Phnomh Penh is a bustling city that doesn’t boast the development of most capitals in the region (once you get out of city center many of the roads are poorly paved or even dirt) but that gives it a unique charm. The fact that the tourist trade is so central to it, though, also gives it a highly annoying veneer as practically nobody you talk to seems to have any interest in you much beyond the contents of your wallet. I took a tour with a Cambodian tuktuk driver when I found out the Royal Palace (which from the outside at least looks very much like the Palace in Bangkok) and the Silver Pagoda were closed due to the Chinese Premier’s visit.
It was a bit rushed, but we had some interesting conversations about politics, Cambodian fables (like the Khmer people being the product of a man and a Naga serpent princess, or that Pnomh Penh was built by a woman who found four Buddhas in a floating log and decided to make a city there), and food in between local sights like temples, monuments, and Old Quarter French buildings ranging from utterly dilapidated to restored. Alas, even he tried to pull an old school orphanage food scam when it was over. Disappointing as hell.
The National Museum was an interesting visit as well, housed in a traditional building behind the Palace and full of sculptures and statuary from all eras of Cambodian history, including originals that have been moved from Angkor Wat to protect them.
The first and most affecting thing I saw in Pnomh Penh, though, were the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and the S21/Tuol Sleng Prison. This is the former site (one of 300+ killing fields) of the murder and burial of thousands of innocent Cambodian civilians by Pol Pot’s crazed regime in the 1970s, and the macabre remainders of that horrible act (from a scarred hardwood tree used to kill babies to a glass-walled stupa full of skulls and other bones disinterred by nature and investigations) are a stark, sobering contrast to the strangely peaceful place it is today, with puppies even romping through the grass-covered burial mounds.
S21 was an even more striking reminder of the banality of evil- a former high school looking very much the same as it probably did when children’s voices rang out in it (they never even removed the blackboards), but now haunted by a legacy of torture and imprisonment. Inside, the metal frame beds used for interrogation stand alone in the large classrooms, while other rooms have rows upon rows of pictures of the victims of this horrible place.
One strange fact I discovered there was that the first faces to witness the evils found here and free the survivors that remained weren’t Americans or Cambodian rebels, but the Viet Cong. That’s right, even though several American, Australian, and European citizens all lost their lives in the Killing Fields, accused of being CIA spies, it was the Vietnam that bothered doing anything about it, with the U.S. still recognizing Pol Pot as the legitimate Cambodian leader years after he’d gone into exile years and Cambodia had started forming a government of their own people. Turns out it was okay to slaughter the odd American, just as long you weren’t a damn Commie when you did it.
On a much lighter note, Cambodian food is… seriously delicious. Here are a few of my favorites:
Amok Trey- this is fresh fish, topped by a mix of herbs, peanuts, coconut milk, and egg and steamed to a porridge-like consistency. It has a spicy, Thai-food like flavor with a soupy consistency that’s hard to describe, but excellent.
Loklak- this is marinated, stir-fried beef that is incredibly tender- juicy, salty, and savory, accompanied by white rice and the ever-present Southeast Asian sweet/hot chilli sauce.
Babor- this is a breakfast rice soup like many Asian countries have, but by far the best I’ve had. It has a rich pork broth, caramelized onions, chicken, and rice and is a great way to start a busy day.
In Phnomh Penh, I tried a variety of street food, from spicy beef skewers to breaded, fried plantains to what I can only describe as banana biscuits. I also tried a stand for dinner that sold a variety of skewers from meat to vegetable to wontons and egg rolls to be dipped in hot oil, fried, and served with chilli sauce and delicious spicy pickled garlic slices.
Cambodia actually has a variety of beers, most of them of the typical decent but remarkable pilsner style, like Angkor and Cambodia. My favorite was Kingdom, a pils with nice, hoppy body and floral notes, with just a touch too much sweetness.