Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Trip Report

After an enjoyable stay in Siem Reap last month I decided to go back to Cambodia and check out Phnom Penh, the capital city. This time it was a cheap and easy flight, direct from Bangkok and lasting only 70 minutes. AirAsia is the nuts.

I stayed in a nice hotel hotel on the Riverside. The area is a bit of a tourist trap, meaning higher prices, louder noise and an increased number of people pestering you, but when you visit somewhere for the first time the main tourist area is usually the easiest choice.

Phnom Penh is a small city, making it easy to walk from from A to B, that is if you’re prepared to walk along the road. Other than the wide riverside boulevard, almost every inch of side-walk has been taken up by parked motorcycles, food stands, litter and various other obstacles.

Fortunately I’m used to navigating my way through ‘obstacle courses’ from my time living in Bangkok. Anyway, transport is cheap in Phnom Penh. A ride anywhere in the area on the back of a motorbike or tuk-tuk is only $1 with some effortless haggling (state destination and price, keep walking when he asks a higher price, then he calls you back).

Some of the highlights of my trip to Phnom Penh:

Bicycle Trek to Oudong

I’m a lot fitter than I’ve been in a long, long time. I wanted to take advantage of that by doing some cool outdoors stuff. So I spent a whole day trekking by bicycle to Oudong. I covered a distance of around 65km, travelling through small country roads. That’s 65km one way, the ride back was in a taxi!

I went with a guide who was a nice 21 year old Khmer girl, and a young Icelandic dude who was in much better shape than me. Out of the 3 of us I was the least fit by a large margin but I gave it everything I had to not slow them down.

It was the first time I’d ridden a bike in over 10 years, but it was just like…. yeah, riding a bike. I did keep breaking with the left hand (front wheel) rather than the right (back wheel) for the first hour or so. I’m unsure why, I just kept doing it without thinking. I was also using the wrong gear settings for a while, making things tougher for myself, until the guide showed me what I was doing wrong.

The terrain was mostly flat but that didn’t mean it was a piece of cake. It was all dirt tracks rather than paved roads. Cambodia won’t be hosting any professional cycle tours any time soon, that’s for sure.

After cycling out of the city we rode alongside a disused railway line where people have built makeshift homes and shops along side it. A ghetto, basically. I stopped to take a photo, pulling the big camera out of my backpack, only to find out that I left my SD card in my laptop back at the hotel. Damn!

Some of the ghetto shops sold second hand mobile phones, so it was worth asking if they had any SD cards. The guide asked the shop owners for me but they didn’t even know what an SD card was. One of shops had chickens running around on the floor and the Icelandic dude said “The general rule is, that if the shop has chickens running around, they don’t sell SD cards”. Haha, so true!

So I had all the hassle of carrying a bulky, heavy camera and lens – but got none of the benefit from it. If I hadn’t taken my big camera with me, I probably wouldn’t have brought a backpack at all, and found the ride much more comfortable and easier. I had to use my mobile phone to take photos, which is crap for any kind of medium-long range outdoor shots.

Our fist stop was at a village restaurant, in the form of a wooden shack, where we sampled some Khmer snacks. I indulged in some fried frogs. Every part of the frog was to be eaten, even the head. They were quite delicious and tasted like the skin on crispy fried chicken. Needless to say, but I’m no longer on the ‘raw vegan’ grind.

The farther we travelled from the city, the more friendly people were in the villages that we passed through. Some foreigners passing though is probably the most exciting thing that happens all day in these sleepy little rural places.

In almost every garden of every house of every village we passed through, there were excited children waving and screaming “hello! hello!” (possible Rangers fans?) as we passed through. Loads of them would rush to the side of the road when they saw us coming, and I started high-fiving them as I rode past.

When you travel to areas that have been exposed to mass tourism, such as Phnom Penh, you can be sure that anyone approaching you is trying to sell you something or scam you. I tend to flat out ignore all of them. However, once you get away from the tourist traps you meet people who are genuinely pleased, curious, interested or excited to see you. I have all the time in the world for these folks.

When we got to Oudong we had a rest before climbing 500 steps to the big temple on Outdong Mountain. More exercise! Three kids offered to follow us and fan us down constantly for a dollar each. They were with us for two hours and climbed to the top of the mountain with us, back down, and fanned us as we ate a full meal of Khmer food in an open-air restaurant at the bottom of the mountain. They spoke good English, and told me that they get to learn the language for free for 1 hour per day thanks to an NGO in the area.

Scamtards

When I was taking some photos around the riverside one evening I was approached by a well dressed Filipino man and his so called daughter who were super friendly and were asking me about my camera and making all sorts of friendly chit chat with me. Strange considering I wasn’t really saying much back to them, just some one word answers.

First alarm bell – The fact that Asians tend to be shy by nature.

