Touring colonial Phnom Penh and its surroundings
Last week I had to travel to Cambodia for work. And since the flight back was on Friday, I decided it to change it to Sunday and stay there for the weekend! A friend of mine in Singapore came and joined me, so it worked out perfect. We had a wonderful time and doing a photography tour in Cambodia is something a highly recommend!
Usually when people travel to Cambodia go to Phnom Penh only as a stop-over on the way to Siem Reap, to see the temples in Angkor Wat. I am dying to see those, but they say that you need at least 2-3 days to see everything. We only had the weekend and didn’t want to be rushing around, so we decided to stay in the capital and I am so glad we did. What an amazing place!
Phnom Penh is one of my favorite cities in South East Asia so far. Full of Khmer culture and architecture, it has so much life and so much to offer to new visitors. If you are interested in visiting this city, 2 days is enough. It makes a great weekend getaway from Singapore also! The flight is around 150 – 200 SGD and takes only 1h and 45 min to get there.
Food and accommodation is very affordable, so you won’t be splurging much after buying the flight ticket and the Visa. Yes, one important thing is that if you don’t hold an ASEAN passport, you will need a Visa to enter Cambodia. Good news is that the process is very fast and easy, as it can be done online with the E-Visa option and it costs around 30 SGD. There are some commercial websites that offer the service also, charging almost double the price, so watch out for those! If you don’t want to bother with this process you can also get the Visa when you land, but being the online process so easy, I recommend it if you want to avoid the queue!
What to see
The main tourist attractions are the Royal Palace, the National Museum and the Khmer Rouge S-21 Torture Prison. The Khmer architecture in the first two is astonishing but the insides are a bit disappointing, specially the National Museum, for which you also have to pay 10 USD to enter. I felt there was a big lack of information in there and I would not recommend it unless you are genuinely interested in the Khmer sculptures, which are beautiful by the way.
The S-21 Torture Prison is a must see, but not something for everyone. Around 2,000 people died in this place, which used to be a High School turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge. I read a really good article about it and decided to go and take a look. Visiting S-21 is quite depressing and it will kill the happy tourist life mood for quite some time, so be ready for that.
The experience is comparable to visiting a Nazi concentration camp. It is no joke. I find it however very important to see these places with your own eyes, learn the history and raise the awareness. It cannot happen again and maintaining this place open for visitors can help maintaining the memories alive. Only a few survived S-21 and their testimonies can be heard in the audio guide that you get with the entry ticket.
The best part of the weekend, was the photography tour we took. If you prefer to spend some time away from the tourists and seeing some authentic Cambodian sites, go check out Michael Klinkhamer and his “Cambodia Photo Tours”. In his Instagram page you can take a glimpse of the stuff you can see with him. He is Dutch and has been living in Cambodia for 5 years. He is very knowledgeable about the history of the country and is of course a professional photographer.
Before the tour started he gave us some tips on how to use our cameras and helped us with the settings and some basic concepts.
Then we hired a tuk-tuk for the day and started our tour. We visited a number of landmarks, French legacy buildings like the FCC and the “White building” apartment block, built in the 1963 and today the home of one of the city’s most vibrant communities. It is home of about 2,500 Cambodians, including many artists and performers, but it is also known as a slum with drug-addicts and prostitutes, although we didn’t see any.
A visit during day time is definitely recommended. We walked around and took some nice shots, getting to talk with some of the locals, as everyone is is so open and nice to foreign faces.We also visited a number of Khmer temples where we got to see the monks, talk with them and take some amazing shots. Then we took a ferry and went to a small village nearby called Areyksat, where we saw how the locals lived and got to play around a bit with some of the kids.
Michael would be there with us all along telling us stories about every place we visited and helping us with our shots, giving us advice on how to improve and telling us how to adjust the camera setting depending on the type of shot we wanted to take and the light conditions. The time with Michael was definitely the best part of our weekend in Phnom Penh and I highly recommend it if you are interested in photography and want to get immersed into the real Cambodian life!
Must See: Royal palace, S-21, night market, shopping streets
Must try: Lok-lak (beef), ban-hoy
Where to eat: I absolutely loved the atmosphere at Khmer Surin, but bring mosquito repellent!
Where to stay: We stayed at a beautiful boutique hotel called Blue Lime and loved it.