02 September 2020

Travel Through Writing: The Raw, Real, and Relevant Phnom Penh

And we’re back with another travel adventure! Only this time, I’ll take you across the waters to a place up north - to the beautiful city of Phnom Penh in CAMBODIA.

Now for some context, Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, a country located on the Indochina peninsula of Southeast Asia. The city was once considered as the ‘Pearl of Asia’ from the 1920s to 1970s, being one of the most beautiful cities of Indochina. A hustling and bustling capital, Phnom Penh is best known for its domestic tourist attractions (which we’ll further explore as we go on!)

Mind you, I was accompanying my family on this trip and knew next to nothing about Phnom Penh (or Cambodia for that matter) besides vague stories online on it’s ‘tragic’ history. So I took a gamble, diving head-first into the unknown of what the city/country had to offer. And my gosh, did it deliver, in ways I never expected.

So prepare yourselves for an unmissable experience.

We arrived at the airport at 3.00 pm, Cambodian time, just as the grey clouds began creeping over the horizon. The turbulent flight had left me lightheaded, and a tad bit grumpy from tossing and turning all the while, so frankly, I was in no hurry to go sightseeing as such. Yet I felt a strange sensation the moment I stepped off the plane.

How do I describe it?

There wasn’t anything inordinately special about the airport. It had a simple rectangular structure with red beam pillars decorated at the front, and seemed plain at most. But the loud realisation hit me that I was standing on unfamiliar, foreign soil which evoked feelings of curiosity, and admittedly, some fear as well. Within minutes, the quaint charm of the airport easily dissolved my irritable state from before.

TIP #1:

The trip to Cambodia from KLIA takes a good 2-3 hours, depending on your flight of choice and location. As with any overseas journey under a span of 5 hours, I recommend avoiding a heavy meal or fast food before takeoff mainly because digestion is difficult up in the air.

Light, nutritious meals are always the way to go to prevent any unfortunate incidents. Besides, this anticipates your stomach for the upcoming delights offered on arrival.

We met our friendly cabbie, who very kindly doffed his cap with a bow, boarded our luggage into the vehicle, and set us off towards our accommodation.

Not long after, we arrived at the Green Palace Hotel — a tall, lime-coloured building with obnoxiously green windows, walls, carpets, floors, you name it! I distinctly remember the host offering us martini glasses of sweetened drinks, tinted in... you guessed it, the brightest shade of green imaginable (which oddly enough tasted super delicious!)

Despite the choking overload of green hues, the hotel truly lived up to its name, a true palace in all it’s might. Finally, it truly settled in that I was here, an ocean away from home and ready for yet another travel adventure.

FIRST STOP: The Royal Palace of Cambodia

By the time we felt fresh and ready to go see some sights, it was already half past 5, and dusk was slipping in by the minute. Our cabbie recommended we try nearby tourist spots, one of them being the Royal Palace of Cambodia. The name itself screamed decadence and beauty, so it hardly took any convincing to get us on the road and ready to explore. 

The Royal Palace of Cambodia is a set of decorated buildings, beaming gold and white, packed together on large plain grounds. Located within the palace grounds is the Khemarin Palace, which houses the king of Cambodia and remains closed off from the public.

The palace is a surreal sight, several degrees more royal than our hotel in actuality. It looked like a cross between Cambodia’s past and present melded together, almost like setting foot in a permanent time warp. Every plant, bush, and tree in existence were pristine, perfectly clipped and ornately shaped to represent royalty and aristocracy.

The palace buildings were a perfect blend between Khmer architecture and French influences, as seen reflected in every single building, with gold gilded panels and spired prangs.

We toured the Throne Hall first, followed by the Moonlight Pavilion, and then the Silver Pagoda, which were some of the buildings open for public visit. Admittedly, my legs weren’t holding up well on my empty stomach and jet lag.

So, after a good hour or two of exploration and endless pictures, we settled on one of the nearby benches lurking outside the palace ground for a quick ice-cream break.

SECOND STOP: The Independence Monument

Roughly 5-10 minutes walking distance from the palace is the Independence Monument of Cambodia. This was a 37-meter high, oblong building, with a lotus head sitting atop. The Independence Monument was a symbol of Cambodia winning back their independence from French rule in 1953.

It was already quarter past 7 and a veil of darkness had engulfed the sky, and almost on cue, the building lit up. The lights were toned in Cambodia’s flag colours — blue, red and white, and added character to the pale red of the building, shining against the night sky.

Oddly enough, the mere sight of it somehow lifted our spirits amidst a long day of jetlag, hunger, and heavy legwork. It was a short but sweet conclusion to the first day out and with that, we succumbed to our rumbling stomach and headed on back home for a room service feast.

TIP #2:

Here’s a money fact about Cambodia!

Greenbacks (US dollars) are widely used throughout the country, sometimes even a little more than their own currency, the riel

Why so? When the UN came over to Cambodia in 1992, they brought a great deal of US dollars into the economy to support their fluctuating currency which stabilised their inflation. Hence, now the country is well-accustomed to using greenbacks in everyday transactions.

So, keep a generous (very, very generous) supply of them in your wallet prior to arrival to avoid currency exchange scams and such.

It was day two and we were ready to soak up the Cambodian sights.

Myself, in particular, breakfasted like a king (as one should in a palace-advertised hotel), feasting on the several plates stacked in the buffet room. With the appearance of various Western and local delicacies, it’s safe to say that my tastebuds were more than satisfied already. It was now time to hit the road - er, rather the time to finally give my stomach a rest and get those legs moving.


The following content and images are graphic and disturbing. Reader discretion advised.