There is just no way that the average Asian adult will approach a random western person in the street and start making friendly chit chat with them. When this happens in a major tourist area, the best case scenario is that they are some kind of tout and the worst case scenario is that they are a scammer.

Second alarm bell – The fact that they were Filipino.

I always research the common tourist scams and rip-offs before I go to a country for the first time. Last year, before visiting Saigon, Vietnam I read about a well organised gang of Filipinos that were targeting solo tourists with an infamous blackjack scam. I’ve read about this scam many times since then.

Based on all the reports I’ve read, the scam almost always works like this:

  • Filipino scammers approach solo tourist mark and make friendly conversation.
  • Scammer asks mark where he is from.
  • Scammer says he has a daughter/sister/whatever that is moving to the mark’s country/city to study/be a nurse, but they are nervous about going.
  • Scammer asks some questions about the mark’s country.
  • Mark is invited to eat dinner at scammer’s apartment to talk to the family member and put their mind at ease.
  • Mark is drugged with small amount of rohypnol in a drink, still awake but in a dream like state of mind.
  • Mark is either robbed right there or convinced to play in a rigged blackjack game.
  • Scammers take drugged mark to ATM to withdraw money to pay for blackjack losses or get him to buy gold from a store with his credit card, up to the limit, which the mark will sign for.

They never tried this on me when I was in Saigon because I was mostly walking around with that fish Amatay and they only seek out solo tourists. Also, when I do walk on my own I walk fast naturally and I ignore any and all strangers that approach me.

The reason these bastards got into making friendly chit-chat with me in Phnom Penh was that I was standing still, taking photographs. If they had tried to speak to me when I was walking they’d be eating my dirt.

This fat assed Filipino man kept talking to me about his somewhat attractive, but too-fat, Filipina so called daughter. She asked me if I was taking photos or filming with my camera and even made sure to check that I wasn’t making a video, “can I see?”, looking right over my shoulder.

Third alarm bell right there, checking if they were going to be captured on video before continuing with their scam.

I did try to take some pics of them sneakily by pretending to photograph something near them. However every time I raised my camera they were very quick to ‘helpfully’ get out of my way and stand behind me as I took the shot.

And then the big question came. “Oh sorry, I didn’t even ask where you are from?”

This was music to my ears. I had already prepared for this question in my mind and was looking forward to them asking it.

Lichtenstein” I proudly proclaimed (the very smallest country that I could think of at short notice).

With a sudden look of surprised happiness on his face he told me that “My daughter, she is going to Lashtensteen [sic] to study”, pointing to his ‘daughter’ who was smiling and nodding her head.

I burst into hysterical laughter right in-front of them. My sides actually hurt from laughing so hard. The Filipinos were looking at each other, confused but still with the stupid fake smile on their fat faces.

Despite me laughing in his face, he still persisted while I was still laughing and walking away from him. “Do you think she will enjoy living in your country?” he asked.

I told him that “She’d enjoy it a lot fucking more if there were more than two other people living there.”, then crossed the road.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison)

Tuol Sleng was a former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison and place of torture for people that they accused of espionage. Basically anyone they thought was not supportive of the new regime.

17,000 people were tortured at Tuol Sleng using techniques such as water-boarding, electrocution and hanging until they confessed to whatever crime they were accused of. Then they and there entire family were killed. Only 7 prisoners ever survived after being held at Tuol Sleng.

The Khmer Rouge made a point of documenting their atrocities and every prisoner was photographed and documented. Many of these photographs are on display in the rooms. Other rooms are left as they were found by the Vietnamese who invaded Cambodia in 1979 and defeated the Khmer Rouge.


Choeung Ek (Killing Fields)

Choeung Ek is about 15km outside of Phnom Penh. I took a tuk-tuk there which turned out to be a bad idea because the road is dusty as hell. So dusty that you can barely see more than 10 meters ahead. I had to use the spare T-shirt in my bag as a scarf to cover my entire face for the whole journey.

The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 million people (out of a total population of 8 million) during their reign from 1975-1979. Choeung Ek was one of the many ‘killing fields‘ scattered across Cambodia where people were brought in trucks to be killed and buried.

An excellent audio tour is included with the $5 entry ticket. It was lengthy, highly informative and a lot of victim stories were told.

The ideology of the Khmer Rouge was to create a classless society, made up of the peasants who worked the land. The cities were completely cleared out and anyone that was educated, or even just wore glasses or had soft hands were marked for extermination – as were their entire families, including newborn babies. Their long term goal was to kill off all but 1 million of the 8 million population.

They didn’t want to waste valuable ammunition so people were either buried alive or killed with a pick-axe to the head, evident by the fractures on many of the skulls that are on display. Approaching a tree, the audio tour explained that babies were held by the legs, had their heads smashed against this tree and were then thrown into a mass grave.

I already knew a lot about the Khmer Rouge from extensive reading and watching documentaries, but visiting the place where the atrocities of the genocide actually took place made it seem a lot more real.

