Life in the Streets in Phnom Penh and Nothing but Beaches in Sihanoukville

The streets of the city, bursting with energy and life

Phnom Penh, Cambodia:

As soon as you set foot in Phnom Penh, you’ll realize that the laid-back vibes of Siem Reap are far behind you, the lazy charms of Thailand are a thing of the past, and that you’ll have to (quickly) learn how to dodge hundreds of motorbikes, make it across the high-energy streets without causing a major hold-up, avoid the vocal taxi drivers looking for a fare, and to maneuver through the many street vendors hawking their wares if you want to last.  Don’t get me wrong, however, as I’m not intending to paint these characteristics as negatives — quite the opposite.

Moving into the heart of what was formerly known as French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam), you’ll immediately notice how in this part of the world, life isn’t lived tucked away behind closed doors or hidden inside of houses, but instead, life shows its vibrancy by spilling out into the streets for all to witness and unfolds as one large performance that we all take part in.  From the small children playing in the streets, the old men yelling at their favorite Muay Thai fighters on a small black-and-white television, the noodle vendors carrying mini-kitchens on their shoulders, the moto-drivers fighting off boardem by playing Sey (hacky-sack), or simply the grisly old ex-pats sipping on sweat-mottled beers, the best way to spend your time here is to dive head first into the fray.  And although soaking up the atmosphere and watching the world go by was my favorite pastime here, there are still a few sights and temples to take in:

The Victory Monument, built to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from France

Sisowath Quay along the Tonle Sap River. Just south of the waterfront seen above (on the East side of Phnom Penh) lies the point where the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Rivers converge

The distinctive checked pattern of Cambodian Scarves

The Royal Palace

Detail of a Pagoda near the Royal Palace

The gardens and front gate of the Royal Palace, through the columns

The interior of the dome of the Central Market

Wat Phnom and the HUGE clock that lies at its base

The dynamic interior of Wat Phnom

Another shot of the busy streets of the city

Rek, a variant of chess, that is quite popular amongst the Khmer people

Beyond the wats and temples, the open-air restaurants and cafes, the busy markets and hectic streets, there are still a somber, underlying — and often unspoken — melancholy that dwells within the hearts of those who live here in Phnom Penh.  Still within memory for many of the older generation and around the time when the United States was well into their war in neighboring Vietnam, this was the epicenter of one of the most brutal genocides of the post-industrial age.

A faction known as the Khmer Rouge, led by the dictator Pol Pot, took it upon themselves to restructure their society and to restart the Khmer culture, leaving no trace of what had come before.  Almost overnight, any educated person, city-dweller, person of rank or status, or even anyone who simply appeared to be intellectual was taken into forced labor camps, or worse.  All told, in the nearly four years that the Khmer Rouge was in power (until the Vietnamese liberated Phnom Penh in 1979), close to 1.7 million had been killed or perished.  It’s difficult to imagine, looking at it from the outside, what type of affect this would have on a given culture or society, but the Khmer people are resilient and have continued to move forward despite the having their entire history nearly erased.

Two of the more famous sites that one can visit in Phnom Penh in regards to the dark years are that of Tuol Sleng (better known as the genocide museum), a former school-turned prison where false confessions were forced under torture; and Choeung Ek (better known at the Cambodia Killing Fields), where those same prisoners where later executed and buried.  These certainly aren’t easy places to visit, and hearing the stories and seeing the faces of those who passed through here can be heart-wrenching, but the impact of their tragedies is quite powerful, and well worth taking an afternoon to experience:

Nearly every prisoner that passed through Tuol Sleng was photographed and documented, and the photographs today adorn many of the walls and rooms, allowing those souls to live on, if only in memory and name

The grounds of Tuol Sleng, the Genocide Museum

The graves of the last 13 to perish at Tuol Sleng

The stupa at Choeung Ek, or the Killing Fields

Bracelets and flowers left on a small fence

The main stupa contains the bones and skulls of more than 8,000 souls that were killed on the grounds (some estimate that closer to 17,000 were killed at this location alone)

A mother and child walking through an orchard adjacent to the Killing Fields

Sihanoukville, Cambodia:

In stark contrast to the lively street scenes in Phnom Penh — and on a much brighter note than attempted genocide — my next destination was that of the sleepy beach town of Sihanoukville on the southwest coast of Cambodia.  Originally established as secondary trading port in the 1950’s by the French when the Mekong Delta was seized by the Vietnamese, shortly thereafter, it quickly became a holiday destination for both the Khmer people and foreign visitors alike.

There are a few popular beach areas near the center of town (Serendipity Beach, Victory Beach, etc.) complete with backpacker bars and fruit shake cafes, but given that I was in the mood for something a bit more isolated, I opted to head a few kilometers out-of-town and made the gloriously undeveloped strip known as Otres Beach my home.  Aside from a few bamboo shacks and bungalows, there is virtually nothing in sight besides the sand and the water, and I couldn’t imagine a better setting to spend a few days being a beach bum.  And in case you’ve been wondering why I haven’t had a post up in a while, the following photos should give you a pretty good idea of what’s been holding my attention:

Otres Beach

The main commercial drag along Otres Beach. Yep, that’s it

Back in town is the more populated Serendipity Beach

Painting a boat along Ochheuteal Beach

The sunset back on Otres Beach

Tomorrow will also mark my departure from the country of Cambodia, as I’m catching a flight into Vientiane, Laos, to the north, with Vietnam on deck.  Until then, Chul Muy from Cambodia!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

8 Responses to “Life in the Streets in Phnom Penh and Nothing but Beaches in Sihanoukville”

  1. I went to luang Prabang after Siem Reap and it was really lovely

  2. Great post! We are off to Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia in January. This is precisely the kind of post that gets me excited

  3. What an interesting post. You have two complete lifestyles featured and again, your pictures and writing are excellent. WHERE IS THE TRAVEL CHANNEL? They should be reading this!
    Keep up the excellent writing. You are a wonderful inspiration for travelers.

  4. May not be the most pleasant-looking, but it just makes most Asian cities so alive. You really got to embrace the culture.

    The chess really pique my interest.

  5. It looks so beautiful! I have in Thailand four times, and Cambodiakind of reminds me of Thailand (especially buldings) You have some beautiful pictures, and at with them you emrace the asian culture. Thumbs up for you : ).

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