So I had 20 days allocated for a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam (from 14th of March until 2nd of April). As there aren’t any direct flights from Helsinki to Cambodia and I tried to choose as cheap flight as possible (within reason of course regarding to the layovers), I ended up paying 629€ for return ticket and was flying with Cathay Pacific. The outbound flight was to Phnom Penh via Milan and Hong Kong (approx. 22 hours in total) and the return flight was from Hanoi via Hong Kong and Zürich (approx. 23 hours in total). So I spent roughly 3 days out of the 20 I had just traveling there and back. Then we had allocated 7 days for Cambodia and 10 days for Vietnam.
The trip there was pretty uneventful. I was running a bit late as I couldn’t check in online and needed to check in my backpack, but luckily the Helsinki airport was quite empty and I managed to check in myself as well as check my backpack all the way to Phnom Penh and pass the security control in 15 minutes. All the flights were on time and I was well prepared with the full season of Narcos downloaded from Netflix. It also seems that I managed to sleep through the distribution of arrival cards, which I of course noticed only when handing my passport to the customs officer at Phnom Penh airport. 😀
The smart thing I did do, was to exchange some USD beforehand and ask them to give me $40 in one dollar bills. The requirement is to have a passport photo and $35 for visa on arrival fee. I read online that if you don’t have a photo with you, they will charge $3 for them to take a photo of you at the visa application desk. Instant passport photos cost something like 19€ here in Helsinki, so I decided to just pay the thee bucks for the photo at the airport. The process went so that I filled a visa application form and passed it along with my passport and the $3 to the clerk. They processed the visas and then you wait nearby where the clerks show ready passports. When you recognize yours, you come and claim your passport and pay the $35 visa fee. Also despite what I read online, they never took my photo at the airport, so the $3 is more like a fine for not having a passport with you, but it was still much cheaper than the new passport photos would’ve cost me, so I was happy.
I got my visa, got turned back from the customs officer desk, filled the arrival card, passed the customs, got my back, and got outside. I was expecting a huge bustle, but it was actually quite peaceful. I got approached by a tuk tuk driver, who offered his services. I asked for the price and it was $9, which according to the Lonely Planet guidebook is the fixed price from the airport to the city. A couple in the tuk tuk next to me asked me how much I was paying for the ride and they were paying the same. According to the same guidebook, if you walk a short distance away from the airport, you can get the same ride for the fraction of the price ($2-4). But I was tired after traveling for so long, has never been to Cambodia before, and it’s not like $9 was going to bankrupt me, so I took the offered ride. I kind of love the fixed prices as you at least know that you aren’t getting stiffed. 🙂 And the first encounter with Cambodian traffic from the tuk tuk was interesting to say the least.
I arrived to the Blue Lime hotel, where my boyfriend has arrived the day before (he started his holiday earlier and we met in Phnom Penh). The hotel was overall quite nice despite breakfast being the same every day. There was a big pool, but we chose a room with a small private pool, because in how many places you could afford to get one? 😉 It also proved to be totally worth the money in the “+33°C feels like +38°C” weather. 🙂 Four nights at this hotel cost us 339€.
I had some activities planned for the same day, but we ended up getting lunch, sleeping, and getting dinner instead. 😀 We walked to The Shop for lunch, which was located nearby. What we learned right away is that people don’t really walk in Cambodia. Well, I mean of course they walk, but it seems that the sidewalks are filled either with small plastic chairs for the nearby restaurants or parked motorbikes, so most of the walking has to take place on the road itself instead of the sidewalks. Also locals use motorbikes and sometimes tuk tuks for all transportation and I think that at the moment there aren’t any fixed bus lines in the city. The only people I’ve really seen walking were tourists and locals, who were pushing their selling carts. What was interesting is that the locals never negotiate with tuk tuk drivers on the price, they just pay what they think is fair. 😀 We of course always made sure we agreed on the price beforehand and it varied a little bit, but for short rides it was $1-3.
We had lunch at The Shop, which was good, but quite Western with their sandwiches and pastries and walked back to the hotel for a nap.
In the evening we decided to visit a noodle restaurant called David’s Restaurant, which according to Tripadvisor served some amazing noodles. Well, the way they made the noodles was fun to watch and they certainly were fresh, but the food itself was a bit of a disappointment. It lacked some flavor and spices. I’m not sure if we had bad luck or is this a pattern, but we never had great food in Phnom Penh. At best it was pretty good. The prices at David’s Restaurant were very reasonable though. I think we paid $17 for dumplings, a pho soup, a plate of noodles, two beers, and a mango shake.
