Musings about early retirement with no fixed address

Phnom Penh’s Dark History, Markets, Neighbors, And More

After Siem Reap, Katie and I took the bus to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh where we stayed for 16 days. This was a big change from the laid back smaller town, as Phnom Penh is a large somewhat chaotic city with heavy traffic and a certain grittiness. While rough around the edges, it still has some redeeming qualities. Considering that only a few decades ago the city was practically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh has made some remarkable progress.

The Khmer Rouge Legacy

The main tourist activities in Phnom Penh are focused on Cambodia’s dark past when the Khmer Rouge held power, highlighted (lowlighted?) by the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I consider this a must-visit place despite the horrifying nature of the subject matter. (If you visit, the audio guide is essential.) The museum shares detailed accounts of the dark history of Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge rule. It is located in a former high school turned interrogation center called the S21 Prison where thousands of people were tortured and killed.

We were told one prisoner flung himself from the balcony to commit suicide. They installed barbed wire after that.

During this time, there were no such things as trials. When someone was arrested it meant they were guilty, because the ruling party never makes mistakes. Therefore, if they wouldn’t confess their crimes voluntarily, they would be tortured until they confessed. And the Genocide Museum isn’t shy in sharing the disturbing methods used. Of course no matter how the confession was extracted, once completed, the prisoners were then ruled to have committed treason and were executed. One of the most chilling parts to me was the mindset of the police and interrogators. The prevailing attitude was that the dissenters were like weeds, and their families were the roots. In order to fully kill the weed, the roots must die too. One accusation often meant that whole families perished.

The rules and regulations

In addition to telling the story of the prison, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also covered the brutal conditions that nearly every Cambodian citizen was forced to endure. Within only a few days of the Khmer Rouge gaining power, they forcibly marched the residents out of the city and into the countryside. There, the citizens were required to abandon all technology and become subsistence farmers. Anyone who resisted was considered the enemy and was killed. Even among those who complied, many starved to death as yields were poor and rations were meager. All told, between 1975 and 1979 Cambodia lost an unfathomable 2 million people which amounted to 25% of their population.

There were walls and walls of mugshots

If this isn’t enough brutal history for you, there are also the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. This is where the Khmer Rouge decided to take people once the volume of murders became too great for the S21 prison to handle. Many people combine these into a single day of somber reflection. However, Katie and I decided to skip the Killing Fields, as we felt that our one intense visit to Tuol Sleng was enough.

Other Things To See And Do

Of course there are other things happening in Phnom Penh besides horrific recaps of their semi-recent history. We enjoyed exploring the city’s markets, and unlike the ones in Siem Reap, there are way more locals shopping than tourists. The Central Market is one of the biggest and best. This sprawling market covering 4 city blocks has about everything you could possibly want. Lining the outside are vendors selling flowers, fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, prepared food, shoes, and lots of clothing. Inside there are electronics, jewelry, household goods, tourist shops, and even more clothing. The selection is vast. For example, I bought an HDMI cord, honey, jasmine rice, a button down shirt, a frying pan, two bowls, two coffee mugs, a kitchen knife, and a hefty amount of fruits, vegetables, and eggs during my stay.

An entry into the Central Market
Spicy food for sale
Delicious fresh fruit

In addition to the Central Market, there are multiple other markets in the downtown area that all have produce, meat, and street food. But they each have things not featured at the Central Market as well. We explored the Phsar Chas Market which has many beauty supplies and services. Walking through I witnessed manicures, hair cuts, and eyebrow treatments among others. The Orussey Market covers 3 large floors and is packed with lots of spices, dried seafood, and even whole roasted pigs. The Russian Market had the most tourist shops, but also had a giant section dedicated just to scooter parts. They were all fun to explore, but the Central Market was definitely my favorite.

Dried seafood, spices, and anything else they can pack into a tiny stall that might sell
Roasted pigs

Phnom Penh was settled at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers and they have a long riverfront path that traces the east side of downtown. Every evening people from all over the city descend on this area to walk along the river, exercise, eat, pray, socialize, have their fortune told, or just hang out. One of our riverside visits occurred during the Full Moon Festival, which was a high-spirited event. The temples and shrines were packed with followers lighting candles and incense. There were bands playing. Numerous floating river lanterns cruised by with the current and we watched as they disappeared into the night.

Along the riverwalk
A small temple jammed with devotees during the Full Moon Festival
A band playing to the crowds

The riverside is a nice place, even on non-festival days. We walked along the river multiple times during our stay. One night we continued south past the end of the official path, crossed a bridge, and ended up on Diamond Island. Here we found the Koh Pich Night Market. The market itself was basically just a lineup of prepared foods and didn’t have much variety, but it was right next to a large carnival. I’m not personally a fan of the carnival ride experience, but we stayed to watch the local kids have some fun.

