Backpacking Cambodia : Phnom Penh in a glimpse

January 15, 2015

To be honest I wasn’t expecting much of Phnom Penh. My first impression of the Cambodian capital city was that, it was just a city. I was already reluctant to leave Siem Reap, so when I left to Phnom Penh it was a mixed feelings altogether. I didn’t know what to expect. My time in Pnom Penh was short, but it left a long-lasting impression of Cambodia and I’m glad I decided to stop by.


From Siem Reap I took the private van for USD 10. It was a little more expensive than an average bus ride, but it was the fastest option to Phnom Penh. Booking was done straight from the hostel’s desk (Siem Reap Hostel) and the journey took roughly 4 hours.

Similarly you can opt for buses, as most tour agencies runs them for USD 7. Giant Ibis and the Mekong Express appears to be the popular choice, but at a pricier price tag of USD 12 – USD 15. You can also take the boat to Phnom Penh, but I’ve heard mix review on this so proceed with cautions.


Two days in Phnom Penh found me in good companies while I immersed myself with endless card games, beer pongs and Kings Cup on the rooftop bar – and USD 1.50 for a shot was a steal! I stayed at the Mad Monkeys hostel and paid USD 8 for a mixed dorm. It definitely had that party hostel kind of vibe, but the good kind of crazy (if you get what I mean). Local food was hard to find, maybe because the area I’m was at was very well established. There was even an expensive sushi place built nearby the hostel.


Yet, not all was spent on booze. I was more than determined to experience Phnom Penh within the limited time constraint, and decided to go on a tour to the Killing Field and the S21 Prison to make the most out of it.

A full day tuk-tuk ride in Cambodia would set you back USD 15, and after splitting the cost with three other travellers, we immediately found our way inhaling thick dusts on the hot Cambodian road. And while Siem Reap was beyond perfect, Phnom Penh however showed me the other side and the reality of Cambodia. The struggle is real. By any means, that is not a bad thing, in fact it was a much-needed eye opener.


Call me ignorant. Maybe I am. But I wasn’t aware of Cambodia’s bloody history until I found myself in Phnom Penh.  To say it was an intense trip was a complete understatement. It’s hard to believe that it all happened just under 30 years ago, with recent trials only happening in 2014 for crimes against humanity. Price of admission to the Killing Field costs USD 3, and it is advisable to get the audio guide for another USD 3 (trust me, it’s worth it)

The Killing Field was a remnant of the Rouge Khmer bloody reign, where a million of people were killed under Pol Pot’s regime. If you’re imagining the Nazi’s Holocaust – then this was something similar, only it’s happening so, so close to home. What was once a proud nation went into ruins the very moment Pol Pot and his party took over. Millions of people were driven over to the countryside for agricultural slavery, and those who opposed were slaughtered.

Its attempts at agricultural reform led the country into a total meltdown. Public properties were seized, schools and major banks were shut down and the currency was abolished. Within a matter of days, the city of Phnom Penh was empty, and the country was immediately renamed as Kampuchea. Many were driven to the countryside and were forced to work 12 hours at agricultural campsites, most succumbed to death by widespread famine and thousands died from malaria.

Then, to nullify existing threats the Khmer Rouge started to round-up the influential – from politicians, lawyers, doctors, teachers – even monks too. Anyone who were deemed educated were brought to prison, tortured and to be executed. Pol Pot’s paranoia even led to the execution of his own ranks, up to those wearing glasses (because they look smart) to those possessed smooth hands devoid of labor work.

The Killing Field served mainly as an execution site, where most of the prisoners were transported here by trucks, blindfolded in the middle of the night and walked their ways into death. While the Nazis built gas chamber for mass slaughter, the Khmer Rouge took every necessary precautions to save gunfire and bullets – most were hacked to death, throat slits, and rocks smashed on the head.

It was gruesome. As you walked through the Killing Field you could make out old remnants of clothes, even pieces of bones peeking out under the soil from erosion. Pretty colourful bracelets were scattered across the Killing Field, left by fellow visitors symbolising for good luck and well wishes for the parting souls of the victims.

Towards the centre of the Killing Field, another mass grave stood out, this time consisting majorly of women victims. And right beside it was the large Killing Tree – where young infants and children were swung by their legs and heads smashed against the very same tree.

And it suddenly dawned to me that children and infants weren’t spared either. Purely because they didn’t want them seeking revenge.

The mere thought of it was sickening, not only the society was stripped off their privileges and human rights, the young and innocence were slaughtered without second thoughts. It was just too much. I could only found myself choked in silent, there were too much mass grave, too many untold stories and I could only imagine the Cambodians having to live in fear throughout the four years under Khmer Rouge’s dictatorship.

