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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

March 16 – 21

Knowing that my flight to Cambodia was departing at 6am (or some ridiculous time like that), I decided that I couldn’t be trusted to wake up early enough to be at the airport on time.  Staying up all night my last night in Bangkok seemed like a much better plan….so that’s what I did.

I arrived at the airport still a little bit dizzy from partying with the lady boys, but all my bags were packed and I was even early. So far so good. My flight to Cambodia wasn’t long enough to get a sufficient amount of sleep though, so I was running on empty by the time I arrived in Phnom Penh. It also occurred to me when I landed that I didn’t have any plans of where I was going to stay. I’m not sure if this was due to my exhaustion or because I’d been traveling for so long that I just couldn’t be bothered with such preparations anymore. Up to this point, I always had a few hotel names scribbled down, or at least an idea of how much a taxi should cost to get into town. But this time I was completely unprepared….and not too worried about it either. Good energy seemed to be around me, so no worries. Things just tended to work out how they should.

As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I was greeted by all kinds of characters fighting to give me a ride to my hotel. Generally I tended to have a plan at this point, but since I was planless and had no clue where I wanted to go, I found the tuk tuk driver with the kindest looking face and hopped inside. I asked him to give me a hotel suggestion (knowing full well that he’d just rush me over to whichever hotel would give him commission), but I didn’t really care at the moment – I just wanted to find a place to sleep as soon as possible. And to my surprise, the driver wasn’t all that sketchy. He chatted to me the whole way as he drove me to his hotel of choice and he didn’t pressure me to stay there once we arrived. He said he’d wait outside while I had a look and if I wasn’t happy with it, he’d take me to another one. The hotel he took me to, Diamond’s Guest House, actually wasn’t bad at all. It was right near the city center, the owners were friendly, it had hot water, and the price was good. But honestly, I was so tired that any place would have probably seemed wonderful – as long as it was cheap and had a bed.

No kidnapping was allowed, unfortunately….but I guess I can’t have everything my way. Maybe next time.

Anyway, I paid the tuk tuk driver (too much, I found out later), got the keys to my room, and fell asleep for a solid 6 or 7 hours.

When I finally woke up, it was time for dinner. I dragged myself out of bed and ordered some food at my hotel – a vegetable curry “with no fish sauce” (though I have my doubts). And I watched as one of the smiley owners pointed to the celing to show me the biggest gecko I’d ever seen in my life (according to him, they bite). Afterwards, I left to go check out the town. I was still in a sleepy stupor and disoriented from being in a new place….so I remember the rest of the day feeling a bit surreal.

This is what I read in an online guide about Phnom Penh: “Visitors who can’t handle rubbish and dust in the streets, risky traffic, blocked sidewalks, prowling tuk tuk and moto-drivers, touts and beggars may not enjoy the city.” This is all very true…but by this point, I’d kinda learned that I enjoy grubby, chaotic cities. In my opinion Cambodia had a similar feel to Vietnam, but everything and everyone seemed to be just a little bit gentler.

After walking along various footpaths clogged with garbage, stagnant water, tuk tuk drivers, cyclo and motorbike taxi drivers, sleeping people, begging people (often amputees and children), farm animals, and chunks of concrete or mud…it was time to find a place to relax for a while. I discovered the Mekong River Restaurant, where the waiters were super friendly, the curry was nice but greasy, and they had free wifi (although it only seemed to allow one person on it at a time). They also had a small movie theater upstairs with daily showings of short films about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Regime. The Mekong River Restaurant seemed to be the perfect place for me to sit for hours and catch up on work (YES I do work sometimes), so I decided to make it my office off and on for the next few days.

I loitered at the restaurant until they finally closed, then headed back to my hotel thinking I’d probably be awake all night since I had slept so much during the day. Luckily on my walk back, I met Jimy (his real name is Cheat Chum Socheat, but he refers to himself as Jimy since he deals with tourists so often and many tourists get stressed trying to pronounce such a foreign sounding name). Jimy was hanging out with a few of his friends at a table outside a convenience store and they invited me to sit and have a beer with them. This sounded much more interesting than watching TV alone in my hotel room, and I was close enough to my hotel that I felt comfortable staying out a while longer. So I let them buy me a beer and we all sat around and talked late into the night.

