Cambodia, Part I: Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Royal Palace
Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace Grounds

Spending a few days in steamy Phnom Penh gave me the chance to settle and explore a city I imagined I would like, but really started to love. The architecture is gorgeous and otherworldly – the rooftop peaks and curling spires of temples and pagodas and palaces are decorated with gold and colored tiles and possess an undeniable magic – so wildly Eastern. I would swear, too, that the ancient statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities, the friezes, and miniature stupas at the National Museum hold a palpable energy that left me wishing I had the foresight to better study Eastern religions (or at least had paid better attention during my college Hinduism class).

Still, arriving in Phnom Penh also created an explosion of different emotions. In addition to the heady high that arriving in a new country offers, I’ve also come to confront Cambodia’s all-too-recent genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge with a visit to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, as well as an abhorrent and blatant sex tourism trade – despite the presence of what seem like throngs of NGO workers and their projects.

Jeanne and Al
Our new friends, Jeanne and Al

The city also seems filled with passionate travelers, a fascinating enclave of people with incredible stories and backgrounds – from the married couple (with 2 toddlers in tow) who left behind careers in the States to train as counselors for victims of sex slavery, to our new Canadian friends, Jeanne and Al, who in 35 years of marriage have traveled to 51 countries and counting.

I’m excited to dive further afield into Cambodia – our plan is to explore the southern coast and Cambodia’s islands for a stretch before making our way north to Siem Reap. Here’s to continuing the journey, the learning and the fortune to have new lives touch mine.


  1. what? You weren’t paying attention during Hinduism? You better hope that Sr. Fuchs isn’t reading this right now or she might launch an apple in your direction.

  2. I was nutty for that city, just nutty for it. That is, when I wasn’t sobbing at some site of a Khmer Rouge tragedy or trying not to punch a paunchy big white guy who was clearly paying for that tiny, probably under age girl at his side.

    What you said.

    • Valerie Conners says:

      wasn’t it so strange to experience that? I LOVED it there – then felt guilty knowing that there’s also such a dark side to the town. A very interesting travel experience – how do you temper liking a place with hating what is permissable there? I wish I knew…

    • I’m always interested to hear the views of white women in cambodia when they react so angrily at the sight of western men and Khmer women. Tell me Pam, when you do see such a thing, how do you know that the lady is a prostitute? Do you have a particular insight or just make a value judgement upon first sight? As a western male in his 30s who has lived in Phnom Penh, married to a khmer lady (also in her thirties) I am particularly interested. Oh, and as for the probability of western men strolling down Sithowath with an underage girl – hmmm I really don’t think so. But then again, perhaps it’s just your amazing insight into the situation – no doubt gained by your vast experience.

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