Welcome back to another edition of Root of Good Travels the World. This time we’re recapping a slice of our seven week Southeast Asia vacation. After departing Saigon, Vietnam, we traveled for six hours to the heart of Cambodia, the capital city of Phnom Penh, where we spent a week touring around town.
Phnom Penh is hard to summarize. There are towering high rise buildings and shiny shopping malls right alongside extreme poverty and squalor. But the city is thriving with activity everywhere we turned.
While in Phnom Penh we visited temples and palaces, caught an Apsara Cambodian dance show, and visited several sites memorializing the nation’s great losses suffered under the genocidal Khmer Rouge Communist dictatorship.
Most westerners have never heard of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s, but this horrible period of time strikes a nerve in our household. You see, our visit to Cambodia was a homecoming of sorts. Mrs. Root of Good’s family barely escaped the Khmer Rouge just a few hours before armed soldiers came to execute the entire family. They fled through the jungle to Thailand which led to Mrs. Root of Good living in various refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before ultimately settling in the United States at age seven.
“Time heals all wounds” they say. We found that to be true in Cambodia. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodian history were mostly that – history. We enjoyed more positive-themed experiences during most of our stay in Phnom Penh and during the week we spent in Siem Reap touring the Angkor Wat temple complex (stay tuned for that trip recap!).
How to spend seven days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
If you’re into history, the Khmer Rouge sites top the list of must-see places. For foodies, there are half a dozen markets with food stalls galore. There are several important temples and the king’s royal palace. We tried to take it all in and I think we did a good job during our one week stay.
Wat Phnom Temple
We started our tour of Phnom Penh at the Wat Phnom Temple. It’s perched on a hill several stories above ground level.
The temple grounds were fun to explore too. There is a huge clock built into the hillside landscaping.
Across the street we took a break in a city park and watched the local kids play competitive “kick the sandal”. They put several 500 riel notes (about USD$0.12 each) in the center. Then they see who can kick one sandal into another sandal and make the second sandal land as close as possible to the pile of money. It’s basically curling for those living in 95F degree environments and too poor to have access to a proper curling rink.
Watching the kids play “kick the sandal” reminded me of all the stories I’ve heard from Mrs. Root of Good and her family about growing up playing various games like “kick the rock”, “kick the stick”, “kick the can”, “throw the rock”, and “throw the stick”.
Apsara – Cambodian Cultural Dance
We bought front row tickets to an Apsara dance show at the Cambodian Living Arts Center. Tickets weren’t cheap by Southeast Asian standards at $95 for the whole family.
It was a very enjoyable show even for non-lovers of dance. The costumes were intricately detailed and the show was filled with lots of non-stop back and forth action on the stage. Demons and gods danced with the young men and ladies of this Cambodian dance troupe. They even had some martial arts!
We found a nice oasis from the car-choked streets of Phnom Penh. The waterfront promenade stretches almost a mile and a half along the Tonle Sap river. We walked through the northern half of the riverfront park to get to the open-air Phnom Penh Night Market for dinner.
Royal Palace and Silver Temple
The Royal Palace is the official residence of King Norodom Sihamoni. For USD$10, the public can gain entry to the Royal Palace grounds and take a walking tour around the palace buildings. We got to peer into the king’s gold-trimmed throne room.
Khmer Rouge memorial sites: Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) and Choeung Ek “Killing Fields”
In the 1970’s the Khmer Rouge (“Red Cambodians”) took over the country with a grand vision for a utopian socialist agrarian society. Their radical ambitions were met with failure and eventual defeat but not before killing millions of Cambodians (around a quarter of the entire country) and displacing millions more from their homes.
(note: graphic descriptions follow so skip to the next section if you don’t want to encounter unpleasantness)
Phnom Penh contains two main sites memorializing this period of Cambodian history. The Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21, used to serve as a prison for the detainees of the Khmer Rouge. The detainees were tortured and interrogated and often executed.
