Phnom Penh: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Cambodia’s Capital: Phnom Penh

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. A city dubbed ‘The Pearl of Asia’ during the days of French Indochina but also a place forcefully evacuated by the brutal and extreme madness of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 – 1979. Exploring both sides of this city is an emotional roller coaster but is essential to understanding Cambodia.

Phomn Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh: The Good

From the start, this laid back yet full of life city and its people charmed and captivated me. It was my first stop in Cambodia and I fell head over heels in love with the whole country!

In Phnom Penh I was pleasantly surprised at the low rise capital’s elegant streets, French colonial architecture and pleasant riverside setting. There are many delicious, stylish and inexpensive restaurants serving international cuisine that I hadn’t had for a long time along side the sumptuously creamy, coconuty, flavoursome and aromatic Khmer cuisine.

Phnom Penh's Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

phnom penh

Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

The jewel of this ‘Pearl of Asia’ is the extravagant Royal Palace which is not too dissimilar from Bangkok’s exquisite Royal Place. The Reamaker, the Khmer version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, runs in an intricate, golden freeze all around the walls of the courtyard.

The highlight is the Silver Pagoda which sits glittering in the serene courtyard surrounded by a collection of smaller temples, spirit houses, stupas, statues and sculpted trees.

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Inside the Silver Pagoda the floor is made from 5000 silver tiles and a life size golden standing Buddha encrusted with 9584 diamonds stands grandly in front of a platform upon which a 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha – the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia is seated up high surrounded by many more golden Buddhas in various poses vie for your attention. A spell binding sight! Rumour has it that the King hid these treasures by burying them in the jungle so that the Khmer Rouge could not destroy them.

The National Museum of Cambodia

Across the road from the ornate Royal Palace is the National Museum with it’s intricate red roof that delicately curves up towards the blue skies in classic Khmer style. The national museum with its serene courtyard of waterlily ponds surrounding a Buddha showcase art, statues, sculptures and relics of the fascinating and complex Khmer history, culture and religion.

National Museum Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia

Many ancient statues of different Hindu gods and Buddhas are displayed and the museum explains the belief systems, history and the journey from Hinduism to a Buddhism that still retains some Hindu and animist characteristics. The treasures in the museum hint at the colourful Khmer culture and give an introduction to the ancient and mighty Angkor empire and culture. Cambodia’s religion moved from Hindusim to Buddhism. Angkor Wat temple was actually built first as a Hindu temple and there are still some Indian aspects in the culture today

Asia’s Low Rise Charming Captial

Part of Phnom Penh’s charm is its low rise, undeveloped streets that still have a smattering of French colonial architecture. Phnom Penh feels charmingly quaint but this capital is making a comeback. Construction is already starting to happen and international business men eye up the opportunities while charities and NGOs are still a noticeable attendance. For now though, Phnom Penh retains its unique feel, untarnished by globalisation and modern global brands that threaten to suck the character out and create identikit cities.

The view from our hotel - Phnom Penh's low rise skyline is still dominated by temples
Phnom Penh’s low rise skyline is still dominated by temples

Phnom Penh: The Bad

There’s not that much that I found bad about Phnom Penh – I either loved it or felt thoroughly depressed!

Whilst Phnom Penh is making a comeback, scars still remain and for some Phnom Penh may feel a bit dusty and chaotic.  Cambodia is still a desperately poor country trying to rebuild itself after going to hell and back after decades of political upheaval, so of course you still have the usual element of chaos, street life, pot holed roads, dust and dirt that settles all over Asia but this is all part of the charm.

Streets of Phnom Penh
Streets of Phnom Penh

Nowadays Phnom Penh’s markets are once again bustling, the French art deco style Central Market (Phsar Thmei) built in 1937 is once again bustling with trade. The dusty streets fill with cyclos, motorbikes and increasingly modern SUVs, and French colonial buildings host stylish restaurants serving international cusines catching the cool riverside breeze and there is still a real air of optimism and hope for the future here.

Phnom Penh: The Ugly

Sadly a visit to Phnom Penh can be quite an experience of contrasts but I think that it’s important to understand everything that went on here, not just the good parts. Cambodia’s history ranges from being the center of the great empire that built the amazing Angkor Wat to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime – one of the darkest and upsetting I’ve ever heard about.

Skulls from the Killing Fields
Skulls from the Killing Fields

S21 Genocide Museum

S21 – Tuol Sleng Prison – In a normal Phnom Penh neighbourhood this dilapidated school eerily stands as a genocide museum, as a reminder of one of the most harsh, torturous prisons of the mad, blood thirsty and brutal Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia from 1975 – 1979.

The normal setting of this now chilling building makes it even spookier and harder to really imagine the true horror of the Khmer Rouge regime that pretty much tore the whole country apart, effecting everyone and killing a third of the population in such a brutal, mad regime.

The entrance to S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The entrance to S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Men, women and children were tortured by the Khmer Rouge at S21 and photos of the victims, terrified, confused faces stare out, haunt me from the black and white photographs lining the walls of the school which was turned into a Khmer Rouge prison.

20,000 men, women and children passed through S21 accused of being traitors to the Khmer Rouge regime. Moving along the photographs become more and more shocking and gruesome showing the tortures endured by prisoners and some of the tools used to inflict them.

