A Slice of Cambodian History in Phnom Penh

12:40:00 PM


The only thing I know about Cambodia before I went there was that it’s situated on the Indochina peninsula, bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. And that they were colonized by the French. I hardly recall about the Khmer Rouge topics we had during our Asian history class. I was ignorant - basically about all things history. It’s only when I started traveling that I gained interest on the narrative of old days.

I have poor imagination.

Historical narratives easily slip my mind when it’s told rather than shown. I’d love to learn about history when it’s taught with enthusiasm rather than being relied on bland textbooks. I used to think that history is best told with music, with films and visuals because these media can touch emotions in unique ways! But now, having been able to witness different cultures, meet people from different countries, I now perceive that history is best appreciated through travel and cultural immersion.

5 Reasons Why History Buffs Will Love Cambodia


• The Khmer empire grew out to be one of the most powerful empires ever to exist in South East Asia. Many awe-inspiring monuments were built such as Angkor Wat, a source of pride for the country.

• Cambodia was colonized by France until 1953. French influence is still clearly visible in the colonial style buildings of Phnom Penh.

• The utmost respect is given to the victims of the genocide through the Choeung Ek Killing Fields - where photos and other historical articles of the Khmer Rouge era are on display.

• There’s a re-establishment of religion. Theravada Buddhism had been the dominant religion among the Khmer people. However, monks were humiliated and many temples had been destroyed during the Khmer Rouge. Today, the country’s still recovering from the horrendous effects of war. Its comeback is slow but steady.

Temples: Pre-Khmer Rouge: 4,000; Post-Khmer Rouge: 2,032
Monks: Pre-Khmer Rouge: 66,000; Post-Khmer Rouge: 41,000

french colonization in cambodia
Beautiful French architecture near the Tonle Sap River

The City of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh is a city of more than 2 million people located at the junction of Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. It is the country's commercial and economic hub. Phnom Penh to me, is raw but a controlled chaos. My visit to the city was kind of like a “love it or hate it” relationship. It’s dusty, humid, confusing. But never boring. Maybe most tourists would say, "Skip Phnom Penh for Siem Reap". I still ended up loving it because of its deeply rooted history. If you see the city and you are not happy with the experience, for sure you will still learn to appreciate your own culture much more when you go home.

Typical Costs

Accommodation - Most dorm type rooms cost $5 per night. Private double room with bath can range from $10 to $25 per night. There are plenty of budget accommodation in Phnom Penh so there’s almost no need to book your stay in advance. The hotels near the river (mostly the buildings that look like French architectures) are more expensive than the ones in the city center.

Transportation - A tuktuk ride from the bus station to the center typically costs $2, $7 to the airport. A trip within the city center would cost $1 to $3. The fare for the public buses is $0.35 though I’ve not tried their bus system.

Food - Restaurant food would cost $3 to $6. Angkor Beer is cheap and served almost everywhere for less than $1. Bottled beers are more expensive. We have not tried the street food because of uhm, suspicious hygiene? I read street foods are cheap and cost less than $0.50. Also, we had a chance to get inside a food expo held along the Tonle Sap river. It was a good way to taste the local food for free!

Activities - The famous Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge is $6 with complimentary audio guide. Round trip tuktuk ride to the Killing Fields is $9. You can add a few dollars to see the famous Wats in the city. Entrance fee to famous temples are around $1 to $5.


Blending in with the locals in a food expo. Wait, is that shingaling I'm seeing?!

Getting to Phnom Penh

• From Siem Reap -  6 hours by bus, $10
• From Saigon - 7 hours by bus, $13
• From Kep Province - 4 hours, $8
• From Manila - Budget airlines like Cebu Pacific flies to Siem Reap for around Php 2,500 one way


6 Sights That Shouldn't Be Missed by History Lovers


Killing Fields of Choeung Ek - You need to hire a tuktuk to get to the Killing Fields since it is 7.5km south of the city. Entrance fee to the complex is $6 with audio guide. Many of the mass graves there have been left untouched. The audio tour includes narrations of how the killings of innocent prisoners were carried out, and real testimonies of the survivors. The background music added up to the sadness that I was feeling while looking into the fragments of bones and torn clothes of the victims. At the center of the Killing Field lies the Memorial Stupa with over 8,000 human skulls. I must say that it’s a serene yet somber place.