The next day we took a tuk tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as Security Prison 21 or S-21). There were always tuk tuk drivers hanging outside our hotel looking for passengers and it was never an issue to get one anywhere in the city. Within the city you could get anywhere for $3 and we didn’t really haggle unless the driver asked for more than $3 and we knew that it was just a short ride. My boyfriend bought a Cambodian SIM card, so we had the data, which was very handy as there wasn’t an offline map for Cambodia at the time of our travel, but Google maps worked great if you had access to mobile data.
The admission fee to the museum was $6 per person with an audio guide. I thought the audioguide was immensely helpful to understand the background how the Khmer Rouge regime took over, what followed, and how this local high school became the largest center of detention and torture in the country.
The people were detained for any number of reasons such as having political connections to former government, anyone considered an intellectual (going as far as labeling a person an intellectual for just wearing glasses or understanding a foreign language), some ethnic minorities, and people not having agricultural skills, which were idealized during the Pol Pot regime.
Between 1975 and 1978 more than 17 000 people were held at S-21, tortured in order to get them to confess to crimes they were charged with however imaginary those might be. They were also expected to provide additional names of the people they knew and what crimes those have committed. Obviously under torture people confess to all kind of things, which meant that there was an endless flow of people to be tortured and then taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Out of all these people taken to S-21 only a handful had survived when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in 1979 and those people survived only due to possessing useful skills such as painting, which were used in the prison.
This Wikipedia article has more details on the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia and the more you learn about it the more unbelievable and hair-raising that time of Cambodian history seems.
The audio guide tour of the place takes about two hours and you are left with a feeling of morbid awe at the inventiveness of the people and how many different horrific ways of torture they could come up with to make the agrarian utopia come true.
After the museum we took a tuk tuk to Wat Langka, which was a Buddhist temple located nearby. In hindsight we should’ve rather see Wat Phnom or Wat Ounalom, which are supposed to be even nicer. 🙂 Wat Langka was rather small and also closed, so we couldn’t peek inside, but we walked around a bit.
Wat Langka was also located right next to the Independence Monument, which we checked out, but which wasn’t all that interesting. It is modeled on the central tower of Angkor Wat and built in 1958 the Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It is located in the middle of a large roundabout, so there is a chance that you will ride past it if you’re heading e.g. towards the killing fields of Choeung Ek.
Our final destination of the day was the National Museum of Cambodia. The entrance fee was $5 without the audio guide. I’m not sure whether the audioguide is worth the extra cost unless you are very interested in the items on display. Unfortunately there was a rather big and loud group of Chinese people in front of us, who touched every single sculpture they saw in the museum, so maybe due to my annoyance, I thought that the museum was nice, but not a key sight in Phnom Penh. Also it didn’t have any air conditioning in case you would like to get out of the heat. 😉
After the museum we took the tuk tuk back to the hotel and cooled off in our pool. We also took some of the dirty clothes to the laundry service nearby as my boyfriend was running out of clean clothes.
In the evening we walked to a restaurant called Romdeng. The service was really good and the food was, well, quite alright. I know, high praise indeed, but my boyfriend complained that his starter was too spicy, so he couldn’t make out the flavors. I had octopus in my main course and it was chewy, but otherwise the dish was ok. The spring rolls were pretty good and the dessert was also quite decent. The cost of the meal was $45 for two with cocktails and a beer.
On the third and final full day in Phnom Penh we took a tuk tuk to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. We agreed with the driver on a price of $20 for the ride there and back as well as the wait. Lonely Planet suggests that $10 is a fair price for what I assume is a one-way ride, so the price didn’t seem outrageous especially because the trip was almost one hour per way and a couple of hour wait in between that.
The entrance fee was $6 per person including an audio guide, which was once again very helpful to understand what has happened. You can do both Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek in the same day, but it’s quite a lot of serious information to process, so I was happy we did these two sites on different days.
Choeung Ek has clearly marked audio guide stops and the narrative explains how this extermination camp worked. Basically people from Tuol Sleng were brought here to be killed and there are 129 communal graves at this site many of which has been left untouched, so the bones keep surfacing once in a while.
There was a path around the lake. The Choeung Ek site is fenced off by barbed wire, but there were a couple of locations where there were a man and a couple of children begging for money outside of the fence. This was the only begging I saw in Phnom Penh though.
Because bullets were expensive, a lot of people were killed by hitting with hard objects or gassed. There is one tree against small children were killed by smashing their heads onto the tree. The tree on the right was used to support speakers and to blare music in order to cover the sounds of people screaming.
There is a Buddhist stupa, which contains more than 5 000 human skulls and you can enter it and see them up close.
While Choeung Ek is the best known killing field in Cambodia, there are many more across the country, so it is difficult to imagine the scale of the genocide that was going on.
