Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts. Old monuments are lined with neon lights. Dilapidated housing sits opposite new apartment buildings. Posh rooftop bars overlook street vendors desperate for a buck. Tuk tuks driving foreigners drive past villagers bathing malnourished cows. Cars with tinted windows drive next to barefoot children in the streets.
The energy here is electric. So much so that I felt compelled to write this blog post while still in the city—a first on my trip. Although Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital and most populous city, it is not the most frequently visited.
Visitors often head to Siem Reap for the stunning Angkor temple complex in Siem Reap. Most backpackers say they stopped through Phnom Penh to see the S21 Genocide Museum and Killing Fields—important, tragic parts of Cambodian history—before moving on. “There’s not much else to see in Phnom Penh,” most say, shrugging their shoulders.
If there’s anything I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that most cities are what you make of them. Sure, sometimes a place just isn’t for you. But I’ve often found that backpackers who hate big cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh or PP didn’t really give them a chance. If you never venture outside of the backpacker area and busy bars packed with foreigners, how can you truly get to know a place?
During an afternoon in Bangkok, I took the skytrain and wandered around a random neighborhood. In Ho Chi Minh, some friends and I went to a local movie theater. In the moments when you look around and realize you’re the only foreigner there, that’s what the city is really like.
After a heavy day of visiting the Killing Fields and S21, I decide to take a long walk to a restaurant for dinner. Cities in Southeast Asia come alive at night, and PP is no different. The heat melts away to reveal a cool breeze along the vibrant riverside area. Couples drive by on motorbikes to grab food from street stalls. Kids run and play; others watch TV on smartphones (again, contrast). As I walk further from the hostel, families fill parks and picnic in front of historic monuments. Teenagers hold hip-hop dance practice in a busy square. I watch as local life spills out onto the streets.
After learning how much Cambodians suffered in recent history, it’s even more enthralling—the warmth in their smiles, their optimism, their zest. Suddenly I realize that I haven’t seen a foreigner in more than 20 minutes.