Jimy is awesome. He speaks great English and is a really dedicated student (I can’t remember anymore what he studies, but I think it’s something like International Business). When he isn’t in school, he visits his family in a nearby village or he works as a motorbike driver. Jimy doesn’t make a lot of money – partly because his job just doesn’t pay well (a trip across town costs about 2,000 riel or 50 cents), but also because he says most of the tourists prefer to travel by tuk tuk rather than motorbike taxi. So when he’s working, his job mainly consists of sitting on the same street corner every day and chatting with his motorbike driver friends while they wait for occasional work. To anyone visiting Phnom Penh and wanting a tour of the city or just a reliable driver to take you somewhere in town, I would definitely recommend Jimy as a motorbike driver. Many motorbike traxi drivers come from rural villages and may not actually know their way around town (or care about getting you there safely), but they’ll obviously try their best to convince you of their skills, just to compete with all the other guys vying for your business.

So moral of the story – with so many drivers to choose from (many of whom don’t care about anything but your money), it can be hard work to find one that’s honest, kind, knowledgable, and safe. They’re there – you just have to find them. And I was happy I managed to find one my first day.

While Jimmy was calm and peaceful, one of his friends was a bit more agressive. It seemed he used to have a very dreamy view of foreigners, but after years of trying to befriend them beyond a superficial level, he had become bitter and disillusioned. As he showed me his notebook full of tourists’ names, email addresses, and references written next to their native countries…it appeared that he felt there was some status to be gained by collecting as many foreign acquaintances as he could. Most of these “friends,” were people who met him only very briefly, but made all kinds of promises to keep in touch. Then they promptly finished their Cambodia vacations, went back home to “their real lives,” and forgot all about him….and this guy was pissed off.

As it was getting late at this point, I decided to say goodnight. I got Jimy’s number and said I’d give them all a call tomorrow and we could go eat lunch together. Jimy’s friend had had quite a few beers and this set him off on a rant: “I’m sure you’re just like all the rest. You smile, you drink a beer, you take our number and say you’ll call…but you never do. You’ll go back to America and never think of us again!” I told them I’d keep my promise and call. They had their doubts.

The next morning, I called Jimy first thing. I was happy to have found Cambodian friends my first day, but I also wanted to prove that I wasn’t going to ditch them. He seemed really surprised (but happy) that I actually called like I said I would. When we met up to decide what to do that day, I suggested he call his friend (the bitter one who didn’t trust me) and invite him along too…but Jimy was weird about it and didn’t want to. He was basically giving up a day of work to hang out with me and it didn’t seem like he wanted to share his newfound foreign friend with anyone else.

I was hungry, so we took off on his motorbike and went to eat.

I wanted to eat at a place called Romdeng because it’s run by “Mith Samlanh” (“Friends”), a nonprofit that helps provide jobs to street children and their families…and because I heard it had good vegetarian options.

The restaurant was much fancier than I expected, the food was very expensive for an average Cambodian meal, and the only people eating there were wealthy looking foreigners. The food was really good – but I could tell the poshness of the place made Jimy uncomfortable. And even though I said I wanted to pay for both of us, he said he wasn’t hungry and only ordered an overpriced coke. So I ended up ordering a meal while Jimy just sat and watched…and the whole thing was slightly awkward. Food was great – just not the type of place locals would ever go.

Later Jimy told me that he doesn’t think much of the money actually goes towards helping ordinary Cambodians. I don’t think this is entirely true, but I can kinda see his point. Rather than supporting a foreign owned organization that dedicates a portion of its profits to helping the local community, I could just eat at a small, family run business and that would be a much more direct way of helping Cambodian families.

After that, I decided to let Jimy make the decisions. So when he suggested we go to a big Western-style shopping mall, I wasn’t going to argue. To me, it was just a big, ugly (quite sterile looking) mall – not nearly as colorful or interesting as the traditional markets. But it seemed to be something the Cambodians were quite proud of. It has AC, a huge supermarket, lots of fast food outlets, video games, a movie theater (that seems to show mostly crappy Khmer horror films) and even a skating rink on the top floor. The mall was full of locals – most of them just walking around and looking rather than buying anything. And from the top floor, we got a great view of the city.

