I took a quick trip to Phnom Penh for a weekend getaway last week. I thought I’d offer some of my own experiences as well as packing and traveling tips for anyone looking to spend a little time in Phnom Penh.
What to pack?
First of all, I always try and pack light whenever possible. I was only staying one night in Phnom Penh so there wasn’t much I needed to bring with me but there are certain things that I consider must-haves for any travel adventure in Southeast Asia.
- External battery charger – My external battery charger has been a life-saver. When you’re traveling for long hours, sometimes you don’t have access to a plug or you won’t be near a plug long enough to charge your electronics. My external battery has 4 full charges and dual ports in case you need to charge two devices at once. I have this one. With that said, I also always bring my:
- Phone (or a small device you can access wifi with) – This is actually the first time that I’ve brought a smart phone abroad with me and it’s worked great so far. My phone is unlocked so I’m able to put sim cards from other countries if I need to use the phone. I have a Vietnamese sim card since I’m living in Vietnam for the next year. While I didn’t need a sim card during my stay in Cambodia, I used my phone a bunch to access wifi. Wifi is widely available in Phnom Penh. I was meeting up with people in Phnom Penh so I needed to check email and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber. It’s also nice to check Google Maps if you get lost and your paper map isn’t cutting it. Having a smart phone has also resulted in me leaving my laptop at home. The last time I traveled abroad, I always brought my laptop with me since I didn’t have a smart phone and that just makes things heavy, bulky, and it’s also one more thing for someone to steal.
- Kindle – I’m a new convert of the Kindle and I love it. While I will always have a preference for real books with real pages that I can turn with my fingers, Kindles are compact and light. When you’re on a bus, plane, or train for long hours, it’s nice to carry a multitude of books without the weight and bulk.
- iPod and headphones – It’s always good to have music on hand for entertainment. It’s also good if you’re on a noisy bus or want to sleep and need some other background noise to block out the noise around you. I have playlists and albums that I listen to that always help me sleep on buses and planes.
- Neck/travel pillow – While I can fall asleep pretty much anywhere, it’s nice to have a pillow. And by everywhere I mean that I once fell asleep standing up on a bus. My legs gave way under me and I picked myself up off the ground hoping no one saw. It happens I guess. I haven’t heard of anyone else that happening to but I’m sure it happens. Anyways, a pillow is good to have. Also, if I sit for too long, my back hurts so it’s nice to have a pillow to support my back when needed.
- Headlamp – I know you think this is dorky. I used to think so too but I cannot stress how useful headlamps are! Forget flashlights, my friend, opt for a headlamp instead. I use my headlamp as a reading light. I use it to look through my bag if it’s dark. I use it as a personal light in case I’m staying in a hostel or hotel with other people and get back late while others are sleeping, or if I want to stay up past others. I also use it if I’m walking down dark streets.
- Sunblock – A must anytime you go outside because no one wants skin cancer. Also, sunblock is hard to find if not outrageously expensive in Asia.
- Travel-size bottle of soap/shampoo/conditioner – Not all hostels or hotels will have these on hand so it’s nice to have as a just in case.
- Tissues or toilet paper – I always keep some in my bag since public toilets rarely have toilet paper in Southeast Asia.
- Scarf and/or Bandana – I use my scarves and bandanas to cover my face, block out the sun and dust. I use them as head scarves, blankets, or headbands. I use them to wipe the sweat off my face. They’re super useful articles to bring along.
- Extra shirt or two – Southeast Asia is HOT! I always like to bring a couple extra articles of clothing in case I feel like freshening up after a day of walking in the host sun. Clean laundry makes me very happy so I’m just more comfortable when I have clean clothes I can change into.
If i’m not flying, I will bring a:
- Swiss army knife – It basically does everything you need it to.
Depending on where I’m staying, I will also bring:
- Quick dry towel – Not all hostels provide towels, or towels that I consider clean. My towel barely takes up any space so it’s always nice to have just in case.
- Sleeping bag liner – Not all hostels provide blankets. Or the sheets aren’t super clean so I use mine for peace of mind.
- Lock – Not all hostels provide secure lockers. I’ll lock up my bag if I’m staying in a dorm-style hostel as a deterrent of theft.
