The pace and intensity that we travel even boggles us sometimes. We average about 2-3 days in each place and try to explore as much as possible–from local markets to monuments to mountaintops. Phnom Penh was a little different. The scruffy Cambodian capital does have some worthwhile sites, including incredible Khmer Rouge memorials, but really Phnom Penh was our perfect refueling station. We needed to veg out after our hardscrabble hitchhiking in the north, get our visa for Vietnam and, as an added bonus for sticking around, spend time with two very special RTW buddies.
We arrived to the city bus station and, as per usual, we were swarmed by tuk tuk drivers looking to pick up a fare to the hotel we didn’t yet have. On the HoneyTrek we acquire our nightly lodging–both the paid and free kind–through a variety of methods (if you are interested in learning more, drop us a note over at TripCoach) but in the case of Phnom Penh, we implemented the “Tuk Tuk Shuffle.” This is where we agree to take someone’s tuk tuk if he drives us around until we find a guest house we like…at no extra charge. (It’s a hard bargain but someone usually gives in.) So 30 minutes and four stops later, we arrived to the White River Guest House…the best deal in the heart of town: A two bedroom and bath suite with massive balcony for $13. Here, Mike is enjoying a HoneyTrek classic, PB&B sandwich on our wrap-around veranda.
One of our favorite things about our room was watching Phnom Penh life go by. We lived across the street from an outdoor barber shop and a Buddhist monastery which kept things particularly interesting. In-line with our second floor was the monk laundromat, where their beautiful saffron-colored robes would hang out to dry in the sun.
There are some incredible night and day markets in Phnom Penh with plenty of things to sample. Skinned frogs and “simple boiled egg children” (see slideshow for the greatest menu of all time) seemed to be popular but our favorite Cambodian dish was ha houy teuk: Shaved ice topped with jellies, mung beans, nuts, pumpkin and coconut cream. We later found out that this odd-ball dessert is actually the national favorite of nearly every Southeast Asian country…and even better in the Philippines!
We returned to our room for our normal catch-up of blogging, emailing, social media, then suddenly we got a Facebook message saying, “This too much of a coincidence, we have to meet up.” One of our fellow around-the-world travelers, Deb Gersten (the other blonde in the photo) had previously met two separate people–one in Israel and one in Jordan–who both said, “Oh, you are on an RTW too? You should check out my friends Mike & Anne’s HoneyTrek.” She had been following us quietly for a few months but when she saw we might be in the same city, it seemed only fitting to get together. Since this fated night out to dinner and a visit to a Cambodian drag queen bar (see the slideshow for a Khmer Liza Minnelli), we’ve met up in a total of four countries and Deb has become one of the greatest friends from our travels.
Deb introduced us to this great non-profit called Friends International in Phnom Penh (they also do work throughout Southeast Asia) that trains at-risk youth in the arts, service industry, and other jobs to build self-esteem and help them become contributing members of society. In the city they have an up-scale Friends restaurant staffed with culinary trainees and also a fabulous boutique with accessories made by their budding artists. We bought a gorgeous necklace made from compressed magazine clippings for Mike’s mom.
The time comes in every Phnom Penh visit to face the city’s grim past as the headquarters of the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1975 dictator Pol Pot marched virtually everyone out of the city to start his radical Agrarian socialist state and threw all dissenters into execution centers like S-21. Today it stands as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide showcasing in raw detail how the prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and killed. Seeing the blood-stained cells is horrifying but it is the thousands of mug shots of kind, smiling, innocent faces…mothers, grandpas, teenagers, children…that leaves you utterly devastated.
To help the healing process and bring awareness of this brutal history to future generations, memorial museums like Choeung Ek have been erected. Set at the former killing fields and mass graves just outside the city, the museum and audio-guided tour breaks your heart but gives you incredible perspective. It is told by everyone from the victims to the murders and helps you wrap your head around how normal people could be brainwashed and a country could veer so far astray. With the leaders of the Khmer Rouge still on trial for the genocide, the country’s emotional wounds remain open but active memorials like these are a step towards the healing.
This was a heavy day and needed the cheer of good friends, food, and drink. Just our luck, our dear friend Ashley (from the 12/12/12 crew and ISeeAshley.com fame) was coming to Phnom Penh as a part of her seven-month travels in southeast Asia. We went to a lively local joint and chowed on shrimp cakes and Khmer noodle soup then took her back to our favorite night market for more ha houy teuk dessert.
Part of the reason for staying so many days in Phnom Penh was to leave time for the semi-mysterious process of obtaining our Vietnam visa. We were concerned it may be tough to get speedy approval from a Communist state and US-invaded nation but, surprisingly, the process was super smooth! With Phnom Penh’s proximity to the Vietnamese border and its capital city infrastructure, a slew of businesses from tour operators to guest houses offer visa services. For a small fee they handle the whole process and have it back to your guest house in two days. This option seemed too good to be true but it all checked out and sure beat waiting in line at the embassy…done and done!
With our visas in hand, we hopped a boat down the Tonle Sap river toward the Mekong Delta. Farewell Cambodia and good morning Vietnam!!!