Next we went to the Tonlé Sap and sat along the waterfront.  This river reverses its flow during the monsoon season (June to November), forming the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and having a tremendous impact on the Cambodian economy (supporting over 3 million people and providing over 75% of Cambodia’s annual inland fish catch). During the dry season (December to April), the Tonlé Sap’s reverses again, preventing flooding downstream and contributing to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Due to the lake’s importance, the Tonlé Sap and surrounding provinces were officially recognized as a biosphere reserve in 2001.

Many villagers live in floating houseboats and stilt house communities along the Tonlé Sap, enabling them to actually pick up and move with the water flow. Here are some great pictures of what this life is like. Even during the dry season (when I was there), it’s obvious how much people rely on this water source. Families gather en masse to bath, fish, wash dishes, pray, or simply sit by the water and enjoy the outside. Women wander around the hoards of people, bearing baskets of nuts, fruits, and other objects on sale. Others bless the lake by floating shiny paper boats with incense or flowers. It’s a busy place in the evening when the weather isn’t so hot, and I had fun sitting and just watching all the action.

When Jimy found out I had never had “penfruit”, he called a woman over and bought me some. This became my new favorite food in Cambodia – you pop the little seeds out and eat them like nuts. So fun!

After watching the water for a while, Jimy took me to my hotel and we sat outside waiting for my friends to arrive.  I hadn’t even planned to visit Cambodia, but when I found out Daemond and Michael, two friends I had met in Perth, Australia, were planning to meet up there…I adjusted my schedule to meet them too. They both arrived quickly, one after another. Perfect timing.

Dae arrived with Po, who would be our designated tuk tuk driver for the rest of our stay in Phnom Penh. I’m going to track down his contact info. so I can post it here. It was a fun reunion and nice to have some familiar faces around. And since it was St. Patricks day, Dae wanted to go to an Irish Pub to celebrate.

Again, poor Jimy felt a little out of place…but he had a good time.

And that night Jimy took us to his favorite dance club (which ended up being full of Cambodians, but quite expensive). Everyone loved Dae’s dancing and our presence in general turned out to be a big hit.

After dancing for a while, we sat outside the convience store near our hotel. Intrigued by the giant poster outside advertising “special muscle wine”, we decided to buy a bottle and make up a simple drinking game that involved rock paper sissors. It didn’t make our muscles any stronger, but the whole scene was entertaining. Jimy had to wake up early for school though. I wonder if he ever made it….

The next day, Po the tuk tuk driver, basically took us on a marathon of sadness.

First stop was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school that was used as a security prison and interrogation center (code named S-21) by the Khmer Rough during its horrific regime from 1975-1979.

During this timeframe, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned here, starved, brutally tortured, and eventually executed. Most of the victims were soldiers and government officials from the previous Lon Nol regime, in addition to leading intellectuals, academics, doctors, teachers, factory workers, monks, engineers, children, etc. (most of whom were innocent of all charges against them, but forced to confess under extreme torture methods).

In some cells, you can still see blood stains on the floor.

And some sort of tallies and markings.

When the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1979 the S-21 prison staff fled, leaving thousands of photographic records. In 1997, Nhem Ein was identified as the official prison photographer. You can see his photographs, along with a documentary and a NY Times story about him (in light of the long awaited criminal trial of Khmer Rouge leaders that began while I was in Cambodia in February).

Van Nath is thought to be one of the only 4 prisoners who survived. He is an important painter who lived by working for Pol Pot, painting pictures of prisoners. Van Nath is featured in the film S-21: The Khmer Rough Killing Machine, where he gives a tour of the prison, drawing on pictures and personal memories to reenact scenes of the prisoners’ horrific treatment. He also interviews and confronts some of his former captors.

Because the prison/museum now attracts hoards of tourists and daily visitors, you can find lots of writings and comments by people who felt their words of wisdom were so important, they had to write them on the wall of the museum. In a way, this made me even more depressed. Some people are stupid…and insensitive.

Here is a summary of some of the wall writings I discovered:

This seems to be promotion for some artist called Codefc. While I like the stencil, not sure it belongs on the wall of a torture prison.

These wall writings seem like they are probably written by Cambodians.

Inside the museum, there are strings of paper cranes that were donated by Japan. But while Hiroshima’s Peace Park had a hopeful and uplifting feel to it, this place was all sadness.

There’s even a sign telling you not to smile or laugh (not that I think you’d feel like it).

Next we visited the Choeung Ek extermination center, the best known site of The Killing Fields, where the Khmer Rouge exteminated and buried prisoners, many of which were held at the Tol Sleng prison.