Part of the riverside has a multi-use path
Looking back towards downtown from the bridge to Diamond Island
So much fun!
So much neon!

Within the city there are multiple Buddhist temples that can be visited, but to be honest, we are a bit templed out after Thailand and Siem Reap. As such, we only visited the city’s namesake, Wat Phnom. This was enjoyable partly because the temple itself is very small, but the grounds around it are large and shady. Phnom literally translates as “hill” and Wat Phnom sits atop one of the only hills in the area allowing for some nice views and breezes. It was a good place to while away an afternoon.

Steps to the Wat Phnom
Inside the small wat
The stupa outside
It’s the Year of the Pig

There are a handful of modern shopping malls around the city, most with new movie theaters. During our time in Phnom Penh, the closest one to us was showing the latest Tarantino release, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. This film was only playing in their Diamond Class theaters, which cost $11 each. If you’re not aware, $11 is a lot of money in Cambodia. But the entrance fee does include popcorn and soda, and I really wanted to see the movie, so we decided to splurge.

We bought our tickets, picked our seats, and selected our preferred beverage and popcorn options right at the ticket counter. From there we went to the snack bar where we simply dropped off our receipt and were led to our large leather recliners accented with a couple of throw pillows. A few minutes later we received a delivery of two Cokes, one salty popcorn, one sweet popcorn, and two delicious grapefruit sodas in champagne flutes (that we didn’t order or know were coming). We also had blankets to keep warm in the strong AC and damp towels to clean our popcorn fingers. It was truly a VIP affair. The movie wasn’t too shabby either.

Only a handful of comfortable seats for the whole theater
Ahhhhh, I could get used to this

Our Neighborhood Experience

We stayed on the top floor of a four story walk up in a large, old, and somewhat dingy building near the Central Market that was the length of a whole city block. The apartment itself was remodeled to be clean and nice, and while lacking some natural light, it was otherwise not too bad. There were a ton of kids in the building that loved to wave and shout HELLO! when they saw us coming and going. One time it must’ve been right after school, as we caught about 10 or so of them together just after we came up the last step onto our floor. We were greeted by a cacophony of HELLO!s as they ran towards us and jumped around excitedly. Pretty damn cute!

Our path through the local apartment complex

Old buildings like this aren’t insulated all that well, so it’s pretty easy to hear your neighbors. In fact, one of our neighbors would regularly crank up Adele, Macy Gray, and even some Tom Petty and belt out the lyrics at the top of his lungs. Even though it sounded like it was happening inside our apartment, It was actually pretty entertaining and we enjoyed it every time we were subjected to it.

It was our other direct neighbor that was a problem, as he is a domestic abuser. For one particularly bad stretch, we would constantly hear him yell at his partner that she was a fucking cunt. Yes, in English. We must’ve heard that phrase 100 times over about 3 days, with periodic sprinklings throughout the rest of our stay. One day was particularly bad and we’re pretty sure that some physical violence was happening too.

Unsure of how to help, I messaged my Airbnb host to see if there was anything we could do. I told the host that his neighbor was currently beating on his wife and asked if there was any action we could take. If we call the cops, would they understand us? Would they come? Even describing our exact location would be challenging since the addresses are more fluid here and these apartments aren’t really numbered. My host’s response was that “they do this always”. As if it’s something that just happens and nothing can or should be done.

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to help that poor woman, I didn’t feel like I could take the chance of confronting someone in their own home. The guy could have easy access to a weapon. Even in the absence of that, I could be putting Katie or myself in danger later on. If we got in a physical altercation, I could end up in a Cambodian jail. He was a smaller older expat and I’m sure I could’ve beaten the shit out of him, but what would that have solved? In short, it seemed my only rational choice was to do nothing and swallow my frustration. I had a fantasy scenario in my head that I could catch his victim alone in the common walkway and slip her a big wad of cash that she could use to escape, but of course that never materialized.

All in all, it was a terrible situation and while most of it “only” happened during a 3 day stretch in the middle of our 16 night stay, it definitely soured the whole stay for me. This isn’t an indictment on Phnom Penh specifically, as I imagine this sort of thing can happen anywhere. But it is a bit of an indictment on Cambodia in general, as their police force and population haven’t advanced to where the majority view this as a police issue rather than a private issue.

Where We Stayed In Cambodia

I completely forgot to take pictures of our apartment in Siem Reap. Sorry! It was a large studio apartment with a spacious kitchen featuring poured concrete countertops. The living room area had a basic couch, coffee table, and TV. There was a separate sleeping area with the bed and wardrobe next to the living area, but there was no divider or door. It had a small balcony, but it was only about 6 feet from the next building and the window to another apartment, so it wasn’t really usable. The countertops and the lack of natural light gave it a bit of a basement feel, even though we were on the second floor. While there wasn’t anything fancy about the apartment, it was a bargain at $248.33 for 14 nights and fit our needs.

