Jordan Milano Hazrati
Mum, Dad... I'm off to Cambodia! (Part One)
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Which were the exact words I said, one miserable British Winter day, after having booked a Cathay flight to Phnom Penh. I still remember the looks when I told people I'd decided to go travelling round Cambodia... the look of 'oh please be careful', 'aren't you worried', 'why on earth go somewhere so underdeveloped?'. But for me, this was true adventure. Picking a place on the map based upon a picture I'd seen on a blog site, and thinking 'I want to go there'. I didn't know an awful lot about the history before I went, or what really to expect. But in the run up to leaving I did do a lot of background research into my potential itinerary, the cultural do's and don't's, the safety elements i.e. vaccines (get yourself to the doctors at least 6 weeks prior to travel to make sure you have the necessary vaccinations) and insurance, Also how I was going to find my first experience of travelling so far away from home?! Would I have wifi access, Facetime, Whatsapp? All valid questions when travelling in the 21st century, and I will cover this as I go through this blog, and the subsequent parts with you!
My flight was from Manchester, to Phnom Penh, via Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific are a great airline to fly with (I flew economy) and I was comfortable, well fed and watered the whole way there. On the way back I was even able to schedule in a two night stop in Hong Kong, which was well worth doing... I'd hand on heart recommend if you're going THAT far across the world, that you try to tick a couple of things off the bucket list.
On landing into Phnom Penh, the only thing I can say is that it was a COMPLETE culture shock, and I had no idea what I had let myself in for. Only that reading books, articles, lonely planet guides, nothing could prepare you for it. I remember walking out of the airport, trying to get a ride into the city centre, not knowing who was a legit taxi, or Tuk Tuk, or even if people got Tuk Tuks (note, these are my top tip, they're so cheap and readily available and the drivers make the best tour guides!). I ended up settling on a guy who seemed very friendly and responsible, and began driving into the city centre. He turned and said to me 'hold onto your rucksack, and put your phone away', at which point, little old me thought 'oh my god, where have I come to?'. The tuk tuks in Cambodia drive as if you're driving through no man's land, and bag snatchers are common, so it's wise to have a money belt on your person, and keep your rucksack firmly strapped to your body.
Driving along, I couldn't believe it, it genuinely was like the wild west, with drivers deciding if their side of the road was too busy, to skip the queue and just drive down the side of the road with oncoming traffic. I genuinely had no idea what to expect prior to arriving here, but this was a huge shock to the system! However, as a heads up, by the end of my time in this amazing place, it felt truly like a second home, so if you do arrive and feel a little bit like me, hang on in there! You're about to have the adventure of your life.
By the time I had got to the hotel, I was amazed that I'd got there in one piece. I stayed at the Cardamom hotel, perfectly located in the city centre of Phnom Penh for exploring the whole city. It was reasonable, comfortable and super clean! The staff were could not do enough for you, and there is even a small spa to freshen up after a long flight. After a quick touch up, I decided the best thing to do was to power through the jet lag, and head out to explore. It seemed like a really logical idea to jump back into one of these Tuk Tuks (there's nothing like a baptism of fire right?), and the driver handily told me he offered tours of Phnom Penh, and would do it for approximately $10 (handy tip, dollars are the currency of choice here as they have more value than the local currency, so ensure you have a large selection of smaller value notes available... you'll soon realise everything is $1!)
Okay. Before we go any further you need to know that as my journey around Cambodia progressed, my ability to control my hair completely disappeared. Remember Monica in Friends when the gang went to Barbados? Well.... she's nothing on the state of my hair by the end of this journey.... just you wait and see what the pictures in part 4 look like!
Back to it. Wat Phnom was the first stop; a Buddhist temple situated on the only so called 'hill' in Phnom Penh. Entry was .... yes you guessed it... $1. The calm and tranquility of this decadent temple was a welcome relief in amongst the midst of the madness of the city. And the cool feel of the air was certainly needed after the shock of coming from the British winter, to the heat of the Cambodian capital. Rebuilt 4 times since its original design in 1372, this may not be the largest or grandest temple you would see on your travels around this country, but it's charm is certainly worth exploring. Top tip: wear shoes that are comfortable of course, but easy to slip on and off. If you're planning on entering temples you will be required to remove your footwear.
Back into the Tuk Tuk, and my driver took the long way around to the Golden Temple of Phnom Penh via this slightly funky roundabout... I'm not going to lie and say the jet lag hadn't hit by this point and I remember every detail of it, but it definitely demonstrated the decadence of some of the sights of this city, with the faces of the statue looking out over every direction of Phnom Penh. Plus it was completely free, and the detail on the statue is well worth a visit!
