Dark Past and Fun Present in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia has always been on our itinerary, but we originally thought we would visit as part of an overland trip between Thailand and Vietnam. Instead, we ended up visiting it directly after our trip to Bali. Our friend Andrew from Denver works with an NGO in Cambodia a few months out of the year, and we found out that he would be there in February, so we switched our schedule up.

Our first stop in Cambodia was the capital and its largest city, Phnom Penh. We spent four nights there exploring many different sides of the city: seat of royalty, echoes of past horrors, and glimpses of a growing modernity.

Where We Stayed

We actually ended up staying in two different hotels during our time in Phnom Penh. The first two nights we stayed at the Khmer Surin Boutique Hotel, because that is where Andrew always stays and he was able to get us a slightly reduced rate. The room was definitely fancier than we were used to! We really enjoyed the large breakfast, where our choices included noodle soup and pad thai.

Even with the discount though, it was still a little too much for our budget. We found the Envoy Hostel just six blocks away and got a private room there with a shared bathroom. Its included breakfast was good but not nearly as fancy, but the space itself felt new, clean and friendly.

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What We Did

Royal Palace – Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, meaning that they have a prime minister with most of the political power but they also still have a King (like England). The King’s official residence is in Phnom Penh, and parts of it can be visited by the public. The two major attractions to see are the Throne Hall, a lavish hall where the King receives visiting dignitaries, and the Silver Pagoda, which houses many splendid objects and gets it names from the actual silver floor tiles. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside either of these structures, but were allowed to take pictures of the outside and the surrounding buildings, which were pretty impressive.

National Museum – Located next to the Royal Palace, this museum houses a large collection of ancient Khmer artifacts (the people of Cambodia are not called Cambodians but rather Khmer). It was interesting to observe the changing majority religion in the Khmer Empire as time went on. The earliest sculpture from before the 10th century AD is all Hindu, with images of Vishnu and Shiva, and so on. The apex of the Khmer empire is called the Angkor period (named after the capital, where the famous Angkor Wat is located). The sculpture from the early Angkor period is still Hindu, but then shifts to Buddhist under the influence of some influential kings. After visiting the exhibits, we spent some time relaxing in a pleasant garden in the center courtyard.

Both of the above attractions would fit under the “positive vibes” category, but the other two major attractions we visited definitely do not. In 1975, in the chaos surrounding the Vietnam War, the Khmer  Rouge took power in Cambodia and began a radical restructuring of the country. Cities were emptied and they attempted to make an agrarian Communist society. Part of this restructuring meant getting rid of anyone who didn’t fit into their plans, such as intellectuals, foreigners, or even Khmer Rouge members who didn’t seem “loyal” enough. They only ruled until 1979, but in that time over 2 million people died. We visited two attractions that played a major part in this genocide.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – This is also known as “S-21”, which was the name given to it by the Khmer Rouge when it was used as a secret prison. They used this former high school to house prisoners for long enough to torture them and force a confession for their “crimes.” The facility is left is almost the same state as it was when the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh in 1979. One of the cell blocks still contains the beds in which some of the last remaining prisoners were tortured to death and left before they fled. Others still have the old makeshift cells that the prisoners were held in. Many of the rooms are filled with pictures of the victims; like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge liked to keep detailed records. This was a pretty harrowing place to visit, to say the least.

Killing Fields of Choeung Ek – After the prisoners “confessed” to their crimes, they would be thrown in the back of a truck and taken out to this site (located in a former Chinese cemetery) just outside of town, killed and dumped in a mass grave. In an attempt to save bullets, most of the killings were done with agricultural instruments. No structures remain, but many of the mass graves have been unearthed. Not all of them have though, and you can still see scraps of fabric and even bits of bone from the victims sticking out of the ground in places. An excellent audio guide helps take you through the site and gives good background information. We also really appreciated that the audio guide meant that hardly anyone was talking throughout the site, leading to an air of solemnity.