Phnom Tamao – Wildlife Rescue Centre

I visited the massive wildlife rescue centre, about 90 minutes drive out of Phnom Penh, where I was given a private tour of the place. The centre is funded by the Cambodian government and some NGOs to take care of animals that have been rescued from trafficking, freed from poachers traps and discarded or unwanted pets.

There are 120 bears there, some with missing limbs after being caught in a snare, or rescued from illegal farms where they are bred for Bear Paw Soup. Others were rescued after being kept illegally as pets or forced to perform for tourists.

One of the most heart warming stories of the rescue centre is Chhouk, a baby Asian elephant who was found in the wild, separated from his mother, missing his left foot after being caught in a snare and was severely ill and suffering from infection.

He was rescued and given extensive treatment and now he even has a prosthetic foot. The Cambodian School of Prosthetics custom made it for him and they continue to improve it to make his life as comfortable as possible. He’s now using the 4th generation of his new foot.

Rehabilitated animals are released into a large forest area next to the centre, or the wild. However some animals, those that were kept as pets or have missing limbs, will have to stay in captivity for their whole lives.

The whole day I only saw one other visitor. I’m not sure why the centre doesn’t attract more people. I didn’t even see it mentioned in any guide books, and only found out about it after reading someone’s blog online.

For people that love animals, a visit to the rescue centre will be much more enjoyable than going to a zoo. The only negative thing I have to say is that some of the cages seem a bit too small, especially the monkeys who need a lot of space to monkey around.


Olympic Stadium

There’s a large Olympic stadium that was built in the 1960s for some Asian games that didn’t happen because of political trouble in Cambodia. It was bought by a Taiwanese company recently and renovated. Now it’s open to the public and anyone can just walk in for free and run around the track, or sit in the stands drinking, listening to music or eating food from the 20 or so food carts at the top of the main stand.

The best part is that there’s a sick Olympic size swimming pool next to the stadium. A highly inflated, but still cheap, foreigner price of $1.50 for all day access. I went for a good jog and swim late one afternoon and very much enjoyed it. If I lived in Phnom Penh the Olympic Stadium is somewhere I’d fequent every day. It’s crazy that more people don’t use the pool, it’s such a good tactility to have.



Sunset Cruise

I took a one hour sunset cruise on the Tonle Sap Lake one evening. It was only five bucks so the price was right. However, when I turned up it turned out to be some sort of ‘love boat’ with a big love heart on the front, which the bloke who sold me the ticket failed to tell me about. Still, I got there early enough to get a front seat, so that was a bonus.

Hilariously the music they played during the cruise wasn’t romantic at all and was mostly RnB and and Rap. How romantic for the couples on the boat, a romantic cruise on a romantic boat at sunset with romantic music with lyrics such as “fuck dem hoes” and “she aint nothin’ but a trick”.

The boat travelled to the other side of the lake, where local people live then back to the riverside pier. Hardly the nicest lake in the world to cruise on. The water is murky and there isn’t all that much to see. Still, a decent enough way to spend an hour.


Bribery

I wanted to get a Thai tourist visa (allowed to stay for 60 days, extendable to 90) but it’s a pain in the ass to get it from the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh. To make life difficult for foreigners who want to live in Thailand long term by way of doing ‘visa runs’ to Cambodia, there’s now a turnaround time of 4 (working) days for a visa application in Phnom Penh. You also have to provide evidence of hotel booking and a paid-for onward flight ticket out of Thailand, and all that nonsense.

I was reading about this on a Thai forum for ex-pats. Everyone was discussing how many days it takes and what exact forms of documentation one needs to bring, etc. etc. but one poster claimed to have bribed the policeman guard outside of the Thai embassy twenty bucks to get his visa in a 1 day turnaround, with no forms to fill out and no proof of anything.

That sounded like a winner to me, so I gave it a go. I turned up at the Thai embassy at 8:30am, knowing that it didn’t open until 9am. I approached the guard house next to the closed gate and told the policeman I was there to get a visa. He told me that if I applied today (Wednesday) that I wouldn’t get my passport back until Monday or Tuesday but “can give me $55, give me passport, no problem, have visa tomorrow”.

After some bargaining the price came down to $50 (standard $40 visa fee + $10 bribe). I gave him the fake flight ticket out of Thailand that I photoshopped and printed out the night before, but he just handed it back to me, not needed. A ten dollar bill was the only form of documentation he wanted to see from me.

He told me to come back tomorrow, just after the embassy closes at 6pm. I did, and there he was, waiting for me with a smile and my passport. A little bit of money goes a long way in getting what you want in Cambodia.

I told my taxi driver this story on the way to airport and he said “Ahh, it’s good that you know the Cambodia way, you know how to do it.”. It’s true. You haven’t had an authentic taste of Cambodia if you don’t bribe someone while you’re there.