សួស្តី, Living the Cambodian experience

សួស្តី (Suostei) means hello in Khmer.

Hi, I am Laura, a 20 years old French student and who loves to live new adventures. Thanks to my parents, I was able to travel a lot as a kid, which enabled me to develop my curiosity about experiences abroad. Today, I chose to study international business to continue my travelling journey.

In January 2018, I decided to go to Phnom Penh to volunteer for a month. Once arrived, I went to a volunteer home and met a lot of new people to share this new adventure with. Throughout this month, I was a teaching assistant during the week and was free on weekends.

Laura Instagram : @ firstsightphotos

SAFE TRANSPORTATION

Phnom Penh is a perfect city for a solo woman traveller. It is a very safe city and offers many opportunities to meet new people. Most of all, you can have safe tuk-tuk rides. Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers will always manage to take you home, even when facing the language barrier. Tuk-tuk is the best way to move across Phnom Penh. To travel around the country, night buses are the best option. You can lay down on sleepers and almost enjoy your night (you’ll have to consider the air conditioning though). For example, to go to Siem Reap, I took an 8 hours night bus from 10 PM to 6 AM for a very cheap price.

Typical tuk-tuk in a typical Phnom Penh street.

TO VISIT

Phnom Penh has a lot to offer. It has wonderful architecture and that’s maybe why it is often called the “Pearl of Asia.” For example, the Royal Palace is a typical example of the “Cambodian pagoda” architecture. The Royal Palace is located in the centre of Phnom Penh and it is the first thing you are going to visit for sure. It is a bit expensive but it is where you will see the most impressive constructions.

This palace is where the King and his family lives. Of course, we don’t have access to the residential part of the palace but we are still able to access many pagodas. With their golden roofs and white pillars, the Throne Hall (Preah Tineang) and the Silver Pagoda do show the royal power that king Norodom the 1st wanted to display when starting to build the royal palace in 1866.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Next, to the Royal Palace, you can access in a 5-minute walk the Cambodian National Museum. This museum is also inspired by the pagoda architecture. The museum offers an inner courtyard with fountains and a green oasis that you really want to see. From the courtyard, you can access any part of the museum. Inside the museum, I discovered mainly sculptures and paintings showing the different Buddhist and Hindus deities. Besides, the museum organizes Cambodian traditional dancing shows which are really famous.

A volunteer and I in the inner courtyard of the museum

Thanks to a new tuk-tuk ride, you’ll be able to get to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called the S-21. I deeply believe it is essential to get to know the history of a country when you want to understand why it is working like that today. In Cambodia, I’d really say going to the Genocide Museum is a key to understand Cambodian culture and population.

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime has committed genocide towards its own population. I had the chance to meet local people who told me their families’ histories and how they were affected by the Khmer Rouge regime (most of the Cambodian people lost close relatives at that time). The genocide is still very present in every Cambodian mind. What’s more, the S-21 museum gives a really clear and detailed explanation about the regime, the genocide but also about how it ended. In the S-21 museum, you can get to know some victims’ stories. The most commonly known story is one of Bophana, a girl who stood up for resistance during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

If you feel ready to know more about the Khmer Rouge regime, you can go to Choeung Ek genocidal centre which is actually outside of the city. Many tuk-tuks are waiting outside the S-21 museum to bring you there. Choeung Ek is the field where most of the crimes were committed, also called the “killing fields”. It is now a museum and a place which stands for the duty to remember.

People who come to visit leave their bracelets as a sign of commemoration for victims.

Back to pagodas, Wat Phnom is a very famous one located in Phnom Penh. This wat is actually located on a roundabout in the middle of the city. I was not able to visit it during the day but I would recommend to go and see it at night time when it is lighted up by all the lights in its surrounding. This pagoda is very special to Cambodian people because it is one of the oldest Buddhist pagodas in Phnom Penh.

If you are in Phnom Penh, you have to go to Koh Dach Island, also called “silk island”. This island is where I was volunteering during the week. To get there, you’ll have to take a one hour ride from the city centre: you’ll get through the traffic jam because you’ll have to cross the only bridge of the city to get there. After the traffic jam, you’ll have to wait for an old river shuttle to get you on a 5-minute cruise from Phnom Penh to Koh Dach Island. This island is divided into two parts: the touristic one and the non-touristic one (which was the side I was volunteering one). Actually, I never visited the touristic part but it is really famous for its silk fabrics and its traditional way of working with silk. In my opinion, you should rent a motorbike to have a half-day ride across the non-touristic part of the island. This is where you’ll be able to see authentic landscapes (full of rice fields) and meet local people who will love to talk and laugh with you.

Front of the shuttle to get to koh dach island.
Kod dach island landscape

The story of Laura continues to the next week

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