After learning about all of these recent horrors, we were feeling pretty depressed. But, the people of Phnom Penh seem pretty resilient, and we got to participate in a fun local activity at the Olympic Stadium one evening.

Where We Ate

Our friend Andrew did a great job of guiding us through the wide range of good food that was to be found in the neighborhood that we stayed in. The variety and quality was quite impressive!

The first night we went to a barbecue place that was filled more with Khmer people than with foreigners. We split a few different grilled meats and side dishes. One of the most exciting parts of the evening was seeing a Rice hat at a neighboring table!

On the other evenings with Andrew, we ate at a French restaurant (a holdover from the colonial influence) and a Mexican restaurant (where Eric was amused to see many Texas references on the menu).

One evening Andrew couldn’t join us, so we ate at the Khmer Surin’s restaurant and had some dishes with a strong Thai influence. We also ate lunch one afternoon at Mok Mony, where we sampled a Khmer red curry (tasted pretty similar to Thai curries) and their version of fried noodles.

One thing that we were really impressed with was how cheap the beer was! At many places, you could get a glass of draft beer during happy hour for 75 cents! Sure, it was pretty plain tasting beer, but at that price it’s hard to complain!

Final Thoughts

Phnom Penh was an excellent introduction to modern Cambodia. We got to see a bit of the royal influence, learn about both the grand ancient history and the somber modern history, and get a little bit of the cosmopolitan feel of the growing city.

Flashback Friday: European Sunsets

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our memories – from either from our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances! 

We’ve been experiencing some nice sunsets here in Asia, so naturally, we remembered some of our other nice sunsets from the road. During our self-drive safari in Africa, we saw some amazing sunsets almost every night. We shared some of those in a flashback Friday post. We were in Africa for only 6 weeks and came up with 11 photos we just needed to share. We were in Europe for much longer and saw much fewer nice sunsets. However, there were 14 pictures we wanted to show you. Enjoy some awesome sunsets!

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“The greatest sunset in the world” in Zadar, Croatia

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A closer shot of the “greatest sunset in the world” in Zadar, Croatia

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Sunset over the Adriatic from the walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

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Sunset over a mosque in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina

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Berat, Albania

Pretty sunset

Tirana, Albania

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Delphi, Greece

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Nafplio, Greece

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Fethiye, Turkey

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This one was so good, we had to show you two! Fethiye, Turkey

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Selcuk, Turkey

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Kas, Turkey

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Pamukkale, Turkey

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Antalya, Turkey

Zumba* Around the World: Phnom Penh

It has been far too long since we’ve found a good Zumba class. In Phnom Penh, we found a semi-equivalent which was even better in a couple of ways!

We had read/heard that almost every evening, many Phnom Penh residents gather in different parts of the city to do aerobics classes. The Lonely Planet recommended the Olympic Stadium as one area where you would be sure to find several groups.

We made sure to head that way one evening. We arrived as the air was cooling and the sun was starting its descent. As we approached the stadium we saw all sorts of people of all ages and genders! Some were playing volleyball or soccer, others were walking or running, and still others were just enjoying the sights and chatting with friends or family.

soccer by sunset

soccer by sunset

We entered the stadium and found not one, but at least 4 different groups of dance aerobics. Each led by a young male instructor and rocking to the beat of loud Cambodian music. We watched for a few minutes and then picked a group that seemed to be suitably high energy.

It was similar to Zumba, though a bit less choreographed, so it was quite easy to jump right in. It was a lot of fun to watch people of all ages doing the dances. There were older to middle aged to young women. There were also several men of most ages as well.

We danced for about 30 minutes before there was a break. During the break, a local woman came up and tried to chat with us. Her English was a bit difficult to understand, but her smiles and friendly shoulder taps were unmistakable.

