Phnom Penh: Not Exactly My Favorite

The bus ride across the border into Cambodia was easy and pretty fast. The bus took us straight to the center of Phnom Penh, where we got a tuk tuk to our hostel. While it may not be nearly as interesting to anyone else, I’ve been having a great time seeing all the tuk tuk variants that each country uses. And Cambodia’s are definitely a bit different. Unlike the three wheeled cars of Thailand, or the “side tuk” of Vietnam, in Cambodia they use “fifth wheel” type trailer pulled behind none other than a 125cc scooter. Even more astounding is there use of scooters to haul “busses” which are similar to the tuk trucks but frequently carry around 12+ people!!! (Seen above it is literally the only photo I took while in Phnom Penh). Cambodia has truly taught me the power of these little machines in many ways. I love the small differences you find between countries which are so similar in many ways but definitely individuals. As they say in Thailand. “Same Same, but different “.

Anyways, we got to our hostel and took the day walking around the city to see some of the main sights. Namely the waterfront, which is the hub of tourist activity, and the Royal Palace. And I’ve got to say, while it is interesting, Cambodias got nothing on the Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok. Apart from that my first impressions of Phnom Penh (PP) weren’t spectacular. On the bus and border crossing we talked to an older American guy who had lived in PP about 10 years ago and had travelled back a few times since then. He told us about the remarkably rapid growth in the capital city in that time, and how it recently blossomed from the small riverside village he knew when he lived there. All that rapid growth has lead to a big city that doesn’t really know what to do with itself, full of traffic, less desirable types, and a truly overstressed sewer system. STANKY! On a tuk tuk ride headed out of the city to see the killing fields (more on that later), we saw massive developments going up. Unfortunately however, these are all luxury apartment housing and massive shopping malls built to service the ultra wealth and the large influx of Chinese “entrepreneurs” into the country. These complexes seem vastly out of place when contrasted with the shanty huts that are also scattered around the outskirts of PP. It’s just sad to see so much development and growth that is very clearly not going toward helping the Cambodian people most of whom, if well-off, make about $110 / month.

Furthermore, that first night, Athena and I went out to experience the PP nightlife that we’d heard a lot about. Huge sections of the city are street after street lined with bars, but some of the things we saw definitely weren’t our ideal vibes. Many of the streets sport “hostess bars”, which are glorified brothels emanating a particularly sleazy vibe. Even worse was when we were walking down a street and we saw a tuk tuk pull up to a bar and an old man who must have been at least 65-70 got out holding hands with a girl who couldn’t have been more than 10 walking towards a bar. Suddenly I became significantly more aware of all the single older men travelers I had seen, some of whom had been taking naps during the day to be able to go out at night and my stomach turned. I hope I’m just a judgmental individual, but it is VERY clear that sex tourism is very much alive in PP. Of all of the the places we’ve travelled in South East Asia, this was the first place that I didn’t feel completely safe, and was very conscious of where my wallet was at all times.

After that rather unpleasant experience Athena and I headed back to our room calling it a night and getting ready for our depressing day tomorrow. The next day we visited Tuol Sleng War Museum and Choeung Ek otherwise known as the killing fields. These two sights, which explain in depth the horrors experience in Cambodia during Cambodian Genocide from 1975-1979, are overwhelmingly heart wrenching. While I can tell you what we learned was disturbing, educational,  and depressing, they deserve their own story.

After our two night “layover” in Phnom Penh, both Athena and I were quite ready get out of the city and head south to spend New Years on the Island of Ko Rong Samloem with Janine, our Kiwi friend from Dalat.

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