Memorial Stupa
The Memorial Stupa which houses over 8,000 human skulls of the victims of war
memorial stupa phnom penh
Remains at the Killing Fields
Independence Monument - it’s a famous landmark of the city to commemorate the departure of the French in 1953, and it dominates the centre of the city. Its shape is like a lotus, which looks like one of the towers of Angkor Wat. I read that celebrations on holidays such as Independence Day and Constitution Day are held in this monument.

The National Museum of Cambodia - it houses thousands of artifacts from the glorious history of the Khmers. It conserves a large collection of Khmer art from the prehistoric period and present day Cambodia. The museum is located opposite the Royal Palace. Note that no photos may be taken inside the museum.

Wat Ounalom - A good starter for your city tour. The temple was damaged during the Khmer Rouge but has since been restored. It is centrally located and unlike most temple sites, this one is not crowded. The atmosphere was very peaceful although it is in the city center.  The monks were very friendly and will in some cases, come up to you to converse. Also, the temple is similar to other Asian temples, very typical and yet has interesting architecture that’s full of colors! The temple is open from 6am-6pm.


Wat Ounalom
Noon time and bare foot
Wat Preah Keo - Commonly known as the Silver Pagoda. It’s located on the south side of the Royal Palace. The Buddhist monastery houses national treasures including gold Buddha statues. I read that its grounds are being used for national and royal ceremonies. As with visit to most temples, you must cover your knees, shoulders, and take your shoes off.

The Royal Palace - Did you know that the palace’s full name in the Khmer language is Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol? The Royal Palace covers an area of 174,870 square metres. If you love history this is also a good start point in Phnom Penh. The complex has neatly trimmed lawns;  a charming palace set in a beautiful garden and very clean surroundings.


phnom penh temples
Beautiful temple in the middle of a bustling city
phnom penh temples
Casually hanging out in one of the streets of Phnom Penh

Summary of Phnom Penh Attractions and Transportation Prices

Particulars
USD
PHP
Attractions


Royal Palace
6.00
276.00
Killing Fields of Choeung Ek
5.00
230.00
Independence Monument
0.00
0.00
The National Museum of Cambodia
5.00
230.00
Wat Ounalom
0.00
0.00
Silver Pagoda (+$2 for camera fee)
3.00
138.00
Wat Phnom
1.00
46.00
Transportation


Taxi from airport to city center
12.00
552.00
Tuktuk from airport to city center
7.00
322.00
Tuktuk from bus station to city center
2.00
92.00
Tuktuk within city center (average)
2.00
92.00

tuktuk ride in phnom penh
Tuktuk rides be like!

Money Saving Tips

• Cambodia is a country with dual currency. The US dollar is used as much, or more than, the local currency. There may be cases when restaurants would prefer dollars over riels. At the Aran border, people accept dollars, riels and Thai baht! Make sure you have small dollar notes and riels for small purchases to avoid getting ripped off unknowingly.

• Negotiate with tuktuk drivers for best price on city tour. The city center isn’t that big so tuktuk tours shouldn’t be that expensive.

• The hotels near the river (mostly the buildings that look like French architectures) are more expensive than the ones in the city center. Upon arrival at the bus station, you can ask the tuktuk driver to help you look for a cheap hotel within the city center. It’s okay to say no if you didn’t like the place.

• Avoid organized tours where possible - Sometimes organized tours are the easiest way to see some of the famous sights especially when you’re short of time. Phnom Penh’s city center is not that big so wherever possible, try to organize the city tour yourself.

Finally, Cambodia is a breathtaking country that’s deeply rooted in both fascinating and tumultuous history. We explored 3 other stunning towns you would not want to miss on a visit to Cambodia! Stay tuned!


Haggardo Versoza inside my favorite Wat in Phnom Penh - Wat Ounalom! XD

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