CAMBODIAN DIARY - 1st CHAPTER - Commotion in Phnom Penh

The first day or two at a place I've never been to before are always like having fallen into Alice's rabbit hole: Pleasantly real and amazingly surreal at the same time. There are no rabbits with watches crossing my way, but many people - and all of them belong here and all of them know where they are heading to....but me. And I can rub my eyes as often as I please - I am here in this unreal reality.

Phnom Penh Cambodia
Although a picture of a fancy Wat might be more promotionally effective, this picture shows Phnom Penh's charm to me.

It is weird walking the streets that I've seen as lines on Google maps so often. It is irritating seeing places that were little pictograms coming to life.
Due to the weariness and the jet lag I'm not of a sound mind so that only adds more of this 'walking on clouds through a dream land' feel to it. And then, little by little and literally step by step I'm sinking in, the place and the faces become more familiar, I feel more confident and safer, but it also loses a certain magic. I've arrived.

Phnom Penh Cambodia Street Hawker
Welcome to Phnom Penh


Since this process usually takes the first one or two days, the first stop of my tour - which normally is as long - always stays in a certain blur. Mostly at the end of my trip I'm coming back to where I've started from to take the flight back which gives me - and the place, which very often is the country's capital - the chance to reconnect. I've already written a rather sentimental post about this phenomenon at the end of my trip to Colombia earlier this year.

So  now Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. Phnom Penh is definitely one of the cities that leaves you exactly two choices: You either love it or you hate it. I haven't felt this so strongly in any other city I've ever been to; well maybe Praia, the capital of Cabo Verde.

Well, the first day I was rather indifferent. It was a Sunday, a rainy Sunday. Drizzle all day, transforming to showers here and there. And I was basically looking for something to do since I didn't want to visit the pretty sights in this weather and having my pictures all grey and cloudy. I was wandering the streets up and down, anxiously looking down - in order not to stumble over one of the broken pavement slabs, not to traipse into one of the very, very dirty puddles or stepping on a dead rat (yes, exactly: gross!)

The second day it slowly cleared up a bit although the forecast had spoiled my mood by announcing a tempest. Pffff - internet; I better get a frog in a jar). I've walked the city criss cross and up and down and awed at this vibrancy. Actually, it reminded me most likely of Hanoi, only that Viet Nam is much cleaner, actually the cleanest Asian country I've been to so far.

However, Phnom Penh, although being the country's capital and home to 1.5 million people has mostly a small town charm. There are very few boulevards - actually they are just roads where the potholes are not as deep as in the narrow sidestreets. Forget about sidewalks. They are there, but you can hardly walk on them since they are either used by the shops and diners as an extension of their business or blocked by parked motor bikes, cars or mobile kitchens.

Phnom Penh Cambodia Barber on the Street
A side walk can be a barber shop....

Phnom Penh Cambodia Oranges
...or an orange juice factory.

Phnom Penh Cambodia Street Restaurant
It can be a restaurant (with adjacent parking lot)...

Phnom Penh Cambodia Street
...and a gas station (it's the barrel!)

There are also traffic lights. They are so few that they are actually indicated in my map. Unfortunately there are not many drivers paying attention to them. They don't even bother to slow down a bit when their light is red - what an unpleasant surprise that was when I intended to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing since I thought that would be safer; after all it was the only time that I almost got run over. Now I don't worry about any exterior indicator and only rely on my senses.

Phnom Penh Cambodia Street
The beautiful thing is: On the roads there's room for everone.

Although Phnom Penh has a rather provincial vibe, its inhabitants make up for it by being twice as fast and twice as buoyant and noisy. There are all these little shops and diners packed with people, there are kids and cats and dogs. Everybody seems to own either a motor bike or a tuk tuk and since there are far more vehicles than passengers, every driver advertises his service as you pass by. Depending on the mood you're in it's either cute or unnerving. While waiting for a passenger, the drivers play this really cool game. It's some sort of flip flop boccia: They take their sandals - mostly plastic flip flops of and kick them skillfully towards a target - this can be some piece of garbage (there is enough laying around in Phnom Penh), but today it even was a bundle of bills; the poor man's casino.

And there is a lot of prostitution: Painted Cambodian ladies and rather repulsive 'Barangs', fat and very red from too much sun and too much booze coming from the devil knows where.

Another thing that blunts my enthusiasm is the poverty. Usually when I'm travelling I have this early bird routine visiting all the museums and sights and being half dead by 6.30 p. m. So I hardly ever go out. Yesterday I went to this really beautiful show just around the corner from my hotel at the National Museum. Every night at 7 p. m. they have a great show of traditional dances and some traditional puppet theater and it's really endearing. Only on my way home I saw people getting to sleep on the sidewalks. Mothers with toddlers. And the streets here are not exactly paved with gold - I've described what I was afraid of stepping into. I know that people who have been to e. g. India will just shrug since this is said to be normal there. Still, it twisted a huge knife in my heart and put a veil of sadness over the beautiful evening I've had.

