After a five-hour trip, my bus inbound from Siem Reap halted at the central bus station at Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s bustling capital nestled on the banks of the mighty Mekong River.
Without a skyline dominated by modern high-rise blocks, the streets of Phnom Penh are instead characterized by big trees, Cambodian-style architecture, and temples, ideal for strolling around and exploring by bike.
I cycled to Central Market, a large, historic market with countless stalls selling goods ranging from flowers, jewelry, antiques (or fake antiques to be more accurate), handicrafts, clothes, and souvenirs. The dome-shaped, European-looking building which houses the market is very photogenic.
The top of my must-do list was to visit Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, a place that is probably not for those easily distressed, nor suitable for children. Emotionally grueling as the exhibition is, it’s an essential part of understanding the history of the country. I spent over three hours there and left with a lump in my throat and much respect for how Cambodia faces up this horrific period of history, offering detailed information with no excuses or evasion. And I’m so in awe of how upbeat people there are, despite this dark history.
I didn’t go to the Royal Palace, one of Phnom Penh’s most popular attractions, but went to the less tourist-packed National Museum instead which is only a walking distance away. The museum houses more than 14,000 items including sculptures, ceramics, and bronzes, and the red-brick building, which was constructed nearly a century ago, is one of the country’s architectural gems.
Food in Phnom Penh is similar to that in Siem Reap, only with more options thanks to those mushrooming restaurants catering to tourists from all around the world. At a traditional restaurant called Romdeng, I tried fish amok, a classic Khmer dish which is steamed and served in a banana leaf with a little coconut cream on top. Another two specialties of this restaurant are deep-fried tarantula and red tree ants with beef and holy basil. As with the unhatched chicks, both of these were a step too far for me.
I was a little nervous about what I might encounter in Phnom Penh, since I had been advised to hold tight to my valuables because stealing is very common there, but all the people I met were so kind that I almost forgot I was alone in a foreign country. Having only stayed for two days, I didn’t get the chance to try all the things on my must-do list, but that didn’t affect how much I enjoyed my stay in this wonderful city, and I left regretting only that I couldn’t stay longer.
Photos: Pixabay; Jpatokal via Wikimedia Commons; the City Kitchen