In a sad twist of irony, the prison campus served as a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over and repurposed the buildings for their evil ends. Chalkboards were still mounted in several of the rooms.
The other notable Khmer Rouge site is the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. It’s located about twenty minutes outside Phnom Penh.
The Killing Fields were a little underwhelming in my opinion just because there wasn’t much left from the days when the Khmer Rouge used the wooded landscape as a genocide assembly line. The provided audio guide did a good job explaining the relevance of different locations throughout the site, however there weren’t any still-standing buildings to serve as a visual indicator of what transpired at the Killing Fields.
Perhaps the most visually powerful remnant of the site’s history was the “killing tree”. The Khmer Rouge executioners didn’t just kill adults. They exterminated whole families. And bullets were scarce. The executioners would swing the babies’ and young children’s heads against this tree to kill them.
I definitely took a big “WTF” moment of reflection as I stood there looking at that tree. Investigators found bone fragments and shreds of clothing around the tree and all over the remainder of the site. Thousands were buried in mass graves not far from this tree.
After seeing more substantive genocide memorial sites from World War II in Dachau (near Munich) and Berlin, the Cambodian genocide sites weren’t as gripping. But that tree hit home. Such a mundane thing being used to murder hundreds or thousands of kids. Why kill the kids too?
If you’re interested in reading more on the subject of the genocide in Cambodia, here are a few good books:
- First They Killed My Father – by Loung Ung (also a movie available on Netflix)
- When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge – by Chanrithy Him
- Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison – by David Chandler
- Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors – by Dith Pran (who’s own real life story features in the 1985 movie The Killing Fields)
In the following sections I’ll talk about where we stayed, what we ate, and how we got around town and between cities. Lastly, since this is a personal finance blog, I’ll go over the costs of our trip.
Lodging for 7 nights in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with Airbnb
We spent a week in a three bedroom apartment in Phnom Penh. The total cost was $301, or $43 per night. The apartment was very spacious and had plenty of light in all the rooms. Our master bathroom was huge!
We discovered a problem with one bedroom. It started to smell like cigarette smoke half way through our stay. Even after the building maintenance stopped by to take a look (and spray some air freshener), it didn’t improve. Our daughter who was sleeping in that bedroom ended up camping out on the sofa for a few nights. We never identified the source of the cigarette smoke but I assume a neighbor had a two pack a day habit and their smoke seeped through the walls or floors.
The apartment was located about 10 minutes outside the main tourist area. This was good and bad. We enjoyed escaping the noise and bustle of the downtown tourist center but had to spent a little extra time in the taxi when going out for the day.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll have to say “you never know what you’re going to get” when it comes to Airbnb rentals. In this case the apartment was very nice given what we paid. The interior matched the pictures in the listing at Airbnb. The Mekong river was easy to see from the balcony as promised.
But the pictures in the listing didn’t reveal that the apartment was in the rear of an abandoned construction site. The developers apparently built our apartment building then went broke. They failed to complete the other five buildings in the development. Here’s what we were left with about six years after construction stopped:
I never sleuthed out the backstory of what happened to the development but it’s a common story in developing nations: slow unit sales, weak spot in the economy, financing falls through, corruption or fraud, too much red tape, or one of a dozen other perils.
You take the good with the bad. We got a spacious apartment with what turned out to be two bedrooms and three full bathrooms plus a full kitchen and large living room for $43 per night. Two budget hotel rooms with queen beds in the tourist center of town would have cost two or three times as much, so I feel like we got an incredible value for an apartment with a little “character”.
Don’t forget to use my $40 off your first Airbnb stay through this referral link if you end up booking a stay with Airbnb.
Food in Phnom Penh
Mrs. Root of Good and her family cook Cambodian food all the time back home in Raleigh so we were pretty familiar with most of the dishes we saw in Phnom Penh.
We took the easy option on our first day adventuring around the city. After exploring downtown we ended the day at an air-conditioned shopping mall to visit the food court full of various Cambodian “street food” vendors. By this point of the day our youngest kid was “starving”. Before we could find the food court on the fourth floor, we encountered the Lotteria fast food restaurant on the second floor.