A little later, a young man joined us as well. He was a student and tried to explain a bit more about the evening events. He explained that they do aerobics every night and then a short pause and then the “dancing” would start. We were perplexed what the difference could be, so we waited around to see.

When they started dancing again, it seemed as if everyone already knew the dances. Our young man friend explained that some were traditional dances. Then we started doing line dances! There were several, including one that seemed like it was almost the electric slide!

We absolutely loved this experience! There was something really special about a huge community coming together and dancing together. People were not self-conscious or worried what others would think! Instead, they all just moved together, people of all different ages and backgrounds. It was fantastic!

We were so enthusiastic that we made a point to go again when we returned to Phnom Penh for just one night before flying off to Laos. We were so disappointed when we got to the stadium and the dances weren’t happening!! Our only thought was that it was cancelled because of the Chinese New Year. Many shops and restaurants were closed as well. So disappointing! =( But we still really enjoyed the first experience!

 

Sleeping in the Singapore Airport

On our way from Bali to Cambodia we had about a 12 hour layover overnight in the Singapore airport. A short amount of research led us to believe that there are few better airports to have to spend time in! The Singapore airport is like a mall and resort (and airport) all in one.

There are free movie theaters, free video games, free internet. There are gardens, indoor and out, fitness centers, and even a pool. There are also free foot massage chairs all over! There are also some very nice transit hotels. We thought about paying for a bed during our overnight stay, but it just seemed too pricey so we decided to go the old fashioned route and just find some chairs to sleep in. We were in luck there too, because Singapore airport has some of the nice sleeper chairs.

We arrived late into Terminal 1. We walked by one small area with sleeper chairs, but there were only two left and they were not close to each other so we passed it up, sure we would find something else. We headed into the main Terminal 1 area and found a sign that pointed to a “rest area” on the second floor near some restaurants. We headed that way, but it was full! We were starting to worry that we would end up having to sleep on the floor or across some bench seats just like at any other airport. Boo. We decided to keep looking and walked all the way to Terminal 2 where we saw a sign for the Oasis lounge. We headed that way, and were in luck! Two sleeper chairs right next to each other in a quiet area that was darkened. Perfect.

We actually got amazing sleep for being in an airport and 6ish hours later, we woke semi-refreshed. The only issue had been feeling cold overnight (why are airports always so cold??), but we had both remembered some layers to keep ourselves warm.

We also ate breakfast at one of the great food courts in the the airport. It had a variety of Asian food and we were excited to have another bowl of Singapore Laksa before our time there came to a close.

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We were slightly disappointed that we didn’t get to take advantage of all the other awesome things that the airport had to offer! I guess, we’ll have to hope for another long layover there in the future!

Budget: Bali

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Bali. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Bali we used the Indonesian Rupiah. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 12,500 Rupiah to $1.00.

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Total Spent (7.5 days): $757.32

Accommodation: $224.37

We stayed in two Airbnb apartments which Phill paid for and we paid him back for through food…

Activities: $98.21

This included entrance fees for a lot of temples. The largest expenses were for a dance performance, massages, and a tour guide for two days in Ubud.

Alcohol: $0

This is misleading – we did drink in Bali, but we never purchased alcohol on its own. It was always with meals or other food…

Food: $264.85

We ate out for lunch and dinner every day. We purchased one breakfast from Payogan Homestay and the others from the grocery store. There was also alcohol consumed with most dinners!

Miscellaneous: $32.76

This includes one postcard… and a large airport exit tax. blargh.

Transportation: $64.15

This includes several taxis as well as a day we took a car and driver around near Seminyak.

Visas: $73.67

We purchased our visas on arrival. We should have paid in Rupiah as it would have been cheaper than in dollars. Oops.

This divides out to $100.98/day which is just about $100/day budget! We were expecting that we might go a little over in Bali as it was a special occasion and we were traveling with others. We have to give a HUGE shout out and THANK YOU to Phill and Izaak for being understanding and supportive of our budget. Thanks!