The Dark and Light Sides of Phnom Penh

22nd December 2015

We’d only just got used to Vietnam, its customs, its currency and its way of life. So we thought we’d leave.

Come on Cambodia, get in us.

We made our way along the Mekong River (course we did), leaving Vietnam from the Mekong Delta town of Chau Doc by speedboat for a journey that lasted around 6 hours or so.

Chau Doc was a rather nondescript way to leave Vietnam, which as a country we have truly loved. There is little to say about it other than I trod on a snake. Yeah, that’s right. A snake.

Vicious bastard it was.

What was even more worrying was that I was barefoot at the time. Now I am not one for panicking around bugs, snakes, spiders and such but in this case where my bare sole came crushing down against the venomous body of a bonafide killer (although I haven’t identified the snake, I am pretty certain, by the way it looked at me, that it was a savage).

I managed to capture the beast on video so you can see I’m not being dramatic:

As you can see, it was bloody massive.

Anyway, into Cambodia we went. The journey along the Mekong was, if I am honest, a bit of a let down. The river is filthy and for the most has very little to offer visually. But that said, travelling by boat was certainly a welcome change to the norm.

entering Cambodia on the mekong river

Leaving Vietnam on the Mekong River

Our first contact with Cambodia was at the border crossing. And I’ve got to say that I don’t think I have ever seen such a welcoming, serene, peaceful and actually beautiful border crossing. As you step off the boat to get your visa you are greeted by a complex more like a buddhist temple than an immigration point. In and around the peaceful grounds we found shrines, statues, sleeping dogs and kids playing. The police smiled and the birds sang.

There was even a badminton court, but alas we hadn’t packed our shuttlecocks.

Shrine at the cambodian mekong river border crossing

Better than a man with a gun.

mekong river cambodia border crossing

Julie chilling out at the border crossing.


Show me the Money

Cambodia is a poor country. We knew that. Much poorer than Vietnam. They also have a healthy competitive relationship and its not a good idea to make too many unfavorable comparisons between the two with people we meet.

One of the first things that strikes you about the country when you arrive is their currency system. Since the 1970s Cambodia uses the US$ as its de facto currency, supplemented by its national currency, the Cambodian Riel.

Mostly we pay with dollars. We are able take dollars out from cash machines. This system seems to make everything cost at least $1, which actually makes the country more expensive than Vietnam when it comes to our cost of living. Of course there are instances where you will break a dollar, and this is where you use Cambodian Riel. The rate is fixed between the two currencies:

$1 = KHR 4,000

As such, if something costs $1.50 you actually pay with a $1 and KHR2,000. What makes this interesting is that the KHR denominations follow their own spread with 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 100,000 notes.

Julie, being the accountant has nailed this system. I’m sad to say that I find it a bloody struggle every time I’m buying something.


A Tragic Past

Cambodia’s capital is Phnom Penh (pronounced “p-nom pen”). It used to be known as the “Pearl of Asia”.

We didn’t hold out much hope for Phnom Penh. When a city is referenced by its former glories you aren’t exactly expecting a lot. We also knew very little about the place. Unlike Saigon or Hanoi, it’s a city we had heard very little about (as can be said for a lot of Cambodia’s history).

However it turns out that we actually spent more time here than any other city through a combination of its charm, its challenges and its locations as a Cambodia travel hub.

Firstly in truth there isn’t a huge amount to do in Phnom Penh. There is a palace, national museum, art gallery etc. but the main “visitor draws” are the S21 Genocide Museum and a trip to the Killing Fields.

Now I have to be honest that before we visited, we shamefully knew very little about Cambodia’s past. It wasn’t until we visited both these spots that we learnt of the true horror that occurred as recently as the late Seventies.

Under the leadership of the psychotic dictator Pol Pot, in 3 short years Cambodia was almost destroyed. Cities were evacuated, schools closed (and turned into prisons) currency was abolished, factories shut down (and destroyed) and the family unit disbanded. In a country of 7 million, 2 million were murdered.

Cell block at s21 prison Phnom Penh

A cell block at S21 prison. This place used to be a high school until shut down by the Khmer Rouge.

rules of s-21 prison in phnom penh

The rules of the prison. The strange phrasing reflects the Khmer Rouges politik-speak.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s extreme communist ideology saw the educated as the suppressors of the masses. Educated and skilled workers were targeted, imprisoned and killed. People who had glasses likewise, for this was a sign of the intelligent oppressor.

I mean this is some serious mental shit, defying logic. The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn Cambodia into a self sufficient farming state. Removing modernity in favour of a simpler, agricultural past. They set wildly ambitious production targets for the country (increasing rice production beyond what was possible) whilst getting office workers to plough the fields. They actually had no idea what they were doing.

I have never learnt of anything like it.

killing fields phnom penh

People hang bands at the side of a mass grave at The Killing Fields

The regime lasted three years until is was overthrown by a revolutionary army supported by Vietnam. This was in 1979. The leaders fled, and unbelievably remained Cambodia’s recognised government in exile. That is the UN, UK, USA and our western allies refused to recognise the new and actual government of Cambodia in preference on a genocidal dictator that had been overthrown. The Khmer Rouge even had a seat at the UN, with the actual Cambodian government unrepresented!

Anyway, I’m not going to dwell on this any longer but if like me you don’t know as much as you should about this episode of our global past, this is a good website where you can read more.


The lighter side of Phnom Penh

When we went beyond the sad history, the chaos and the dirt we found Phnom Penh has some really charming surprises.

Firstly, the city nestled along the Mekong River, has some lovely communal outdoor spaces. These come alive at dawn and dusk. We never saw dawn (obvs) but did catch dusk.

monks crossing the road in Phnom Penh

I love a Monk photo.


All walks of life step out onto the streets to socialise, exercise and play sport. Its pretty amazing to see such a communal approach to keeping fit and it gave the city an amazing family feel. It was so inspiring that we wanted to don our trainers and get involved. But then decided to sack it off for a cocktail instead.

Cocktails in Phnom Penh

Exercise can do one, get one of these in me.

Phnom Penh actually has an amazing cocktail bar scene – I can’t actually believe I wrote that, I know I sound sound like a wanker. It’s like someone has picked their favourite Shoreditch bars and dropped them here in Cambodia. Substitute the hipsters for seedy old men though.

hang a bike from the ceiling why not?

Cocktail bar with motorbike hanging from the ceiling.


seagulls bar phnom penh

Not a cocktail bar

We headed down there one night to make sure Phnom Penh realised a couple of new faces were in town. We got there for happy hour and were straight onto the Espresso Martinis. 5 martinis later, the clock ticking past 8pm we had seen enough. Ready for bed, it was clear we had shown the locals how it’s done.


The food ain’t up to much.

Now let’s be clear. The food in Cambodia is pretty shit. Its either boring or greasy. I know that’s a sweeping statement but I have had enough of it. Its rubbish.

I think I’m currently on about 5 eggs a day. Excessive I know. This wasn’t even allowed in the 1980s! Mental.

It seems that apart from eggs most protein is fair game here (cheerfully, apart from dog). Crickets, spiders, snakes, the lot. I’m a lot more excited about this than Julie is, who to be fair isn’t a fan of these things when they’re alive.

So far i’ve had cricket and spider. or tarantula to be precise.


eating crickets in cambodia

cricket cheers

eating crickets in cambodia

Eating Crickets

eating tarantulas in phnom penh

Tasty legs.

I think I’ll save snake for Christmas dinner.

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