“Starvation” averted. The Lotteria is basically a more expensive but crappier version of McDonalds. We spent almost USD$25 on a small tray of what would be dollar menu items in the US but somehow cost $2+ each in Cambodia. It still hit the spot. Though I was disappointed that my “bulgogi burger” didn’t come with bulgogi sauce. They were all out of bulgogi so they substituted teriyaki sauce instead. I’m docking you two Yelp stars, 2nd floor Lotteria in the mall.
We also got a round of soft serve ice cream cones after consuming the snack size burgers and fries. Still being hungry, we continued our exploration of the mall premises in our search for the rumored Cambodian food court.
Once we located the food court, we had a second round of dinner.
The food was pretty good but not the best we’ve ever had. The air conditioning, clean restrooms, clean, comfortable seating and a large variety of options (including some that were kid-approved) more than made up for any shortcomings with the food itself. We returned to the food court a second time for takeout.
On the ground floor of the mall was a good grocery store where we provisioned our kitchen for the week. And outside the grocery store was a “Lucky Burger” ice cream shop with plenty of unique flavors.
On a different day we visited the Night Market and got even more ice cream, sweet drinks, and a variety of fried goodies.
Closer to our apartment, we found a complete hole in the wall authentic Cambodian restaurant called “Pho Olympic”.
The menu was in Khmer. One employee spoke very limited English so we struggled through ordering various dishes, hoping for the best. Some were delicious and others were very average. They did make some good pho, or “ka tieu”.
Next to Pho Olympic is Bayon Bakery where we bought a tiny birthday cake for Mrs. Root of Good for USD$5. It even came with candles, plates, and forks!
The guy that decorated the cake spoke essentially zero English but he knew how to write Happy Birthday perfectly.
Getting To/From/Around Phnom Penh and Cambodia
We booked a “luxury” van from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for $73 (plus $5 in mandatory
bribes Expedited Processing Fees at the border crossing location). We chose the six hour van ride over a one hour flight so that we could see the countryside and because flights would have been $500 for the five of us.
After dealing with taxis to/from the airport, lengthy check-in process, security lines, and waiting, it probably would have taken just as long to get to Phnom Penh by air as it did on the ground. Although the land-based route had a lot more bumps along the way. Totally worth it though.
We did opt for a flight onward from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Flights were USD$32 each compared to $15-16 each for another six hour van ride. Having already seen the countryside extensively, we chose the Lanmei Airlines flight for only $75 more in total for the five of us.
Since the flight was so cheap, we paid cash instead of using a lot of airline frequent flyer miles. We saved our miles to get much better value on more expensive plane tickets in the future.
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Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber. It’s incredibly simple to book a ride through their app.
We spent approximately $60 on the Grab rides in Phnom Penh. Rides into town were usually USD$3-5 each way. Long distance rides of ~45 minutes to the Killing Fields and airport were about USD$9-10.
The heat wasn’t too bad in Phnom Penh so we walked quite a bit during our week in the city. It was still hot and humid, but bearable. It’s the rainy season so the clouds hang around most of the time which helps keep the sun’s heat at bay.
I saw some local SIM chips for sale at the border crossing station for USD$2-3 for basic service or $6 for “unlimited” service and data. I didn’t inquire about the specific terms that came with this nice low price.
I go with the simpler, yet possibly slightly more expensive Google Fi phone service for overseas travel. It works in almost every country in the world and doesn’t require switching SIMs or paying extra for international service.
I use a different low cost provider (Freedompop) while in the US, but use Google Fi when traveling overseas. It costs $20 per month for unlimited voice and texting plus $0.01 per megabyte of data. We used 300 megabytes of data during our summer in Asia (about USD$3.00 worth of data).