Today Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa filled with human skulls and clothing scraps found from inside mass graves. By looking through the glass windows, you can see that many of the skulls have been bashed in.

Choeung Ek used to be an orchard….and there were actually tons of butterflies floating around when we visited. I’d like to think that is a hopeful sign that these poor people have found some sort of peace.

After visiting the genocide museum and the extermination center, many tourists choose to top off their itinerary by visiting a shooting range. Now after a full day of torturing and killing…I can’t understand why ANYONE would be motivated to do this.

Probably the Cambodians think of this as odd and horribly insensitive too, but hey – money talks. Whatever business concepts bring in the tourist money (no matter how wacky or awful they are) will obviously be supported by locals. Apparently there are various shooting ranges around town (of various degrees of professionalism) with over 50 different weapon options ranging in price from $20 to $250.

You can even kill live animals. Here’s a blog all about this, with comments underneath describing such events (warning: in addition to some crazy shit being described, there are also lots of porn ads on this site…just more indication of the type of cool kids attracted to this type of thing).

And here’s a youtube video illustrating how tourism negatively affects the disarmament in post-war Cambodia. The video starts by visiting a shooting range in Phnom Penh, where a young backpacker proudly shoots a cow with an M-16 machine gun. My conclusion: Tourism is a horrible virus. We do more harm than good.

Since we obviously weren’t going to the shooting range, our tuk tuk driver decided to take us to an orphanage. And after going into a big speech about how much the place meant to him, he suggested that we stop by a store and purchase a $40 bag of rice to help feed them. We were all about helping the orphanage kids, but when we saw another tuk tuk full of tourists stop at the same shop to purchase the same bag of rice (most likely going to the same orphanage)…the whole thing seemed a bit too weird. Clearly they were getting some sort of commision and we decided to hold off on the rice buying until we could talk to the orphange director to see what kinds of things were actually needed.

When we arrived, squealing children ran to the gate to greet us. The Lighthouse Orphanage, which provides free housing, food, education, and parental support to the children, is clearly legit and worth supporting. And the children are adorable! We played volleyball with them and visited their English class, where they took turns interviewing us.

After talking to the volunteers, we learned that they actually have enough rice (well, duh), but what they really needed at the moment was toothpaste and soap. We told them we’d go buy that stuff and come back in a few days to deliver it.

And when I told this little girl we would probably come back to say hi in a few days, she grabbed on to me and said “No Maybe!” Heartbreaking. All in all, the kids seemed really happy and well cared for though – the place kinda had a (very basic) summer camp feel…and the children get daily playtime with visitors from all over the world.

The next day was a work day. And Michael and I tried several different places before we could find one where we could both sit comfortably and get consistent wireless Internet. Eventually we found a place called Iris Bar, with large dark windows and a huge sign saying “free wifi” right next to the sign saying “opening soon.” As we were standing outside debating whether it was already open or not, a waitress opened the doors and pulled us inside promising we could sit there all day while drinking cheap beer at happy hour prices AND using their free Internet. After about an hour of trying to access the Internet with no luck, the woman grabbed a neighboring shop owner, along with some customers and random friends to try to sort out the situation. Eventually she called the Korean owner and thrust the phone in my face, demanding that I speak to him instead (because she said he scares her). He ended up coming into the bar, calling the man he just bought the shop from to get the wifi code, and after all that…we were finally able to connect…and everyone in the bar cheered! The whole ordeal was a hilarious celebration of team work.

This waitress lady was pretty flirtatious and kept cuddling up to us while we were working. After giving up on work and talking to her for a while, we decided to leave. In her broken English, she insisted that we come back in the evening. “Big women. There will be BIG women” was all she kept saying. We did end up returning – partly because we felt some weird sort of loyalty to stick to our promise, but also because we were curious to see what she meant by “Big Women.”

