel to rest.

Wat Phnom

My bus to Siem Reap wasn't until much later that night. I'd booked the latest one so that I could sleep as much as possible. I also wanted to get to Siem Reap as late as possible so I didn't have to hang around before I checked into my guesthouse there. This meant that I had a bit of a wait before meeting my prearranged tuk-tuk into town, but it was probably a good thing as it meant I was out of the sun for the rest of the day. It also meant I could sort my foot out; I'd given myself a blister from walking in the heat, right on the bottom of my foot. This had developed into a cut throughout the day, and kept opening up as I was constantly on my feet. As you have to take your shoes off to enter a building pretty much everywhere in Cambodia, I decided that bleeding all over the floors wasn't particularly polite, so I bandaged it up tightly. Although it needed to air, this also kept it clean from the dust and grime of the city.

Bandaged foot

The hostel were very kind, and allowed me to hang around in reception until I headed into town around 10pm, ready for my bus to Siem Reap at 11pm. More on that in my next (epic!) post.

So what did I think of Phnom Penh? Honestly, although I liked it, I didn't really feel comfortable the entire time I was here. I've travelled before, and been to some pretty rough places, but there was something about Phnom Penh that I couldn't put my finger on. There's some pretty desperate poverty here, and tourists are easy game. I was never threatened while I was there, and was certainly never close to being, but I also didn't feel safe alone in the evenings. This stopped me doing some of the things I'd have liked to. This may have been just me being overly cautious (although I didn't feel like this in Bangkok or Siem Reap), but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

Having said that, I'd definitely visit again, this time with a friend so I could get out and explore some of the places I didn't this time around.

Top Tips

  • If travelling in a short period of time, PLAN your days so you get the most out of it
  • Take a whole day for S21 and the Killing Fields. It won't take all day, but it means you can do it at your own pace without rushing
  • Take a tuk-tuk. Even for just a 5 minute ride. You're providing income for somebody, and you won't make yourself ill.
  • You don't really need any more than 3-4 days here
  • Do a boat cruise on the Mekong. This is the one thing that I missed that I regret not doing.
  • Choose your accommodation carefully, depending on what you want out of your trip. I loved Envoy, but if you're alone in the quiet season, you probably want to stay somewhere a little more central
  • Try as many restaurants as you can. I missed out on Warong Bali, and I also didn't visit much on the riverfront. The Vegetarian is also supposed to be a great place to eat. 
  • The Blue Pumpkins are an absolute haven

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