Persevering in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s Busy Capital City, Can Be a Traveler’s Challenge

By Arin Pereira

Street scene in Phnom Penh.
Street scene in Phnom Penh.

The cyclo driver smiled hard as he slipped a note into my hand. Painfully scratched onto a dirty scrap of paper, its misspelled English words formed a recycled request for $50.

This would be used to buy his own cyclo, he explained, instead of renting one. He could have his own business. But I was not sure what to do. It was my first day in Cambodia and the ride through the city had thrown me off.

Hard Recent History

Today the city reels, caught between the indelible torments of recent history and modern pressures of competition in the burgeoning Southeast Asian marketplace.

It is hard to find your balance in Phnom Penh. Once known as the colonial “Pearl of Indochina,” Cambodia’s capital was famed for its graceful architecture, fine cuisine, and easygoing pace of life.

Phnom Penh’s Khmer Rouge Legacy

Only 25 years ago, the city was forcefully evacuated by the Khmer Rouge, who for four merciless years, systematically destroyed Cambodia’s culture, commerce, and civil society –- some would say spirit -– and killed at least a million people in the process.

The Phnom Penhois were targeted in particular, as educated elites, and the city was devastated. It is only slowly being rebuilt. The government has welcomed foreign investment, but recurring political instability and corruption have discouraged it.

Nevertheless, many of the city’s crumbling colonial villas, long commandeered by intrepid vegetation, are being restored by real estate speculators. And the growing expatriate community has helped reinvigorate the once-lively outdoor café scene, which now thrives again along the Tonlé Sap riverbank on the tree-lined Sisowath Quay.

Happy Toppings

Along the Quay, I spotted Italian, Turkish, American, Chinese, and Indian restaurants, a Mexican fast food joint, and pizza parlors offering “happy” marijuana toppings. Amid these, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club rises three floors to a continental restaurant and bar. Lounging in a deep, dark wood chair on the FCC’s wrap-around verandah, the damp heat whirring above my head, I felt the thrill of the dangerous years imbedded in its ochre walls.

Cambodia has entered a new era of peace and stability, but the population lacks health services, education, and productive skills and the country lacks basic infrastructure. Even in the capital, electricity is unreliable, telephones are expensive, most roads are unpaved, and public transportation is virtually non-existent.

Taxis are hard to come by, and although the number of cars is increasing rapidly, there are still far more two-wheeled vehicles choking the roads. In Phnom Penh, the fastest way to get around is by informal moto (motorbike) taxi, but a cyclo ride offers more opportunity to savor the sights and sounds of this strange, haunting city.

On that first day, my cyclo driver had not been able to read a map and we had no common language, so I let him take me on his own tour of the city.

Circling Wat Phnom

After circling Wat Phnom, the city’s only hill, topped with a good-luck shrine and teeming with street life, we headed to Psar Thmei, the mustard-yellow, art deco mosque-like central market where you can buy fresh produce, glittering jewelry (much of it fake), ersatz designer items, and textiles, including the ubiquitous Khmer checked krama.

Leaving the blur and bustle of the market, we followed a group of saffron-robed monks wafting down noisy Norodom Boulevard.

Landmine Victims


These are common apparitions in Phnom Penh, but not as common as landmine victims. Cambodia has one of the highest proportions of amputees in the world. Although the Khmer Rouge have been the worst offenders, landmines were indiscriminately planted by all factions participating in the recent civil wars, including the Sihanoukists.

We stopped in front of the iconic Royal Palace, which is closed to the public, then tried the Silver Pagoda, which was closed that day.

I had more luck at the nearby National Museum, a traditional, winged terracotta building full of Khmer Hindu and Buddhist sculpture and other relics from the long-gone once-powerful Angkor empire. From the apex of Cambodian history, we descended swiftly to the nadir.

After the museum, I didn’t realize until we arrived that we had headed straight for Toul Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge S21 interrogation center. On a dirt road in a prosperous neighborhood, Toul Sleng looks from a distance like a school it originally was.

A cyclist greeted warmly by young Cambodian children.
A cyclist greeted warmly by young Cambodian children.

Inside Toul Sleng

Flowers bloom in the courtyard and I saw a teenager kicking a soccer ball around. As we got closer, the barbed wire fencing struck me as odd, but I still didn’t know where we were. It all looked so ordinary.

Inside was a different matter. I had not intended to go to Toul Sleng, but as we were there, and I appeared to be the only visitor so far that day, I went in.

When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, banishing the Khmer Rouge to northwestern provinces (where they managed to maintain powerbases until the mid-1990s), troops found six prisoners left behind in Toul Sleng, shackled to wire bed frames, two still alive. Photographs were taken which now adorn the walls of each torture chamber.