Next we stopped at Wat Kean Kleang, another simply breathtaking temple in Phnom Penh (and one I was grateful to have had direction to from the driver as I'd have never even known about it without his knowledge). Affectionately known as the 'Golden Temple' (but nothing like the one in Amritsar), I'd highly recommend hitting this sight at the golden hour of day, just as the sun begins to set. You'll see why when you see the sun hit the gold of the exterior and the temple seems to glow. A walk around the outside is simply not enough; you'll know what I mean when you enter and see the golden Buddha for yourself. Be aware that this is an actively used temple, so you may find that when you are there, worship is taking place and you should be respectful of this.
After this it was definitely time for a bit of retail therapy. So I asked to end my tour at the Central Market. Based within a 1937 Art Deco style building, expect to find everything here that you could possibly want, from your fake watches, to clothes, to little souvenirs for the family back home.
A quick freshen up was again on the cards (honestly my advice, pack clothes that aren't going to show the sweat, especially if you're coming from a cold climate, your body is going to SWEAT), and off out for dinner I went. Across the street from the hotel I stayed at, there was a fantastic restaurant called Romdeng. Set up by 'Mith Samlanh' (meaning Friends in English), this organisation aims to provide futures for the disadvantaged young people of Phnom Penh, by training them to be independent, contributing members of society. With a wide range of delicacies on offer including tarantulas (I passed on these), and also traditional dishes, there's something for everyone at this fusion restaurant. Plus, there's a relaxing vibe to this place, with a pool for day time dips, and cocktails a-plenty, it's truly worth a visit.
It's safe to say, by the end of this day, I was absolutely shattered, and fighting the jet-lag bad, having been awake for near on 48 hours. I'm pretty sure I made it to my bed in the hotel, and must have remembered to put the air-con on, because I woke up a full 10 hours later, refreshed, revitalized and ready to head out into the city for day 2.
Now this day was a pretty somber one, but one that I was determined to do, and is fully necessary I believe if you're going to go to Cambodia and understand the journey the people have been on to what they have today. The stark, brutal, and tragic Khmer Rouge history within this beautiful, rich, cultural land is still very raw and painful, and reminders of this pain are etched into the people and landscape. You'd be hard pushed within Cambodia to find a native who hasn't got some kind of personal link to the tragedy.
To provide a brief history the Khmer Rouge was a revolutionary group that seized control of the country in 1975. They then proceeded to facilitate one of the bloodiest, and cruelest of genocides the world was to ever see. One of the key sites of this period, was the Tuol Svay Prey High School, which Pol-Pot (the regime dictator), turned into the S-21 prison, or 'security prison'. Today it is known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Adult entry to this memorial is approximately $5. There are audio tours, and guides available at a small additional cost, and I'd firmly recommend doing the audio tour. It will guide you through the experience, explaining the importance of each site in this museum. The eerie nature of this torture chamber, that is essentially set in a school (a place where children should be playing and enjoying their education), is profound, and severely overwhelming. Needless to say I took very few photos during this experience... it just didn't feel right to at the site that all but 7 of the 20,000 people were brutally murdered at. The Khmer Rouge documented every second of their awful act of genocide, not just against Cambodian nationals, but also people from other countries such as the USA, and Australia. The 7 who survived, managed to do so by offering their skills such as photography to the Khmer Rouge in return for their survival. One of whom, was there during my visit, offering sales of his book and memoir of the experience. For someone who had seen first hand horrific acts of crime in the exact spot he was standing, I admired his strength and bravery, for wanting to tell the world of his tale.
From here, it is important to complete the journey from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It will cost about $10 in a Tuk Tuk (so consider sharing with potential travelers), or consider the Phnom Penh Hop On Hop Off tour. Here is the site that the approximately 20,000 people that were held in the prison were brutally murdered at. It is incredibly peaceful here, which felt so wrong for somewhere that held such a bloody history. Admission includes an audio tour, which is useful to understand the context of your journey through this site, especially when it comes to the memorials that include the remains of many of the people who were murdered. The audio tour also contains stories of some of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge, which rather than being depressing, demonstrated the true strength of the human spirit; the stories littered with forgiveness, and hope for the future, so despite it being one of the most troubling experiences of my life, left me feeling truly in awe of the spirit of the Cambodian people.
After this fairly heavy day, it only seemed right to brighten the mood a bit, so remembering that it was Friday Night, I got ready and headed into town towards the riverside. Here you'll find some of the trendiest nightlife in Phnom Penh, including happy hours on cocktails, and great fusion food. The Cambodian people take Friday night as seriously as we in the western world do, so expect to dress up; heels, shorts, full make up, the works! The riverside is where you'll find the biggest buzz and there's plenty of opportunity for a dance as well!
This would be my last night in Phnom Penh... for now, but as Part 4 of this blog will show, I come back to Phnom Penh before flying onto my next destination. The feeling in arriving back the second time compared to the first impressions I held of this city were hugely different; it truly felt like returning home! But for now, I'll leave you with the thought that my next leg of the trip was about to get a whole lot more adventurous. Next stop.... Battambang! x