The best feature of Google Fi for the occasional world traveler is the ability to pause and resume service as often as you would like. I believe they bill by the minute only for time you actually have service activated. So if you only activate service for a day or so (and pause service after that), then you’ll only pay about a dollar for the connection plus a penny per megabyte of data consumed. I leave my Google Fi service paused when I’m back in the US, then resume service when we head overseas for a bit.
If you want to save $20 off a new Google Fi account, then feel free to use my referral link (and I get a $20 credit too).
Costs for 7 Days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
We didn’t track every penny we spent in great detail, but after some forensic accounting I pulled together this cost summary using the transaction data from Personal Capital. In total we spent around $1,178 for our 7 days in Phnom Penh or about $168/day.
Lodging of $301 covers the 7 nights of airbnb rental in Phnom Penh.
Food totaled approximately $250 for 7 days which averages to $36 per day. The food category includes restaurants, groceries, snacks, and drinks. We generally ate at simple restaurants with meals ranging from USD$2.50 to $5 per person. Drinks included a lot of squeezed sugarcane drinks and fresh coconut juice (with the meat included) for $1-2 each. Groceries were mostly fresh fruits and snacks.
Bus/Train/Plane expense is the one way flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap on Lanmei Airlines. $162 total for the five tickets, and we paid cash instead of using frequent flyer miles.
Taxi/Grab expense of $60 represents what we spent on local transportation. Most rides into the tourist area were USD$3-5 while longer rides across town to the airport and bus station were around USD$10.
Admission fees and tours were approximately $225. This is a rough guess. Most admission fees were USD$5-10 and kids were usually discounted or free. The biggest single expense in this category was the $95 tickets to see the Apsara dance. Overall, we were surprised by how expensive the admission fees were to various attractions.
Rounding out the spending is the Cambodian e-visa fees. These were $36 per person. We obtained these through the Cambodian e-visa website and the process was painless.
Summary of costs for 7 days in Phnom Penh:
|Food (groceries, restaurants, drinks)||250|
|Visa Fees for Cambodia||180|
Thoughts on Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Overall I’m very glad I visited Phnom Penh. It’s rough around the edges but full of interesting places like the Royal Palace, Killing Fields, and S-21 Prison. Mrs Root of Good LOVED the Apsara Dance show and even our surly seven year old seemed to get into it at points.
Getting to Phnom Penh was easy enough since it’s the capital city of Cambodia and buses run frequently from Ho Chi Minh City. Getting out of town was easy as well since Phnom Penh has direct flights to most Southeast Asian destinations.
It was rather relaxing where we stayed about 10 minutes from the center of all the action. I’m not sure if we would have had as much peaceful downtime if we had stayed in the tourist zone.
I always reflect back on cities and ask “would we visit here again?”. Phnom Penh gets a “maybe”. The prices were higher than I expected given Cambodia’s reputation for a budget travel destination in Southeast Asia. High-ish prices set against a low level of development isn’t what we’re looking for in a place to visit again and again. The spots we visited in Europe like Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Spain offer a better price-to-quality ratio. In Southeast Asia, I liked Thailand and Vietnam better than Cambodia for different reasons.
Visiting the Khmer Rouge Genocide memorial sites were moving. But they aren’t something I would go back to visit a second time.
The food in Phnom Penh was disappointing overall, but I think we had our expectations for Southeast Asian cuisine calibrated way too high. Much like in Vietnam, the less expensive dishes in the $3-5 range just weren’t that impressive. We enjoy better-prepared versions of most of these dishes in our own kitchen back home in Raleigh, so there’s that aspect to our disappointment too.
The $0.50 draft beer specials all over Cambodia are certainly attractive to the backpacker set but we aren’t heavy drinkers so the value of the draft beer specials are mostly lost on us.
In conclusion, it’s definitely a city worth visiting if you’re headed to Southeast Asia. There is plenty to keep you busy for a week or so. But I wouldn’t rank it highly in terms of “good places to hang out for a month or two”.
What are your thoughts on Cambodia? Have you ever been? Had you ever heard of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge before reading this article today?
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