In Phnom Penh, we stayed in a refurbished apartment that was, as mentioned, a fourth floor walkup. It had an industrial loft feel to it, with light fixtures that were made from iron plumbing pipes and murals on the walls. It was a bit expensive by Cambodian standards at $414.34 for 16 nights, although I would’ve paid twice that much for a better neighbor.

Our living room art and fixtures
Bedroom with art as well
Kitchen including a really nice washer
Large bathroom

What We Spent In Cambodia

All totaled, we spent $1936.74 during our 30 nights in Cambodia. Despite normal day to day costs being cheaper than Thailand, our spending was higher than either of our two months in we spent there. This is mostly due to flights ($131) and the Angkor Temples (~$230), which were totally worth it. When I add in our prorated bills like cell phones, insurance, and MLB.tv, that brings the total amount spent to $2102.13 or $70.07/day. As such, we’re still way under our budget while spending pretty freely.

I think the couple of weeks that we allotted to Phnom Penh was probably a bit too long. Even for us slow travelers, we somewhat ran out of things to do. This would’ve been more tolerable if it was a better city to wander in, but that wasn’t the case. Only a small percentage of streets have sidewalks, and while we’re getting pretty used to walking right out in the street with the scooters and tuk tuks, it’s still somewhat unpleasant.

It can get a bit crowded
I just wanted to squeeze in this pic along the river

There are a few remnants around from when it used to be The Pearl of Asia, but a lot of those buildings are rundown and dilapidated. That’s kind of too bad, because there is some fantastic architecture that could be salvaged. Instead, the focus seems to be on modern construction. The history of the place is somewhat fascinating though, and the Cambodian people everywhere were warm and happy to have us there. Even in the big city, there were tons of smiles to be shared.

12 Comments

  1. Allison

    I enjoy reading about your travels. Some interesting adventures for you and Katie! Phnom Penh never rated very high on my list of places to visit and now sadly even less so after reading this. I like your travel budget breakdown for each location.

    • Eric

      Hi Allison – I really wanted to like Phnom Penh because cities normally agree with me, but it still needs some polish to make it a more viable tourist destination. And of course while we like to stay in local neighborhoods, it doesn’t always work out. I doubt we’ll return for another stay anytime soon.

  2. Tom

    Very helpful post.

    I’m curious — do you say anything in an Airbnb review about the abuser next door? Or does that risk alienating potential future landlords?

    • Eric

      Hi Tom – As someone who is largely dependent on Airbnb and their services, I am generally cautious with my Airbnb reviews. But in this case, I had to relay my experience since I definitely wish someone else would’ve mentioned it in a previous review. This wasn’t your normal “loud neighbor” and I think potential future renters deserve to know what renting that apartment is like.

  3. Peter

    Enjoyed your experience at the movie. Particularly the amenities and your very comfortable seat. I wish we had something like that here, but I would guess the costs would be north of $50 per person.

    Was the rise of the Khmer Rouge a result of the USA’s involvement in Vietnam?

    • Eric

      After dropping bombs on Cambodia for over a decade, I’m sure the US deserves it’s share of the blame for destabilizing the economy (and region) allowing them to gain power. But the US did actively fight against the Khmer Rouge taking over because they were communists. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Freedom_Deal

  4. Investor

    Do check out the movie Killing Fields if you already haven’t. And perhaps you could have taken a photo of the older violent expat and called him out on social media? Def mention something in the Airbnb review. “They do this always” attitude is not going to help anyone.

    • Eric

      That response was definitely not what I was looking for. It came like 5 hours later too. I did describe the situation, including my host’s response, in my Airbnb review.

  5. Lyn klages

    I’m enjoying your travels so much – and learning so much! Love your writing! Don’t want to go there but glad I’m getting to vicariously!

    • Eric

      Thanks Aunt Lyn!

  6. Ned

    Eric: Thanks for allowing Mary and me to enjoy Southeast Asia again. It’s been some time since we’ve been there and we really miss it. I am involved in an anti- domestic violence/sexual abuse organization here in St. Joseph Co. (DASASMI.org) and found your description of your situation carefully considered. Yes, our first instinct is to rearrange his bridgework but the location, culture, and possible lack of care or understanding by the local police all needed to be considered. Given my background, eventually, I would have probably come to the same decision. Letting other people know through the Airbnb review is important, though. A future resident might not come to the same conclusion that you did.

    • Eric

      Hi Ned – thanks for your thoughts. It was a very frustrating situation. I really wish I could’ve done more, but of course as a stranger in a strange land, I have to be extra careful. My slim hope is that by putting pressure on a local with money (my host), he can get together with the other residents and do something.

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