We got back to Phnom Penh and had a break and a swim at our hotel. We also had lunch at the hotel (okayish food) and picked up the laundry and paid $8 for it. After that we headed to see the Royal Palace area. As our hotel was located very close to the palace, we decided to walk.
In order to get into the Royal Palace it is required to cover your knees and shoulders and it is not enough just to wrap a scarf around your shoulders, but you must actually have sleeves. If you don’t, you either need to come back another time or buy a t-shirt for $4, which they sell right next to the ticket desk. I was wearing a long skirt and a top with very short sleeves, but it was enough. I had brought a long sleeve top with me, but luckily it wasn’t needed as the weather was again super hot. The admission fee was $10 per person.
The Royal Palace is a beautiful complex of buildings, which serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. You can rent a guide near the entrance, but we chose not to do it and just visit the area ourselves and admire the buildings.
The Silver Pagoda is the most famous of the complex buildings and while you can enter it, you need to take your shoes off and you cannot take pictures. It houses many national treasures including numerous Buddha statues.
We walked back to our hotel and cooled down a little before heading out to have our last dinner in Phnom Penh. We chose Bistrot Langka, which was #1 on Tripadvisor. Luckily we called just before heading out and they reserved their last table for us. The place is tiny! My food was really nice, but my boyfriend complained that his starter was just okay and the side dish of the main course didn’t taste good, but the meat itself was good. I had ravioli and tuna tataki and both of them were good. The dessert had too much of everything going on, but tasted quite good. The dinner with drinks cost $56, so I wasn’t super impressed, but to be honest it seemed that the food in Phnom Penh is simply not very good. I mean we never got anything that was flat-out bad, but often we were left with missing something.
The next day we were picked up from our hotel by Giant Ibis shuttle, which took us to the Giant Ibis bus station from where we took the 6-hour bus ride to Siem Reap. Our hotel booked everything for us and we paid at checkout. They suggested that the Giant Ibis is the most comfortable and the trip cost $15 per person if I’m not completely mistaken. There are faster shuttle buses, but apparently the comfort level is not so great. 🙂 Giant Ibis bus had air conditioning and semi-working wifi as well. The only downside was that we were told that we need to be ready at 8 a.m. and that the shuttle will come and pick us up then. The shuttle came in fact around 8:40 (apparently it depends on how many people they have to pick up) and then we waited in the bus at the bus station until 9:45 when the bus finally departed as scheduled. In hindsight I would’ve slept an hour longer and paid a couple of bucks myself to take the tuk tuk to the Giant Ibis bus station than spend almost two hours just on waiting.
Some general comments about Cambodia and Phnom Penh:
- It is completely unnecessary to exchange Cambodian riels before arriving. The exchange place in Helsinki tried to make me exchange some of those as well citing that you will get more correct change back, but I found dollars to be super easy to use and if the amount is less than a dollar, then you get local currency back, but it would’ve been a pain to keep converting between dollars and riels as the exchange rate was something like 4 300 riels to a dollar. But I did appreciate that I brought small denomination USD bills.
- ATMs are plentiful, so there is no need to bring large amounts of cash with you.
- Credit cards are accepted in hotels and some fancier restaurants, but cash is still preferred. Especially carry a lot of ones as it’s convenient to pay tuk tuk drivers with exact cash.
- I found Phnom Penh to be somewhat difficult to explore and I think that was because walking is a bit of an issue there. As I mentioned before, sidewalks are filled with stuff and I didn’t particularly fancy walking on the road among all that traffic. While you could see that the seemingly crazy traffic has its way, but it still didn’t feel comfortable. So we either used tuk tuks or walked if the location was close by. But you kind of need to know where you’re going. It was very difficult just to walk around and enjoy the views and maybe run into something interesting, as you needed to pay a lot of attention where and how you were walking and tell every tuk tuk driver that passes you that no, in fact you don’t need a ride. 🙂 They were by no means pushy, but it seemed that in March they were getting a bit desperate to get some business.
- I was super disappointed with the food in Phnom Penh, but luckily the food in Siem Reap was amazing. 🙂
- It is ok to negotiate the tuk tuk fees, but remember to be friendly in order for both parties to “save face”. The ride within the city should cost $2-3 and we did haggle a little bit when somebody asked for $4 or $5, but that happened only a couple of times. Mostly the drivers stuck to the established rates. 🙂 Expect to pay a bit more if there are 3 or 4 people getting into the same tuk tuk.
- I think 3 full days in Phnom Penh was enough. The schedule was not too tight as it allowed to get over the jet lag a bit, but there just isn’t that much to see in the city. Also the tourist infrastructure such as tour companies isn’t that developed yet.