It wasn’t until the invasion of the Vietnamese army in 1979 that the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, and the very thought that all this happened by the acts of their own people was too much to bear. It took years before Cambodia could regain itself back into its feet and a stupa was built, housing up to 5,000 skulls of victims serving as a memorial for the dark days.


The S21 Prison was another place I couldn’t stomach. Price of admission to the S21 Prison with an audio guide would cost you USD 6. The place reeks with much death and despair, it took me just well into half an hour that I gave up exploring. It’s not that I didn’t want to. But it was because it’s just too much.

The converted school served as the S21 prison throughout the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, and many were brought in to be interrogated under the crime of being a traitor, or aiding the Vietnamese military power. Prisoners were heavily tortured, some were even mutilated to death and few live to tell the stories. Most either died from starvation and diseases, while the rest were brought to the Killing Field to be executed.

Certain rooms were converted to hold prisoners, small squares of cells were measly built and you could even make out little scribblings on the black boards indicating that it was just a normal school back in the days. Few major rooms were used for tortures, usually for high level “prisoners” such as the opposing politicians and officers, and after a while I couldn’t get myself to see the rest.

The rest of the buildings served as an exhibition of Khmer Rouge’s wrong doings – from the black and white portraits of the victims to legal proofs and documents, but most were photographs of the past. It’s even harder to believe that it took them many years till justice was proven, even well after Khmer Rouge fled the country with recent trials only completed in 2014.

Both the Killing Field and S21 Prison served as a grime reminder of the past, but such was the consequences of war and greed that made you appreciate the little things in life.


I didn’t have the luxury of time to fully explore Phnom Penh. The Killing Field and S21 left me in such a dejected state, that trying to go around left me feeling sombre. But few notable attractions in Phnom Penh would be the Royal Palace and the National Museum, plus several other temples within the city.


I’ve been asked of this question too many times, but here I definitely stand that Cambodia is definitely a safe place to travel. Because let’s face it, there’s no difference than what we have back home. And you should never ever let your guards down, even back in the comforts of your own home. Basic common sense applies everywhere and you shouldn’t rely merely on first impressions and false sense of security.

Because Phnom Penh, like any other city, are not free of petty crimes. I had an unpleasant experience of witnessing bags being snatched away from tuk-tuks in the middle of the traffic jam. A friend was robbed right in front our hostel, all while crossing the road to the opposite restaurant. I’ll say stick to the basic precautions and don’t attract too much attention. That DSLR hanging off your chest screams easy target, and try to carry less valuables with you as you go. Make full use of hostel lockers and bring your own safety locks. I don’t walk around with my passport either and be sure make copies of your travel documents and have a contingency plan for when things goes awry.

Be safe, but not too paranoid either that you forgot how to breathe (or to experience things in that matter).


All that being said, I totally adore Cambodia. This wrecked country has lost so much, yet it survived the years of struggle. The will to survive is strong, and the newer generations are doing their best to strive the country forward.

I would love to return one day, perhaps to venture up north to the Cambodian – Laos border to Si Phan Don, or down to Sihanoukville, or even to Kampot for the mountains. Cambodia is such a lovely place, I even favoured it more to Thailand and Vietnam. And that itself is a huge statement considering that both Thailand and Vietnam holds such special place in my heart.


AccommodationMad Monkey Hostel (USD 8/night) USD 16
TransportationTuk Tuk (Day Trip USD 15/4 people)

Tuk Tuk to bus station
USD 3.75

ActivitiesKilling Field + Audio Guide

S21 Prison + Audio Guide

MiscellanousSouvenirs (postcards etc)USD 5
Food and DrinksAssorted USD 28.50
TotalUSD 65.25

I’ve spent USD 65.25 in total for 3 days and 2 nights in Phnom Penh, and it wasn’t too bad considering I’m on a USD 30 budget per day. My biggest expenditure would of course be the food & drinks, but considering I had my meals in restaurants and drank the night away, it wasn’t much of a surprise.

My next adventure sees me venturing into the Vietnamese border and finding myself back in Ho Chi Minh City. Read here for more adventures on Vietnam! Hope this helps in planning your trip to Cambodia (especially Phnom Penh), and until then – safe travels!

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Backpacking Phnom Penh

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By Alyssa J

Alyssa J is an aspiring traveller and a wanderlust writer, aiming to inspire and to share the little joys of the world. Follow on her journeys on The Jaren Wanders.


  1. Reply


    Hai Alyssa, you have nice blog filled with pictures.
    If given a week between Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh which would you say would stand out more.
    I’ve been to Siem Reap and really liked the temples and its layed back life style. Never been to Vietnam.

    1. Reply

      Alyssa J

      Hi Vind!

      I would say Ho Chi Minh for sure 🙂 While Pnom Penh was good, a day or two is more than enough.

      Vietnam is one of my favorite country, give it a go! I personally liked Ho Chi Minh for the food and the culture.

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