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Phnom Penh

Thursday, November 13, 2008
Cambodia is one of the 20 poorest countries in the world, yet in the 1920s, its capital, Phnom Penh, was known as the "Pearl of Asia". It is now struggling to rebuild after years of war.

Less than 30 years ago, it was a ghost town. Every single person was evacuated at gunpoint and streets were empty for four years. Its people are healing and moving on, but scars on the city remain as a reminder.

Despite its tragic history, Phnom Penh, along with Siem Reap, is a significant tourism destination and known for traditional Khmer and French-influenced architecture.

Being there may cause emotional discomfort, but you need to visit the former Tuol Sleng prison and killing fields to understand why it is the way it is today.

In 1975 the murderous communist dictator Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge to kill and maim millions of Cambodians. It is unlikely one single family remained intact.

The Khmer Rouge takeover ended five-years of civil war, and initially, everyone rejoiced in newfound peace and welcomed their liberators. Their joy was short-lived as the new regime abolished cities, money markets, schools, newspapers and private property. Family life and freedom were greatly restricted, everyone was forced to wear black cotton peasant pyjamas. Religious practice was forbidden. Most people worked 12-hour days in fields while being closely watched by heavily armed soldiers.

Pol Pot, formerly a school teacher, had a four-year plan to modernise Cambodia and break down class divisions. He planned to triple agriculture exports and use the money to finance industrialisation. Half-starved people were expected to perform miracles without tools, livestock or material. Many deaths were the result of Pol Pot's rejection of western medicine and his harsh working schedules.

Pol Pot and his party members kept themselves hidden, but spies of the shadowy Angkar Padevat organisation were everywhere.

When he realised that his plan had failed, Pol Pot blamed everyone but himself. Sabotage was his favourite excuse. In 1979 he fled to the jungles of south-west Cambodia after a Vietnamese invasion led to the collapse of the Khmer Rouge government. In 1979, he was overthrown and imprisoned with other leaders and died while under house arrest. Some say he was poisoned.

Tuol Sleng is Khmer for "Hill of the Poisonous Trees". Once the site of a school, it became a notorious security prison during the Khmer Rouge regime. Classrooms were converted to cells and it became Cambodia's largest torture chamber. Today it is a museum, and while it is confronting and haunting, it brings a respect for a nation surviving and recovering from the hideous period.

Guides are very aware that a visit to the museum is certainly not an enjoyable outing, so they like to take tourists somewhere fun. Hammock bars are the go, and it's a light-hearted way to relax and enjoy a cold drink at one of them.

The Tonle Sap is a combined lake and river system. Its flow changes directions twice a year and expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. Daily ferry services run between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The 251km journey takes around five hours.

It's worth getting up with the sun for a trip along the Tonle Sap to see modern day Cambodian culture and the royal palace.

The palace was built in 1866 and has been occupied by the Kings of Cambodia since then. The complex is divided by walls into three main compounds. On the north side is the silver pagoda, to the south-west is the Khemarin Palace and a central compound contains the throne hall.

Friends Restaurant is a non-profit tapas restaurant run by former street kids. It is just one part of the non-government organisation helping street kids and their families. Food is good and cheap — it's described as a "modern Khmer/Asian/Western fusion".

Seeing Hands Massage is a program to help blind Cambodians train and find work so they can be self-sufficient. The massages are very inexpensive and what you pay goes towards a wonderful cause.

Rarn's House and School is run by a very special couple. Rarn is a tour guide and has turned his home into a school for neighbourhood children who cannot afford to go to an established school. His wife is a superb cook and they love having tourists to dinner and experience how local people live.

The Riverfront area is where you'll find cheap beer and food at night. At dawn, it's where locals do their morning exercises.


Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.


Intrepid Travel has a 15-day Heart of Cambodia tour from Phnom Penh starting at around $1155 per person twin share. It includes a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields, all accommodation, most meals and transport.

Thai Airways International has flights to Phnom Penh.

Fares from:

  • Perth $1408
  • Melbourne $1550
  • Sydney $1561
  • Brisbane $1563

Valid for travel until November 20, 2008 and between January 26 and March 31, 2009.

Prices correct at November 13, 2008.

For further information

Intrepid Travel
Ph: 1300 364 512

Friends Restaurant
215 Street 13
Phnom Penh
Ph: +012 802 072

Thai Airways International
Ph: 1300 651 960

It is recommended travellers to Cambodia see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there are specific vaccinations recommended. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended and are best discussed with your doctor. For further information visit

Check out our celebrity Getaway blog or our photo gallery for more Getaway adventure pics.

User comments
I was wondering if you could please give me the contact details for rarns house, I am going to cambodia next year and would like to contact them to book into having dinner at his house or a tour Thanks Kate

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