Literally the second my motorbike taxi dropped me off at the bus stop in Ho Chi Minh City to go to Phnom Penh, two males on a motorbike whizzed by me, grabbed the pillow strapped to my bag and drove off, ripping the pillow from my backpack. This happened right before my 7-8 hour bus ride…Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!
It’s very common in Southeast Asia for motor bikers to rip handbags and whatever else they can from people. I luckily had my handbag facing away from the street as I was paying the motorbike taxi guy so they wouldn’t have been able to reach my most valuable possessions. With that being said, be careful with your possessions when traveling. Duh. I know you know that. But just be super aware of how you’re carrying your things. This is actually the first time that I’ve ever had something stolen from me while traveling. Luckily, it was just a pillow and nothing else. It being 4 a.m., I was not very alert, but even when you’re super careful, anything can happen. Here are some tips though:
- If you’re going to carry a bag, keep it close to you. I usually clutch my handbag so that it is hugging my chest. If it’s a cross body bag, I always make sure it’s facing the front of my body. If you’re carrying a backpack, keep it on the front of your body. If I’m carrying two bags for example, like a backpacking pack and a backpack, then I make sure the bags are strapped to my body.
- If I’m walking street-side, I make sure my bag is on the side of my body that is facing away from the street. If you carry a wallet or phone on your body, put it in your front pockets, not your back.
Getting to Phnom Penh
I’m living in Tra Vinh City which is about four hours from Ho Chi Minh City. Allegedly, there’s a bus that goes straight from Tra Vinh to Phnom Penh that takes about 11 hours. I tried to take that bus, but in typical travel fashion, the bus was not going to be running that day. There’s a bus, however, that goes straight to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City. Buses to Ho Chi Minh City leave from Tra Vinh every hour so I was able to catch the midnight bus (which the shuttle ended up picking us up at 11 p.m. instead of 11:45 p.m.) and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at about 4 a.m. The bus to Ho Chi Minh City was 130,000 Vietnamese dong which is about $6 USD and was a sleeper bus.
My bus to Phnom Penh was at 6 a.m. so I had two hours to kill before my bus. I made my way to the bus place and hung out at a sidewalk coffee place right outside the bus place until it opened. The bus to Phnom Penh was 230,000 Vietnamese dong which is about $11 USD and the ride, including border crossings, took around 7 hours. The trip was relatively hassle free. I didn’t get a visa prior since you can get a visa upon arrival in Cambodia. The bus company took care of everything. Visa prices in Cambodia increased to $30-$35 as of October, 2014 but when I went, it was only $25 USD. I handed $25 and my passport to the bus guy and once we got to the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, I didn’t have to do anything except hand my passport to the immigration guys to stamp.
My hostel offered free bus pick-up so once I arrived in Phnom Penh, my tuk-tuk driver was there waiting and transported me to my hostel.
Staying in Phnom Penh
Affordable hostels are aplenty in Phnom Penh. I ended up staying here. It was a no-frills sort of place and only $3 USD a night. Since I would only be staying in Phnom Penh for one night, all I needed was a centrally located place that had showers. The place was clean, the staff was friendly, and me and my travel companion had our 7-person dorm to ourselves which was pretty nice.
Sightseeing in Phnom Penh
In total, I probably had about 26 hours in Phnom Penh. I arrived at about 1:30 p.m., checked into my hostel, freshened up, and was out again. The hostel was close to Wat Phnom, which is a temple on a hill, so I visited that. Admission is $1. It’s not architecturally fantastic or anything but it’s a nice little temple. There are monkeys at this temple too if you like that sort of thing. I personally am terrified of monkeys so as soon as I saw a monkey, I was ready to leave.
I highly recommend walking along Sisowath Quay aka the riverside. It’s a nice area to walk along with shops on one side and the view of the river on the other. The night market happens every evening on a part of Sisowath Quay as well. If you walk far enough down, you’ll run into the National Museum and the Royal Palace. I didn’t go to either of them because I didn’t have enough time, but they’re definitely nice to look at from the outside.
There are also some nice bars along this stretch. I ended up meeting with people at the Quay Boutique Hotel’s rooftop bar. The drink menu isn’t on the website but they have happy hour deals from something like 5:00 p.m.-7:30 p.m. The cocktails are half off which ends up being $3 a drink if I’m remembering correctly. I highly recommend the chili tamarind margarita. Probably one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had in my lifetime. Phnom Penh is foreigner and expat friendly so if you like going out or are in the mood for western food, Phnom Penh is your place. We went to dinner at this Mexican restaurant. The Mexican food and margaritas were pretty good. Not as good as the Mexican food I can find in Salt Lake City, UT, but still pretty decent.