THIRD STOP: The S-21 Prison - Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Now before we go on, let’s dive into a mini history lesson for more context!

Cambodia suffered a massive genocide that wiped out nearly a quarter of their population from 1975 to 1979 under the Khmer Rouge.

Why did the genocide occur? The Khmer regime that ruled Cambodia attempted to follow a Communist route and believed the Cambodian people had been ‘tainted’ by exposure to outside ideas, especially by the capitalist West.

To set up a ‘master race’ of an agrarian society (an agricultural society based on farming crops and mainland), they sent the citizens for trial, execution, and extended forms of torture.

The S-21 Prison was a former secondary school turned into a holding location for these ‘prisoners’.

Every room had a different story to tell. The higher floors featured former classrooms which were made into jail ‘cells’ with red brick partitions and chains hooked at the bottom to immobilise the prisoners. The brick walls were vandalised with carvings, assumed to be drawn by the prisoners, of the barrack trucks in which they arrived. It was massively unnerving to witness, almost unfathomable that human life was holed up in these tiny cubicle spaces with little to no sunlight and tragic fates awaiting them. The claustrophobia and haunted aura of the cell space left me with an uncomfortable taste in my mouth.

This was truly a difficult pill to swallow.

The bottom floors were not any easier to stomach.

These classrooms featured pictures of most of the victims imprisoned at the S-21 Prison, before and after their torture sentence. Seeing the faces of the victims definitely gave me chills because now the nameless, faceless victims I had imagined taken captive here suddenly gained identities, livelihoods, and expressions all in a span of 10 minutes.

I felt a sense of shame, for not truly accepting that this was no fable or myth — this was reality, in its darkest light. And it was just hard for my mind to process.

TIP #3:

Book the right transport! The S-21 Prison and the Killing Fields lie on the skirts of Phnom Penh and take a great deal of travel time en route from the capital. So if you don’t fancy hiring a car or a tuk-tuk, then you’ve got shuttle bus or hop-on hop-off bus options available at the click of a button. And if you’re stuck in a pinch, make sure to refer to a tour guide from your hotel itself!

FOURTH STOP: The Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Oh boy. 

You can tell by the name itself that this location isn’t meant to be pretty or picturesque. 

The Choeung Ek Killing Fields is one of the killing fields in Cambodia that features a rather raw and disturbing depiction of the lives lost during the Khmer reign of terror. Around 1.7 to 2.5 million Cambodians died through execution, starvation, or disease, during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.

The devastating four years resulted in the unearthing of 20,000 mass graves and counting all over Cambodia, with the largest killing fields being Choeung Ek itself.

The prison visit had left me squeamish and unnerved but quite literally nothing prepared me for what awaited on the Killing Fields.

Stretching over a vast plain of sand, the staff prepped us with some instructions and offered us headsets with record players that would aid us throughout the tour with audio stories. Each audio played at various sites by location numbers and the tour proceeded as the tapes kept progressing in real-time.

The experience was quite difficult for me to stomach throughout.

The audio tapes featured historical data, heart-wrenching stories from survivors, and a walkthrough of every single site in the field. My eyes pricked with tears on more than one occasion, listening to the victim stories, describing the events that went down over the span of merely 4 years. The more devastating the stories got, the more my heart shattered into smaller pieces by the minute. All I can say is, you won’t come out the same person by the end of the tour. It leaves you in a different space of thought and offers a new outlook on life — Life-changing, as I’d like to call it.


This goes without saying but good behaviour is an absolute must in locations such as these. Dress appropriately. Don’t take selfies in front of any of the sites (including the skull heads, bones and signboards). Don’t eat, drink, smoke or engage in loud conversation during the tour.

Honour the victims with respect.

My last day in Cambodia ended on a somber note but all the more meaningful one.

Besides treating myself to some unique Cambodian artisan bracelets and clothes, I think the experience was the biggest item of value I’d be bringing back home to Malaysia. I boarded the flight back with a feeling of lightness in my heart, clutching my mustard-yellow ‘Visit Cambodia’ shirt to my chest (a guilty purchase!) with hope to step foot on their soil once again.

My Final Thoughts?

In all honesty, Cambodia tops as my favourite visit destinations for a lot of reasons.

Besides the fact that I’m a total history nerd who lives, breathes, and consumes anything historical, the city was more than just a cultural relic. The tragedy and turmoil from the Khmer Rouge regime is still so thick in the air, the horror and pain in the eyes of the locals still remains ever-present, yet the country shines with so much hope and promise. With every single sincere smile or kind word that comes out the mouths of its people leaves you in awe of their strength and will.

It struck a chord in me, and left my impressionable mind in a daze of wonder and sorrow.

This was no luxurious beach or scenic destination as what you’d find in Malaysia, yet it’s undeniably so endearing because the years of devastation shaped its national story but never chose to define it as their present narrative. 

My takeaway from this trip was the educational experience I had within a span of 1 and a half days. I feel even more thankful that I didn't do any research prior to my arrival because the stories of Phnom Penh were a true gut-punch, and ultimately shaped my whole experience. I see myself coming back for multiple trips (and maybe even visit Angkor Wat at some point) because Cambodia truly left an impression on me in the most unexpected way possible.


My Phnom Penh trip gets a solid 10/10 from me, with no regrets whatsoever.

Karen Grace Prince is currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Communication (Honours) at Taylor's University. She is also the Director of Events Committee for the Taylor's Model United Nations Club (TLMUN) and Director of Ext. Operations for TLMUN 2020 Conference Secretariat Team.

Karen Grace Prince
Guest Contributor