After nearly a month of traveling Vietnam from north to south, we were eager to depart Saigon and make the journey across the border into Cambodia. Land crossings in this area of the world are notorious for being unorganized and prone to inflated fees, and our crossing fit the bill exactly. We managed to pay less than others on our bus, but were still forced to fork over an “express visa fee” that went straight into immigration officials’ pockets. Gotta love land borders!
Once across the border, however, all the tension faded away. Cambodia is home to large, flat expanses of sparsely populated countryside, which can really make you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Even as we approached the capital city of Phnom Penh, it became clear that Cambodians take life a little bit slower than their Vietnamese neighbors. Buddhist monks stroll through the streets, the sound of car horns is much less prevalent and the locals seem to have smiles permanently glued to their faces.
For many travelers, Phnom Penh is merely a stop-over on the way to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. For us, spending a few days in the capital allowed us to learn more about the country’s unstable and tragic political history in the last century. We decided to make an early start one morning and set off for an all-day power tour of the city. Our first stop was the Royal Palace. There are no official bus routes in Phnom Penh; we hopped aboard a tuk-tuk to get there. These motor carriages serve as the city’s public transit system.
We took our time exploring the Royal Palace and admiring the colorful layered roofs and traditional Khmer architecture. The well-manicured grounds and stunning buildings offer a glimpse back into the early 20th century, before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
Following the palace we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back along the river to see where the city of Phnom Penh gets its name. The city existed for centuries before becoming the capital and the story goes that an old lady named Penh found four Buddha statues floating on a log during a massive flood. She had a temple built upon the tallest hill in the area to house the Buddhas. “Phnom” means hill in Khmer, and since the temple was constructed under the orders of Penh, the city became known as Phnom Penh, or Penh’s hill.
After a brief stop at the Central Market, we hoped on a tuk-tuk toward Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Formerly S-21 prison, and a primary school before that, the Khmer Rouge used this complex to detain, torture and execute Cambodians during their horrific reign in the 1970s.
Sadly, one of Phnom Penh’s major tourist draws is an area outside the city known as “The Killing Fields.” This area contains the largest mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era. Despite frequent offers from tuk-tuk drivers to take us there, we made a conscious choice not to visit.
By the end of the day, we felt that we had received a pretty good crash course in recent Cambodian history. We had come to Phnom Penh with a brief background after reading First They Killed my Father, but touring the city made what we had learned that much more impactful. As though in line with our somber afternoon, a wall of rain poured down from the skies that evening.
The next day we awoke to a sunny morning and prepared to explore a brighter time in Cambodia’s history, the age of the Angkor people. Despite the seven hour ride ahead of us, we happily boarded our bus and took off for Siem Reap.