More than 20,000 men, women, and children perished at Toul Sleng. In orderly, Nazi-like fashion, the Khmer Rouge recorded “confessions” and photographed their victims, sometimes before and after. Some of these “portraits” line one large room.

Another displays a series of naïve paintings depicting various, primitive methods of torture and the instruments used by the Khmer Rouge. As I left the building, the atmosphere constricted with sadness; it was eerily palpable, only heightened by the mundanity of the setting.

I mimed the cyclo driver to take me away fast. Each year, increasing numbers of tourists are visiting Cambodia.

One of Phnom Penh’s biggest draws is sex tourism, including child prostitution, which has proliferated and contributed to one of the worst AIDS epidemics in Asia. The government vowed to curb the industry with “No sex with children, no sex industry” signs posted in hotels, nightclubs, and guesthouses and plans to expel foreign sex-crime suspects.

Like its other ministries, however, the Cambodian Ministry of tourism lacks the funds and expertise needed to take charge of its own industry. Most visitors skip Phnom Penh altogether, lured by the great 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat and surrounding temple ruins, located near the town of Siem Reap.

A ray of light comes into a former classroom that was turned into a prison cell at S-21 in Cambodia.

Many come through Thailand. Bangkok Air now has direct flights to Siem Reap and Thai travel agents perversely promote one-day excursions to Angkor as part of an “Amazing Thailand” campaign. Thailand and Cambodia have battled for centuries over control of Angkor; tourism may provide new impetus.

But the Thais are not the only ones poised to profit from Cambodia’s undeveloped potential. Ariston, a Malaysian resort company that already owns one casino in Phnom Penh, with more to come.

I never did see the rickshaw driver again. If I had, I would have given him the $50. It might have helped him start his own business; rental fees eat away at profits. And, at least the money would have gone to a Cambodian.



Fly to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City–still called “Saigon” by Vietnamese residents–on Vietnam Air. The trip takes less than one hour and costs about $90. There were no taxis waiting at Pochentong Airport, which is a rather forbidding place; I was lucky enough to be offered a ride into town by a local businessman.

To enter the country, U.S. citizens need a visa, which costs $20 and can be obtained from the Cambodian Embassy or consulate, or upon arrival.


Hotel Le Royal
Monivong Boulevard and Ph92
Tel 98-1-8888
Fax 98-1-1168

Featured in the film The Killing Fields as the last refuge for foreign journalists before the Khmer Rouge forced everyone into the French Embassy, The Le Royal is a gorgeous colonial building, recently restored by the Raffles Group, with a fascinating history and luxurious accommodations. The famous Elephant Bar is located in the hotel. Room rate: about $150/night for a single.

To get around Phnom Penh, hop on the back of a moto. Most trips cost less than $1. Cyclos are harder to come by, but more interesting. The cost of a cyclo ride is negotiable and can be up to $10 for two hours.


The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia
Sisowath Quay
Tel: 72-4014
Fax 42-7758
Two guestrooms in addition to its bar and restaurant, which serves good continental fare.The Silver Pagoda at the Royal Palace is open 8-11 and 2-5 daily, and entry costs $2.

The sandy beach in Kep, 18 km from Kampot, Cambodia. Monica Gray photos.
The sandy beach in Kep, 18 km from Kampot, Cambodia. Monica Gray photos.


The National Museum, located just north of the Royal Palace, was set up in 1920 and managed by the French until 1966 when its first Cambodian director was appointed. The museum was closed and fell into disrepair during the Khmer Rouge period when many objects were damaged or stolen. It is still under restoration. Open 8-11:30 and 2-5:30 Tuesday to Sunday. $2 to enter.

Psar Thmei is open daily from early morning until late evening. It is the cleanest of the six markets in Phnom Penh, but the Psar Tuol Tom Pong, Ph 440 and Ph 163,–known as the Russian market–is more interesting.

Cramped and dark, it is a mysterious maze of small stalls selling everything from antiques (mostly fake) and jewelry, to books, textiles, hardware, food, and produce, including fresh cannabis. Toul Sleng (ph 113 and Ph 350) is open daily except Monday from 7-11:30 and 2-5:30. $2 entry.

To get to Angkor Wat from Phnom Penh, you can go by express boat up the Tonle Sap, which takes about five hours and costs $25; or take a bus or taxi. Air Cambodge offers many daily flights at different times of the day.

These cost about $100 roundtrip. Or you can fly to Bangkok then take Bangkok Air to Siem Reap for about $150 roundtrip, and the cost of a new visa upon arrival.

Phnom Penh Post daily newspaper site

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