From Kep we got a driver to take us to Phnom Penh as it was only marginally more expensive than getting a bus for the four of us. We had to pay a little bit extra as it was Chinese New Year – which isn’t actually an official holiday in Cambodia, but as a lot of the population are of Chinese descent it’s celebrated.
Phnom Penh seems to be a city on the up, there are fancy shiny new shopping malls selling designer goods and many high end restaurants and boutique hotels springing up. We only had a couple of days to look around and here’s what we got up to:
Visiting the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
The Royal Palace was constructed in 1860 and has been home to the Kings of Cambodia since then apart from during the Khmer Rouge rule. It’s a series of beautiful buildings, all furnished in gold and extremely elaborate.
The kids really enjoyed looking around here, particularly at the royal costume room, the gold on everything and the emerald buddha in the Silver Pagoda, which was in a room with thousands of other buddha statues large and small.
Handy hint if you’re visiting – the palace opens at 8am – 11am and then it closes for a 3 hour lunchbreak before reopening at 2pm! So you might want to time your visit around that.
S21 prison / Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Mike and I took turns and visited separately to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or S21 prison as it’s more commonly known. This was definitely not a place for the kids. S21 was originally a high school that was converted to a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s. It’s now been converted to a museum that tells the story of some of the worst torture and atrocities that took place there. You wander through the prison with an excellent audioguide that explains what happened and tells the story of how 1 in 4 Cambodians were killed during the 3 and a half year rule by the Khmer Rouge. It’s truly horrific and very graphic, and there are haunting photos in room after room of just a fraction of some of those who were imprisoned there.
It also tells the story of what life was like under the Khmer Rouge, when the cities were emptied and the entire population was banished out to the countryside under Pol Pot’s vision to grow rice, work in incredibly harsh conditions on the land on hardly any food and live an agrarian lifestyle to try and reset the clock back to year zero in Cambodia.
It reminded us a lot of when we went to Auschwitz in that everything was fastidiously databased and catalogued by the Khmer Rouge, so you see the mug shot photos, clothing that they wore when they were arrived before they were stripped of it and just subjected to the most degrading and cruel treatment you could subject a human being to. Just so sad and unthinkable.
As horrendous as it was, we’re glad we visited as it gave important background to the modern day Cambodia. It made me look at older Cambodians in a different light as you think what on earth did you live through and what horrific scenes have you witnessed in your life.
There are no photos from here as you’re not supposed to take them plus we didn’t feel it was appropriate to take them out of respect of what took place here. Sadly some other stupid tourists didn’t feel the same way 🙁
Siem Reap (the bits minus the Angkor temples)
After Phnom Penh it was back to Siem Reap one last time before our flight back to KL. We’ve really enjoyed Siem Reap, it’s a buzzing little town, very touristy, but very easy to wander around and enjoy. It was particularly noticeable the second time around as it’s Chinese New Year so there were tonnes of expats visiting and a lot of families which we hadn’t experienced the first time around, it was just us! Here’s some of the other things we got up to in Siem Reap:
Wandering Pub Street
A couple of nights we ventured into Pub Street, which is the main tourist restaurant and bar strip. We were early because we had the kids with us, but I suspect it gets pretty messy and manic later on with 50c beers and mobile cocktail bars. We enjoyed watching the different street vendors – insect sellers, fruit shake makers and our favourite pancake stand, but by 8pm we were out of there! The pancakes are really interesting and made from what looks like a small dough.
Wat Preah Prom Rath Buddhist Pagoda
There is a beautiful Buddhist pagoda and complex close to where we were staying, and we enjoyed wandering through the peaceful gardens and admiring the animal statues on our way into town.
Phare the Cambodian Circus
While in Siem Reap we also visited the circus! Phare is a combination of physical theatre and storytelling under a big top tent. It’s also very cool because all of the staff and performers are Cambodian youth from difficult social and economic backgrounds.
The shows alternate and ours was a very funny tale about a bunch of school kids and their fear of ghosts which Sophie was a little bit scared by to start with, but once she knew it wasn’t real she absolutely loved it. I have never seen her laugh so much. The music was VERY loud and Jack (who is a bit noise sensitive anyway) sat with his hands over his ears through a lot of it. But he said he still enjoyed it and was talking about it on the ride home.
The performers are exceptionally talented and feature contortionists, juggling, acrobatics all under a big top. It was fantastic and we highly recommend it.
So Cambodia that’s a wrap! We absolutely loved our time here and were sad to leave. We gathered lots of useful hints and tips along the way as we went, so we’ll write them up for anyone else who’s thinking of travelling here 🙂