By Jason Rupp and Carla Marie Rupp
Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is not only an epicenter of culture, economy and government, it’s also a city full of stimulating experiences.
In a country so ravaged and debilitated by the Khmer Rouge more than a quarter-century ago, it’s awe-inspiring to learn first-hand how the Kingdom of Cambodia is today using tourism to ensure long-term peace and growth. Visit here and you find people who are genuinely eager to show you how to have fun and where to enjoy good food and attractions.
When we arrived in Phnom Penh, we decided to ride from the airport to downtown in a tuk tuk, one of those little taxi-like motorbikes you find throughout most of Southeast Asia, to better enjoy the scenery. After check-in at our hotel we took motorbike taxis for cocktails at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, known to many as simply the “F.” It’s a restaurant and public bar on the Tonle Sap river and during its 5-7 pm happy hour the sunset views from it are intoxicating. During the tumultuous 1970s journalists convened here, as well as at the palatial Hotel Le Royal nearby.
One day we discovered in the Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s English-language daily newspaper, that the Hash House Harriers, a running club, was to have their once-a-week run on the coming weekend. We met up with them and other outdoor adventure-seekers in front of the train station at 2:00 Sunday afternoon and climbed into a big truck for a 30-minute trip, followed by a boat ride. Once ashore, we walked through the backwoods outside the capital snapping photos of the lush countryside and the many congenial Cambodians we passed along the way. After we returned to the city we joined other travelers in a beautiful restaurant sampling delicious Khmer (Cambodian) food.
Food is an integral part of the cultural heritage of Cambodia, as are the native-crafted items found in shopping meccas like the Central and Russian Markets, must-sees for any visitor here, where bargaining is both fun and expected. The colorful scarves sold here would certainly make wonderful gifts.
Another must-see attraction in Phnom Penh is the impressive National Museum of Cambodia, located just north of the Royal Palace. Along with its peaceful courtyard garden, the museum is a wonderful backdrop for photos.
As one would expect, the historic building contains many artifacts and sculptures, including a 6th century statue of Vishnu, a major god in Hinduism. The museum’s Angkor collection is stunning, with the likenesses of Shiva, several wrestling monkeys, and a seated Jayavarman VII, the Khmer Empire’s 12th-century ruler. The spectacular Silver Pagoda, near the Royal Palace, gets its name from the gleaming 5,000 silver tiles on the floor.
Another day we went to Wat Phnom temple up on a tree-covered hill, a good place to take a walk (or take an elephant ride!). Local legend says this was where Madame Penh (be sure to look for her statue) discovered four statues of Buddha that came from the Mekong River, and a pagoda was built in 1373 to house them. Many still come here to pray for good luck, since over decades many Cambodians have suffered extreme hardships.
While many tour guides tout “the killing fields” at Choeung Ek outside the city, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is also a tragic reminder of the atrocities heaped upon the Cambodian people during the time of the rise to power of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 to its fall in 1979.
Touring Tuol Sleng did prompt us to examine and purchase works by local authors about the tragic history that occurred here, and which U.N.-backed tribunal testimony is still bringing to light. We talked with many Cambodians there about our sympathy for the Cambodian people, while admiring their strength and fortitude for their suffering. It may be depressing, but it’s still important history.
Throughout Phnom Penh we also got glimpses of many other aspects of Cambodia’s colorful life and culture. They included the Independence Monument, built in 1958 to commemorate the city’s independence from France in 1953, and the Japanese Friendship Bridge (Chruoy Changvar Bridge, with its nearby restaurants) that spans the Tonley Sap River, which, incidentally, is where New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg and companions were captured by the Khmer Rouge fighters when the city fell on April 17, 1975. Those who saw the movie The Killing Fields will recognize the area not far from French Embassy where, on that horrendous day in 1975, 600 Cambodians had to leave the embassy while 800 foreigners were in refuge.
Our travels about Phnom Penh often left us speechless as we listened and learned. Actually being in Phnom Penh, after having heard so much about it in the media for so many years, was remarkable. It is an adrenaline-filled destination full of educational and informative possibilities that span a wide range of emotions. We learned to be compassionate of Cambodia’s compelling history and understand why this important city needs and welcomes tourists.
Travel is the best peacemaker and we hope to go back one day and see and do even more, connecting with people and spending time in more of the city’s restaurants where proceeds go to helping charities rebuild lives.
Coming here could humbly change your outlook on life. It did ours.
If you go:
Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia
Foreign Correspondents’ Club Restaurant, Bar & Hotel
363 Sisowath Quay