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Get Away: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Get Away: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Russian Market, Phnom Penh

One of the most incredible opportunities travel affords is that of education. To me, traveling is synonymous with exploration, adventure, and discovery. And while vacations can--and frequently should--be relaxing, I often find them more memorable when I attempt to immerse myself in the local culture rather than view it as an outsider. Nowhere is this more important than in places steeped in history, particularly when that past is mired in pain. That's why my wish for a trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, would be a visit spent experiencing the locals' history, culture and their hope for the future. Check out our recommendation of In the Shadow of the Banyan, the book that inspired this wishlist.

(Click images to enlarge.)


Though Phnom Penh is a centuries-old city, it is the events of the late 1970s that shaped how it is today. To avoid this fact would be to miss out on a major component of Cambodian life, unpleasant though it may be to consider the genocide that took place from 1975-1979 at the hands of the the communist Khmer Rouge regime and killed 2 million people.

Tuol Sleng Museum

Lonely Planet reviewers name the Tuol Sleng Museum, which is 15 kilometers from the city center, as an essential place to learn about the dark events of the past.

One reviewer writes:

The former prison and torture centre that 17000 people went through and only 7 survived has been kept pretty much as is, adorned only with photographs and paintings (by one of the survivors).

It is precisely the starkness, plainness, and subtleness of the museum that is the most chilling – there are no interactive exhibits, computer screens, or other unnecessary adornments here. What is also remarkable that while all the atrocities are presented quite explicitly, there is very little fingerpointing, more a quiet resignation and understanding that the evil was perperated by normal people just like you and me.

Tuol Sleng is quite important for understanding the recent history of Cambodia but, even more importantly, the human condition.

Killing tree

Another relic from the Khmer Rouge era available for viewing, though not for the faint of heart, is the killing field in the nearby village of Choeung Ek where nearly 9,000 corpses have been discovered.


Coincidentally, I recently caught the No Reservations episode that took Anthony Bourdain back to Cambodia last year. In it, he touches on the changes Phnom Penh has undergone since he last visited when the show was in its first season. Overall, he found it more modern and clean, though still retaining many of the charming features he remembered from his first trip.

Chief among these was the food. However, he couldn't resist a little sidewalk grooming from the roadside barbers who stand at the ready with chairs, mirrors and, of course, shears. Unfortunately for Tony, the experience didn't go quite as planned.

Though I probably won't follow his lead in the beauty department, I would be more than happy to follow in Bourdain's culinary footsteps. That is, unless he actually thinks it's essential to eat durian. I had it once in the fifth grade. Never again.

Lotus Blanc Phnom Penh

Instead, I'd like to visit some of the Phnom Penh restaurants that work with NGOs to combine business with social enterprise. Gadling has a great list of five restaurants that do this, and of them, I'd like to try Lotus Blanc. Their recommended dish is deep-fried prawns in tamarind sauce...How soon can I get there?

Angkor Wat

(Click to enlarge this picture. You won't regret it.)

It would also be impossible to consider experiencing Cambodia's culture without the ancient temple of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is a part of the massive ruins from Khmer empires ranging from the 9th to 15th centuries. Located in Siem Reap, this monument is a six-hour drive or a 45-minute flight from Phnom Penh. I imagine it's worth the trip if you can get out of the city.

The Future

Somaly Mam

As in much of Southeast Asia, sex trafficking is an issue that runs rampant in Cambodia. And of the people fighting this scourge, one name consistently rises to the top: Somaly Mam. A former sex slave, Mam now stages raids to free girls from brothels and provides them shelter, training and education. Mam was recently featured in journalist Nicholas Kristof's book and film Half the Skyand is perhaps one of the greatest emblems of the country's hope for the future. A meeting with the woman would be incredible, but a visit to one of her shelters, to meet the girls and see their progress, would be eye-opening, to say the least.

Your turn: What would you do with a free trip to Phnom Penh? If you’ve been, share some sightseeing or culinary tips in the comments!

Images via: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

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