Phnom Penh struck me as being smaller and dirtier than Hanoi (or Saigon), but somehow more agreeable – perhaps the heat just gives it a more languid air. My first stop, after the usual practicalities (water, food, a bed and an ATM), was Tuol Sleng – a former school and the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison (I seem to be touring some of the world’s most infamous detention centres). The place is pretty decrepit (this word is actually used in the brochure), though most of the original fittings are viewable and right where they were thirty years ago. Some space is given over to various photographic displays and a few skulls, and the rest is left to the birds and mice.
The Royal Palace / Silver Pagoda complex is large and impressive, but sadly the majority of it is off-limits to visitors. There are striking and intricate buildings (along with accessories like bell towers and a scale model of Angkor Wat) scattered around well-watered gardens (birds use the sprinklers to bathe in), including a large patio area with hundreds of potted trees. The intense sunlight (I arrived after lunch) made photography difficult, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in struggling to get a decent exposure.
An interesting quirk of travelling in Cambodia is the necessity of carrying more than one kind of currency. Cambodia’s official currency is the riel, but the US dollar is accepted everywhere and just about everything is quoted in them (in the north-west, the baht serves as a third currency). ATMs dispense dollars, but you tend to get change in riel as denominations less than $1 don’t exist. Depending on the shop’s exchange rate, you have to constantly work out which currency it’s best to pay and get change in. This situation is better than the last, though – the Khmer Rouge abolished money and blew up the National Bank building.
On my next (and, as it happened, last) day in Phnom Penh, I made the trip virtually every visitor makes and took a remorque-moto (motorbike-pulled trailer) out to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek. This site, originally an orchard, was where the victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed and buried in hundreds of mass graves. There were surprisingly few people around, and the area was lush and serene with birds and butterflies everywhere. The only monuments to the genocide that took place are the signs marking significant graves and the stupa containing thousands of skulls.
Though Phnom Penh most likely contained a few more distractions, time was ticking away and I headed up to Siem Reap and Angkor Archaeological Park, the area most people come to Cambodia to see. The site is absolutely enormous, consisting of several temple sites, and is far too big to navigate on foot – especially as most of it is forest (the pecan trees give some areas a pleasant smell). I took a small circuit of Angkor Thom (the ancient walled city) and the major temples and finished up at the main attraction – Angkor Wat. The place is big and imposing, as you might expect, but slightly smaller than I’d been led to believe. The famous bas-reliefs inside are several hundred metres long, depicting Prince Rama leading his monkey army to rescue Sita from King Ravana and Pandavas and Kauravas fighting it out at the Battle of Kurukshetra. I caught the sunset from a crowded hilltop temple and was up before dawn the next day to catch the sunrise at Angkor before heading off on a second loop (larger than the first) and stopping by the Land Mine Museum. My third (and final) day consisted of a morning sojourn to the Roluos Group, an outlying bunch of temples often overlooked on tours with less time to spare.
After only a week or so, my time in Cambodia is already drawing to a close. Tomorrow I head to the Thai border, ready for a much-anticipated city break in Bangkok over Thai New Year.