Phnom Penh – Feeling at home in the Cambodian capital

In Cambodia

So many people had suggested Phnom Penh as being the best place for us to seek out work in the development sector (which for those of you who don’t know or don’t listen is the main purpose of this trip). But despite all the glowing recommendations for Phnom Penh, we were still leaning towards Bangkok as being the place for us. This all changed pretty quickly once we arrived.

FCC Phnom Penh
A great city for Expats – Drinks at the FCC

Because most tourists who come to Cambodia just fly in and out of Siem Reap to see the temples, they miss Phnom Penh all together. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. It’s obvious that Phnom Penh isn’t currently on the well worn tourist trail like many other places in SE Asia.

Cambodia really cheap alcohol
Cambodia has the cheapest drinks in Asia (perhaps the world)

Sure, there’s a few touristy places around town but nothing like you find in Siem Reap or Cambodia’s neighbours. Most of the foreigners in Phnom Penh are expats working and living here instead of just flying through and buying the t-shirt.

As the city caters to more of an expat community, instead of tourists and backpackers, the city has a very “liveable” feel to it. Things seem much more comfortable here. Phnom Penh is a laid back city, filled with big leafy trees, fruit and veggie markets and teaming with tuk tuks (which are Asia’s BEST tuk tuks in our opinions). Surprisingly there are also a lot of really great restaurants around town. They cater to the expat crowd so the quality of food is incredibly high yet the prices are still ridiculously cheap.

Cambodian National Museum
Cambodian National Museum

One day we had a craving for some meat and needed a good slab of steak or a couple of chops to quench our thirst. We’d heard of a place called Lone Star Saloon that did Mexican food and an array of American favourites- burgers, steaks, ribs etc. Reviews were mixed, some saying it was the greatest place on Earth, some saying that it was gross, dingy and filled with old drunks. Coming from Melbourne where “gross, dingy and full of old drunks” is almost a prerequisite for any hipster pub, we thought we’d give it a try. And. It. Was. Awesome! We went on a relatively quiet night only a few old American bar flies popped into to slam a beer, chat up the cheeky bar staff and munch on a pulled pork sandwich.

pork ribs cambodia
Slow smoked ribs, onion rings and slaw at the Lone Star Saloon

We had sticky smoky ribs that were slow roasted that very day in a Webber on the footpath out the front. Apparently they go through 10 kilos a day so they must be doing something right. I never thought I’d have some of the best ribs in my life at a place down an alleyway in Phnom Penh. Plus the drinks were super cold and super cheap and they had scrabble. Who could want more?

We visited the T21 Museum and the Killing Fields- not a particularly enjoyable day of activities but important none the less if you want to get a good grip on the history of this place and the things that happened not too long ago.

T21 was once a school that was converted to a prison and torture centre by the Khmer Rouge. Over 20,000 people were sent to T21 and only 7 escaped alive. The rest were tortured and killed there or sent on to the killing fields with hundreds of thousands of other innocent Cambodians. The museum itself is incredibly eerie. The buildings have hardly been touched and many of the torture rooms remain unchanged, with images on the wall of how they were found- rotting corpse included. On display are also hundreds of haunting ID photographs that were taken of each prisoner as they arrived at the prison. Prisoners ranged from newborn children and toddlers through to old men and women. For me this was particularly upsetting, knowing that these innocent people were so frightened and confused and had no idea what was to happen to them. Take tissues.

The Killing Fields, just outside of Phnom Penh, were used to house the mass graves of all those Cambodians who were slaughtered.  The way that this has been managed as a tourist site is particularly good. The entrance fee includes an audio tour which gives a detailed history of the area and the Khmer Rouge and allows visitors to take their time as they wonder around the fields. It’s pretty smart because it keeps the area quiet and respectful instead of a bunch of tour guides screeching at hordes of tourists as the thump around. There’s a monument/shrine filled with human skulls that were excavated from the graves. The view of all those skulls on top of one another really drives home the scale what went on. Apparently bones and clothing scraps continue to find their way up to the surface driving home the fact that all this horrible business went down not too long ago.

Inside the national museum
Inside the national museum

Phnom Penh is definitely growing. You can see buildings being constructed pretty much all over the city, providing for the cities growing business and tourist trade as this country gets back on it’s feet. We look forward to exploring a bit more of it over the next month and finding out the ins and outs of living long term in Asia. Stayed tuned!

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