When we came back in the evening, the bar was a completely different place. And this time the door burst open, we were greeted by not 1 flirtatious lady…but about 30 (as it turned out, “big women” meant “many women”). When we entered, a few of the women were dancing on the bar, but most were massaging the shoulders of the only customers in the place: two creepy, balding white dudes. And all the women were wearing skimpy black clothing and way too much makeup. Around this time, I looked out the window to see the names of the neighboring bars (such as “Cheerleaders” and “Beaver Bar”). Not sure why we didn’t pick up on this vibe during the daytime, but we got the gist this time. This should have been our cue to walk right back out, but we ended up staying and having a drink. The second we sat down, we were bombarded by “big women”, many of whom were hitting on me just as much as the boys. They probably thought I must surely be a rich lesbian and it would be much less threatening to cuddle up to me instead. And well, in the end, I did end up buying one of them a drink. After a few hours of conversations and weirdness, we said goodbye to our new group of “big women” friends and left.

Sometime between our first orphanage visit and our Iris Bar escapades, we ate at Knyay, an upscale restaurant serving vegan versions of traditional Khmer dishes. Daemond and Michael weren’t as thrilled about the more costly, meatless menu as I was…but because they’re really amazing travel companions, they happily joined me for dinner. The food was good and there were amazing photographs displayed on the walls – part of a photography project with Phnom Penh street children. The photos of daily life scenes, of cyclo drivers, fruit sellers, and trash pickers, were sobering and eye opening. All the photos and their captions were created by children – children who are not only curious, creative, and fearless when it comes to photographing strangers…but children who understand their surroundings because they live that life day in and day out. Since these child photographers have such an intimate relationship with their subjects, I felt their photographs portrayed daily life scenes from an important pespective – showing more honesty and emotion than foreign photographers probably could. Anyway, I was impressed.

Our last day in Phnom Penh, we went to the market to buy massive amounts of soap and toothpaste. But since we knew the kids wouldn’t be excited about the soap and toothpaste, we wanted to bring out own gifts as well. The boys brought a small collection of musical instruments and dance moves.

I brought a huge stack of colored paper so we could make snowflakes and other paper crafts.

Our craft and music party turned out to be a huge hit with the kids at the orphanage. And it was definitely the most memorable part of my Cambodia trip. I’d love to go back and volunteer someday!

This kid was the most inventive. He assigned Michael with the project of making him a paper dog.

Which he used to make his very own dog bracelet.

Then a crane hat.

Then a full on face mask.

Everyone else wanted bunny hats. And after I had made a few bunny hats for some of the younger kids, I got bombarded by children thrusting paper into my hands, poking my shoulder, and screaming “You me rabbit! You me rabbit!” After an hour or two of nonstop bunny hat making…I was able to please everyone. And we had a (very happy) bunny clan.

After spending all day at the orphanage, it was time for us to say goodbye. This little girl, Srey Nich, was particularly attached to me. I gave her my passport photo and she said she’d keep it in her room so she could remember me.

All the children were super sweet. And lots of them made me presents…some of which were quite elaborate and impressive.

Since I wasn’t able to stuff all their presents in my backpack, I photographed them in my hotel room.


  • Here is some cultural advice about traveling in Cambodia.

  • If you’re able to order Cambodian curry without the fish sauce…it can be vegan and delicious….and bright yellow!

  • Cambodians have one official passenger train, which goes from Battambang to Phnom Penh. But there are also many unofficial bamboo trains (constructed by locals out of bamboo, motorcycle engines, and recycled tank parts). They occupy the same tracks as the regular train and are used to transport passengers and cargo to neighboring villages. Here is a great blog post about Cambodia’s train system. Here is an article about the bamboo train.

  • Short distance travel options in Cambodia include cyclos, motorbike taxis, and tuk tuks, tuk tuks being the most popular mode of transportation.

This tuk tuk looks especially cool.

  • Among the things discouraged in Cambodia (understandably) are….

electrocuting yourself

bringing guns, grenades, or syringes

  • For a good, but sad movie about Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, watch The Killing Fields.
  • Cambodia has a wide array of delicious fruits. Check out this link and this link.
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  1. Montserrat Salmeron

     /  May 12, 2010


    I just saw your blog and I think its amazing! i was in Cambodia last month and although i saw very little i was left with the feeling that i have to go back! i really loved it! and the part where you talk about the orphanage really moved me! i am sure these kids will remember you for a very very very long time!


  2. Linda Peñera

     /  September 9, 2010

    This is very interesting, informative and helpful. This is my third month of work here. I am interested in knowing how my workplace can provide help and support in the LIghthouse Orphanage. We have September 21 as our targeted date to be there and do something worthwhile for the children. I look forward to your suggestions. Thanks. Linda

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