Cambodian Dance
Certainly a cultural highlight of every Phnom Penh visit: The dance show of 'Cambodian Living Arts', an organization that encourages and teaches young people to cultivate their traditions and arts.
(Photo: Jim Heston/Cambodian Living Arts)


Talking 'bout the veil of sadness. The first, rainy day I finally ended up visiting the most atrocious places - the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (also known as S21) and Choeung Ek (also known as the killing fields).
And while I walked these places I've decided not to write about it.
Politically it's far too complex to wrap it up in three sentences: As always it's not only 'and then the bad man came and killed all these people'. As always there is a complex history with many different aspects why the Khmer Rouge came to power in the first place and why they were initially even very welcomed by the major part of the Cambodian people. And as always in this region it has also a lot to do with European colonization and American military involvement, too. And funny enough, it has not that much to do with the Khmer Rouge being communist, world's favorite villains; because for one Karl Marx, the co-author of the Communist Manifesto, never ordered anybody to kill let alone small children, and secondly Cambodia was freed from the Khmer Rouge by the Viet Nam army; military from a communist country. There are excellent posts on the internet that explain and examine this whole topic in a extended and hence worthy and dignified way. So I don't.

Sign at Choeung Ek
Most people take pictures of the skulls that are on display at the Choeung Ek Pagoda as a memorial for those who were murdered there. To me these pictures have something almost voyeuristic to it. Everybody knows that we have skulls and what they look like.
I find that a sign that stops you from trampling on mass graves underlines the horror in a much deeper way.

Choeung Ek
Yes, there are still bones. And there are rags that the people were wearing when they were murdered.

As much as I don't want to write about the historical and political events, I even less feel like writing about what I've seen at the two memorial places. I like to entertain you with little fun stories, I like being ironic and sarcastic. From time to time I do deal with historical and political topics, too, since they are an important part of my travels. They bring me closer to the people and make me understand their everyday life better. But what happened during the Khmer Rouge's tyranny is too barbaric to be just treated in a couple of sentences on a fun travel blog.

I already find it bizarre that the 'trips' to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek are listed as the must see attractions on the internet and even here in Phnom Penh the tour operators are advertising for this half way trip to hell like they do for a city tour. The owner of my guest house, she's French, told me that the young people are not talking about this past and that it has been only recently that they start to learn about this lesion in their people's history. Actually, at Tuol Sleng I've learned that only 6% of the visitors are Cambodian. Maybe it's the Asian mentality and of course the Buddhist philosophy that lets bygones be bygones, but I'm not sure if this really heals the scars on bodies and souls.

Buddhist Monks at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
Buddhist monks visiting the Royal Palace

Wat Kien Khleang
Buddhist Bling Bling: My favorite temple, the Wat Kien Khleang in the outskirts of Phnom Penh.


Besides visiting the few touristy places like the Royal Palace and some beautiful Wats (Buddhist Tempels) one can cross the Mekong river to Koh Dach, the silk-island.

Phnom Penh Tuk Tuk
When in Cambodia, do as the Cambodians do: Letting Monsieur Ratana drive me by tuk tuk to the silk island.

Ferry on the Mekong
Crossing the mighty Mekong by ferry.

Visiting not only silk manufacturer and farmers, but also a school. Monsieur Ratana said I could take pictures. The kids thought so, too. I'm not sure what the teacher thought and for the sake of Cambodian education I honestly hope that not too many tour guides take their guests all the way to the class rooms; but I'm very grateful that Monsieur Ratana was that ruthless.

You get to see the villages and the fields and the silk production - and you can buy silk scarves like I did just to find out a couple of hours later that in the central market you get them at a third of the price. Mysterious Asia!

It is comforting that when you get screwed over in a country like Cambodia you at least can be sure that the money goes to someone who needs it; anyone.

As much as I've enjoyed Phnom Penh, it's time to make a move: Tomorrow I'm heading to the Southern shores and Islands that are said to be the dreamiest.

Come on, let me take you with me.

Note to the curious reader: Like I did during my trip to Colombia earlier this year, in this Cambodian Diary I'm posting one chapter from every stop. At the end of the entire tour there will be an extended travel guide with all the relevant travel information including addresses, links etc. 
Until then, just enjoy my narratives and reflections.

If you choose to pin this post, please use this picture:

Cambodian Diary Chapter 1

going up!


  1. Beautiful pictures! I have just this year realised how special place Cambodia is, and I really want to travel there. I think it is maybe the nro1 on my bucket list at the moment.

  2. Thank you, Paula. I hope my posts will be helpful for the planning of your trip. At the end of my tour through Cambodia there will be an extended post with all the addresses and links and recommendations, so make sure to check that out.


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