Photos of the victims of S21
Photos of the victims of S21

Some of the shoddily built brick cells remain on the ground floor, the open verandas and corridors of the school covered with barbed wire and the school playground turned into gallows and instruments of torture. The horror continues upstairs as classrooms were made into dark, wooden cells. It feels so spooky and wrong that I don’t even want to step foot inside these haunted walls.

Downstairs the moronic rules are still displayed in the courtyard and metal beds, torture instruments and blood stains the floor the same as it was found when the Vietnamese liberated the prison in 1979 but now the corpses of the brutally murdered last prison victims are buried outside but inside the gruesome photos remain as evidence.

Inside S21
Inside S21

It makes it even more spooky that a place of learning could be turned into a place of torture. S21 was just one of 150 prisons that fed over 20,000 killing fields or mass graves for the systematic genocide and death of 1.3 million. Added to the number of people who died under the regime from starvation, work exhaustion or treatable illnesses and the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of nearly 2.5 million people in 3 years.

Essential (but upsetting) reading

Reading Loeung Ung’s ‘First they killed my father’ is a shocking, tragic and upsetting novel but brings a personal and human perspective to this dark part of Cambodian history and helped me to understand better.

About the Khmer Rouge Regime

The Khmer Rouge was a communist party led by Pol Pot that aimed to create a pure agrarian-based self sufficient communist society. A society of peasants and farmers. Their radical and extreme social reforms saw the cities of Cambodia evacuated including the capital Phnom Penh. Over 2 million people were forced to live in the countryside and work in agriculture, many in brutal work camps where they had no basic human rights or freedoms.

Families were intentionally split up and children indoctrinated and trained to be Khmer Rouge soldiers and torturers. Extreme agricultural reforms led to widespread famine and the insistence on absolute self-sufficiency led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases due to lack of medicines and doctors. Many were literally worked to death, or died from illness and starvation due to the failure of the ridiculous polices.

The Khmer Rouge also executed and tortured all perceived subversive elements and even purged its own ranks. They killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors with the motto “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” Teachers, doctors and monks were killed, even wearing glasses or being able to read and write was enough to kill you.


The Cheoung Ek Killing Fields

These people were sent to prisons like S21 and tortured until they wrote an, often ridiculous, confession (naming other ‘accomplices’ who would in turn be arrested) and then they were taken to die in the mass graves of the killing fields.

Following in the footsteps of the prisoners takes me down dusty roads just out of Phnom Penh to The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

A tall Buddhist memorial stupa stands in the middle of what is now, mostly a grassy area. Inside the memorial is the skulls and bones of the 9000 men, women and children killed here. The sight of 5000 skulls really brings it home how many people died in these tragic circumstances.

The memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Cheoung Ek killing fields
The memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge at the Cheoung Ek killing fields

The audio guide is brilliant and guides you around the site giving lots of information both about the killing fields, stories from people affected and background to the Khmer Rouge regime.

As the audio guide tells chilling accounts of the atrocities that happened there it takes you along through the pits where mass graves where found. Although the mass burial graves have been excavated and the bones put to rest in the memorial stupa bones and rags of clothing are still being discovered.

It is evidence that their self sufficiency drive wasn’t working as the Khmer Rouge didn’t even have enough guns or bullets so often killed their victims by smashing their heads in, even smashing babies into trees but its touching to see the bracelets that people leave as a mark of respect for the victims.

Bracelets are left by the mass grave sites as a mark of respect to the victims
Bracelets are left by the mass grave sites as a mark of respect to the victims
The horrifying tree where babies were smashed against the trunk and killed
The horrifying tree where babies were smashed against the trunk and killed

Its just so hard to believe that such horrific things took place here not so long ago, that people could do this to their own people, in this charming country of genuine smiles and hopeful faces.

But despite this I still loved Phnom Penh

Yes, its shocking, upsetting, depressing and makes a sobering day. Its a relief to return to Phnom Penh, this comeback capital, to the ornate temples that can glitter once again and to enjoy drinks in the stylish, French colonial atmosphere of the riverside bars.

At the National Museum in Phnom Penh
At the National Museum in Phnom Penh

Many places have been dubbed ‘The Pearl of Asia’ but, for me, it is Phnom Penh – the quaint, unique, elegant but scarred streets, the infectious optimism of the people who have been through hell.

For now, the elaborate golden temple spires still dominate the skyline, the elegant French architecture fuses with the elaborate, curving Khmer rooftops and mythical creatures creates a bewitching mixture and I still love this city despite the horrific events that happened here!

Have you been to Phnom Penh? How did you find it?


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Phomn Penh, Cambodia


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Bianca December 25, 2015 at 6:34 pm

I’ve been planning to do an IndoChina trip by next year and is really excited about visiting Cambodia. I am trying to educate myself with little information about these countries, and knowing about S21 makes my heart break. Nevertheless, I believe that it is still a wonderful country to visit.
Thank you for this amazing post!

Anna January 7, 2016 at 7:17 am

Hey Bianca! Cambodia was definitely my favourite place in South East Asia and while there are many really sad parts of the history the people there are just so lovely and inspiring. I read ‘First they killed my Father’ whilst I was there – it’s a heart wrenching read but also very interesting and you can learn alot about the history of this fascinating and beautiful country. I hope you love Cambodia as much as I did and thanks so much for your comment – I’m so glad you liked my post. 🙂


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