A Quick Side Trip to Phnom Penh

15 August 2009

When I bought our tickets several months ago, the flight going to Siem Reap came out very cheap. However, the flight coming back came out expensive (tickets were expensive plus the heavy 25 USD departure tax levied upon foreigners) – so we decided, why not fly out from either Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh? We immediately scratched out the Bangkok option since the ticket was still pricey and besides we would be there during Halloween this year. It was decided that we would be flying out from Ho Chi Minh, 12 hours away by bus from Siem Reap. 

The original plan was to take a direct bus ride to Ho Chi Minh and just spend the night there but since we have already been there before (and I was there for the second time last July), we decided to take a side trip to Phnom Penh and spend Saturday night there.

It was an early day again for us since the shuttle going to Phnom was scheduled to leave at 7:00 AM; there was a complimentary pick-up at our guesthouse at 6:30 AM so we had to wake up an hour before to prepare. The price of the 12-seater shuttle going to Phnom Penh was 11 USD and it promised to take us there in 4 hours (versus the 6 hours travel time if one takes the bus). 

The tuktuk that took us to the shuttle terminal arrived 10 minutes before the scheduled departure, it turned out though that we were the last passenger that was picked up; hence we didn’t have to wait that much and at exactly 7 in the morning, we were bound for Phnom Penh already.

The ride to Phnom Penh was a horrible one; the shuttle we rode must have probably had a defective shock absorber, as it was very bumpy from my seat. It didn’t help much that I was seated just above the rear right wheel. It was a good thing though that I was very drowsy that morning so I just basically slept for the duration of the trip (although my sleep was disturbed a lot of times when we encounter some bumps on the road). In all fairness to the shuttle operator, we arrived exactly on time in Phnom Penh.

Upon stepping out of the shuttle, we were greeted by hoards of tuktuk driver each with all of them offering for a ride somewhere in town. They were very persistent and somehow rude (as they wouldn’t stop even when you say no) unlike their counterpart in Siem Reap who would immediately leave you alone once you say so.

First things first, we needed to get our ticket to Ho Chi Minh for the following day. The earlier the departure time, the better it would be since it would be a 6 hour ride and our return flight to Singapore would leave at 2:50 PM.

We headed to the nearest travel agency along the street and inquired about the earliest bus going to the capital of Vietnam. The earliest trip would be at 6 in the morning and costs 12 USD. It already comes with a free pick-up from the guesthouse. I thought this would just be perfect since we would arrive in Ho Chi Minh at approximately 12 noon and we will have an allowance of 2 hours before the counter closes. I was about to buy the ticket when I remembered that we still do not have a place to stay in the city. The travel agent recommended Waterview Guesthouse, which was located just around the corner. They even offered a free ride going there as I guess they will be given some commission for every guest they bring.

We took the free ride, as it was too hot to walk around. Upon viewing the place, we figured that it was good enough for a night and it came out really cheap (at that point, we were really in for a bargain as we were already running really low in cash). We checked-in for one night and bought our bus tickets there as well. I paid using my credit card and took a 3% surcharge just so we can have enough cash to survive for one more day in a foreign land.

After unpacking our stuffs, we headed out to grab some lunch. We decided to have lunch at the Boddhi Tree Cafe, a lovely restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, which was located just across the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. As the museum was still close, we had sufficient time to really enjoy and savor our lunch. As usual, we ordered some Khmer dish. One thing I noticed was that all of the customers there were Caucasians except us; it made me conclude that there were really a lot of western tourists in Cambodia. It made me somehow sad in thinking as to why the Philippines cannot have this many visitors as well.

interiors of the Boddhi Tree Cafe

interiors of the Boddhi Tree Cafe

sauteed beef with mixed mushroom

sauteed beef with mixed mushroom

By 2:30 PM, we were already finished and walked across the street towards Tuol Sleng. There were beggars at the museum entrance asking for money, the most noticeable amongst them was the landmine victim and the man whose face was horribly deformed by some sort of accident. I felt sad in seeing those poor people but the sadness was nothing compared to the sadness I experienced when I entered Tuol Sleng.

inside Tuol Sleng compound

inside Tuol Sleng compound

I will not elaborate what I saw inside but suffice to say the Genocide Museum really got me affected. I am not an emotional person but dark history behind the place was simply too much for someone to imagine. One can simply wonder as to how evil a person can become if given the power. I felt deeply sad when we stepped outside the museum compound.

We headed back to the Boddhi Tree Cafe and grabbed something to drink; it was comforting to be inside that restaurant again after the visit in Tuol Sleng. After a few minutes of silent reflection, we regained our sanity and immediately hopped into a tutkuk for a ride to the Royal Palace. 

It was already too late when we reached the Royal Palace as it was already closed for the day. We did the next best thing by walking around outside the complex and took some pictures. Phnom Penh is quite similar to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh – wide streets, tall trees lining up the sidewalks and old colonial houses; call this French influence as these places used to be colonies of France.

Sothearos Blvd

Sothearos Blvd

the Royal Palace

the Royal Palace

the National Museum

the National Museum

We headed down towards Sisowath Quay and checked out the various stalls along the streets. The FCC branch in the city caught our attention and we did not hesitate to avail of the happy hour promo where draft beef costs just a dollar. The good location that we got at the topmost floor that offered a good view of the Tonle Sap River plus a mug of cold (and cheap!) beer and pan of all meat pizza satisfied our soul.

one of the artworks inside Happy Painting Galleries

one of the artworks inside Happy Painting Galleries

view of Sisowath Quay and the Tonle Sap River

view of Sisowath Quay and the Tonle Sap River

tiger beer + cold pizza = happiness!!

tiger beer + cold pizza = happiness!!

Slowly, we started walking back to our guesthouse. Just like the two previous mornings, it will be an early day again tomorrow. The pick-up time will be at 5:30.

I said a quick prayer before I called it a night; for the thousands of people who were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime and most especially to those who met their gruesome end inside Tuol Sleng…

However, just like the Cambodians, I know that I have to move on as tomorrow will be another day and I have a plane to catch.

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4 Responses to “A Quick Side Trip to Phnom Penh”

  1. Dea Says:

    If it were up to me, we will not be going to Phnom Penh–especially not Tuol Sleng–but Abet wants to, he feels that we need to visit it to understand the history of Cambodia better. This is the one part of our trip that I am not all that excited about.


    • Abet is very correct on that Dea… The dark regime of Pol Pot is indeed part of Cambodian history, a very sad part that is.

      Prepare yourself when you go there though…

  2. lui Says:

    found your blog and I find it a very interesting read.. I’m a Filipina living here in Phnom Penh, been around different and far provinces of this fascinating country yet I still haven’t summoned the courage to step into Tuol Sleng Museum. It spooks me and I knew somehow it would really affect me. I just keep passing by and hope one of these days I could visit it..


    • Thanks for by Lui!! and thank you for your compliment… I need to write more though, sayang ang mga memories. Tuol Sleng is an utterly depressing place, I was actually not looking forward to going there but deep inside I know that if I will not visit that place, I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate Cambodia.

      When you finally have the courage to step inside that place, go in with an open heart and cry if you need to cry…


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