Originally written in November 2010 as part of our Southeast Asian adventure
After 36 hours of travel to get to Cambodia, we really did not know what we were going to find once we got to the capital’s centre. We were left by the Capitol, a hostel right beside the main market and, as we were collecting our rucksacks, what looked like 8000 tuk tuk drivers appeared out of nowhere. All of them looking to take us to an amazing hostel, no doubt. Luckily, we had already made a reservation.
The first impression I had of Pnom penh was that it was enormous. It was not as heavily populated as other places we had been to (Bangkok, Manila, Saigon), but there were people everywhere all the same. You could also see the French influence in its layout and its big avenues.Pnom penh is an expensive place when compared to Vietnam or the Philippines. In fact, for a backpacker is extreme expensive. All is quoted in USD (the riehl is not strong at all) and so everything is at least $1.00. Food was of course more expensive. It sounds ludicrous in hindsight and it was only 2 days, but we felt the comparison.
The city is known internationally as the capital of the old Kampuchea, which was presided by Pol Pot. During his time, he and his government managed to destroy the country, its industry… They basically took the country to the state of disaster. The population entered a period of continued poverty, misery and slavery. The whole land was used as rice fields, laboured by the Cambodians. More than half of the population died, either due to malnutrition, misery (and mystery) or suicide… Those were very dark times . If you are not sure about that period of time, I thoroughly encourage further research – you can easily find facts in Wikipedia
What’s true today is that Pnom penh is a young and I (dare say) vibrant city. The first day we had dinner in a pretty modern place that anyone could find in London or New York. What’s also true is that after dinner and having just turned the corner we saw kids selling books on the streets.
And, see, that’s the real Pnom penh for me: a city full of contrasts, big streets, cars and modern bars with beggars nearby. I am very sorry to say that the impression I got is that the corruption levels must be extremely high too. It’s not that Cambodia is a rich country, but it is true the government is selling everything they have to make money. A clear example is the fact that they sold the management rights of the killing fields to a Japanese company.
We experienced a clear example of just how hard it must be to live there, with barely any money, courtesy of Kok, tuk tuk driver for the hostel we stayed in and who was roughly our age. We had been to the killing fields and we were getting a lift back. It was obvious that he was running out of petrol, so he pulled over by the station, to fill up. As we stopped, I saw him get the money out (USD) and I saw a kid pick the money and use the hose for a whole 2 seconds. My initial thought was that he was being “done” and then I realised that he had physically out just $3.00 worth. As I realised what was happening, I chose not to say anything and make it up to him on the fare by adding those $3.00 and a bit more. It was at this moment that he realised, quietly nodded his head in thank you and said nothing… I think he thought to be quiet was best to spare his embarrassment, I thought the same for my own part. My heart was broken
In Pnom penh we also visited s21 (jail for political prisoners during Pol Pot’s time), the grand palace, vat pnonh, the river walk, the national museum of Cambodia and little else. The city is more about the attitude that it exudes – despite the inequality, there are some truly great initiatives. A clear example is some of their restaurants (such as friends), where they employ street kids on all levels to provide them training and a living. It was a fantastic experience and extremely gratifying.
Before soon it was time to move on from the capital to explore the rest of the country, particularly a place called Angkor…. Wait, what???