What I really came to Phnom Penh to see though was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as the S-21 Prison, and the Choeung Ek Memorial, or more famously known as the Killing Fields. I’d recommend at least 5 hours if you want to do both. My flight the next day out of Phnom Penh wasn’t until 4:30 p.m. which would give me enough time to see the museum, memorial, and still make it to the airport on time to catch my flight. You can hire a tuk-tuk for the entire day and since I was going to go straight to the airport after seeing the Choeung Ek Memorial, I had to take my bags with me. My driver agreed to guard my bags so I didn’t have to carry them everywhere. Please dress modestly for the museum and memorial out of respect for the victims. You’ll still be allowed into both if you don’t have your shoulders and knees covered, but just be mindful of the places you’re going to and how you might appear to the locals. I’ve said it in my past blog posts and I’ll say it again, most of Southeast Asia dresses pretty modestly and I think it’s important to do the same.
A tuk-tuk ride for the whole day to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Memorial should cost no more than $15. I also wanted to stop by the Russian market so I could pick up some Krama (traditional Khmer scarves) for myself and as gifts for people. Scarves at the Russian market should cost no more than $3. If you’re good at bargaining, you can get them for less. A trip to the Russian market added an extra $2 to the tuk-tuk ride. And a trip to the airport was $7. The grand total for hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the entire day to to to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Russian Market, Choeung Ek Memorial, and airport ended up being $24. Not bad considering how far away both the Choeung Ek Memorial and the airport are from the center of Phnom Penh.
If you’re going to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum then you should also see Choeung Ek Memorial and vice versa. It’ll give you more context on what happened during the Khmer Rouge’s reign if you go to both. I recommend going to the museum first, followed by the Choeung Ek Memorial.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Security Prison 21 (S-21) was formerly a high school before the Khmer Rouge regime converted it to a prison during their reign from 1975-1979. The prison housed people that the Khmer Rouge deemed as threats to the regime, including government officials, soldiers, academics, doctors, teachers, students, etc., and was one of many execution centers in the country. People were tortured, forced to confess their “crimes,” coerced into naming family members and close friends, who in turn were also arrested, tortured, and people who were impriosned at S-21 were either killed at the prison, or transported to the Killing Fields to be killed. An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at S-21. Admission into the museum is $2 and $6 with a guide.
The museum is definitely worth seeing if you’re interested in Cambodia’s history or are interested in educating yourself more about the horrors that occurred during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. It’s a somber place to see but I think it’s an important site and an important event in history to know about.
Choeung Ek Memorial/”Killing Fields”
Choeung Ek or the Killing Fields as it is most commonly called is the site where thousands of Cambodian people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. During the Khmer Rouge’s four year reign, it is estimated that over one million people were killed. Admission is $6 and you’ll get a very good audio tour that will walk you around the site and end at a Buddhist stupa that is filled with human skulls of the victims killed at Choeung Ek. It’s an emotional place to visit, but again, it’s worth going to.
This market became a foreigner’s market in the 1980’s and was named Russian Market because most foreigners at that time were Russian. The market is filled with stalls where you can purchase food, clothes, souvenirs, fabrics, etc. It’s a maze inside but each category of stuff has it’s own section. I stopped by the market so I could pick up Krama (Khmer scarves) which are traditional garments unique to Cambodia. Typical Krama contain a Gingham pattern and is considered the national symbol of Cambodia. Scarves range from $1-$3, but if you’re good at bargaining, you should be able to pay less. If you’re going to buy something here, be sure to bargain!
After the Killing Fields I had to go to the airport to make my flight back to Vietnam. Keep in mind that the airport is not very close to the city center and it’s especially not close to the Killing Fields. It probably took an hour from the Killing Fields to get to the airport because of traffic. I was a little worried I might miss my flight but I made it with 15 minutes to spare. All in all, my trip to Phnom Penh was great. If I had more time I definitely would’ve like to do some more shopping and to check out the National Museum and Royal Palace. I’m looking forward to my next travel adventure!