Pchum Ben, the Killing Fields, Torrential Rain and Phnom Penh

I took some time to publish posts on the Angkor Archeological Complex which is the most amazing part of our visit to Cambodia. But, there are other aspects worth noting.

You’ll recall that the illustrious Mr Tay brought us into Cambodia as a clandestine border crossing from Vietnam (here).  Ok, so it was a little bit dramatic, but as Colleen noted, ‘It definitely felt like a human smuggling operation or something equally shady. In truth, it was just a more expensive logistics arrangement commonly used by dozens of people daily.’

Independence Monument

Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia.

Naga, the seven-headed cobra snake, a major symbol of Cambodia, according to mythology the people of Cambodia are descendants of the Naga.
The main square – Father of the Country and Independence Monument in the distance
A resistance monument on the way to the palace
A buddhist statue outside Wat Botum
Washing clothes in the Mekong River, a major shipping route
Brahma watches over the downtown area
A ferocious dog that started barking at Hannah
The Naga as it appears on the end of a bridge


Pchum Ben

Turns out we arrived the night before the biggest public holiday started. During the three days of Pchum Ben, virtually all businesses close their doors to allow their staff to return home to honour their ancestors. We learned about the holiday while dining at an authentic Khmer restaurant our first night. And we got accustomed to seeing the signage on the doors of most businesses we tried to frequent.

Oh well. We quite enjoyed the lack of crowds and most particularly the very light road traffic. The only problem we had was finding affordable expat dining options as these were almost the only restaurants that were open.

A staple during the holiday period

I don’t understand how a person from North America can open a cafe in a country such as Cambodia, charge North American prices, and still be a viable business. Somehow it works because these cafes were everywhere in Phnom Penh. Three bucks for a coffee!?

Finally a good cup of coffee!

My theory is a small handful of expats and tourists pay these exorbitant prices that are heavily offset by the cheap overhead and rock bottom labour. Colleen had to get over it quickly because we had no other options but we were initially uncomfortable paying more for our breakfast than the person serving us took days of long hours to earn.

Feliz Cafe

Fortunately we found the excellent ‘Feliz Cafe and Hostel Bar’. It was at the base of a cool looking hostel and the restaurant served awesome and relatively cheap food. The beer was cheap and the staff were super so we became fixtures each evening. We tried buying lunch ingredients from the grocer but the only store that we found open was for expats. With expat goods and expat prices. So we abandoned the baguette and deli sandwiches for much tastier dishes like Fish Amok, papaya and mango salads, and stir fries. Ben even found an affordable hamburger at Feliz.

Fish Amok – pieces of fish in curry sauce with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves wrapped in a banana leaf.
Ben asks for a Burger every chance he gets. This was one of the cheapest so far…

Street food carts weren’t an option for us in Cambodia. We enjoyed them in Vietnam and checked for them in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. But we couldn’t find any that met our fairly adventurous threshold of food safety.

One day a group of food stalls looked promising until we saw one lady spread her rice out on a large tarp to dry. Right beside a pile of garbage that blew into the rice with the breeze.

The Killing Fields

We knew that the kids had to see the killing fields.  It is something that everyone must see to understand the brutality of the human mind towards fellow humans. I learned two things that horrified me.  Pol Pot was a teacher and well educated (in France) and 1.7 to 2.5 Million of 8 Million people in Cambodia were killed by his actions. Some estimates are even higher to 3.5 Million.   How do you do that and believe that you are right in your actions? The day left a stamp of reflection on all of us.  Life learning and not the PC views found in school.

Tuk-tuk ride

Leaving our hotel we are constantly chased with the sounds of ‘tuk-tuk?’ or ‘where are you going?’  The prices are sometimes posted on sheets or the driver will make up a price.  Generally it is two to three times higher then what it should be.  For our trip to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Commune), which is located 16km from the city centre, we were given a price of $20USD.  We talked him down to $16USD and then had to stop him to confirm that he understood that was the price for round-trip. He agreed. Off we went.

Riding in the Tuk-Tuk – the masks were to help against the pollution and dust

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

The ride was fairly quick.  We arrived at the Centre, paid our 3USD per person which included a free audio guide. The original buildings are gone. Mass graves are open areas and the Memorial Stupa stands out as a stark reminder to the 20,000 people killed here. A Stupa is a Buddhist temple that holds relics or the remains of religious or royal persons.  It is a place of meditation and worship. Very appropriate that many of the remains from the Killing Fields are honoured in this way. Walking the ground with the audio guide is like a personal trip into a terrible time. It includes details of what occurred as well as survivor stories.

Map from the brochure
The Memorial Stupa houses over 8000 skulls of victims
The skulls peer out in ominous silence
To save on money – executioners used the leaves from this type of plant to slit the throat of their victims – bullets cost money
A sign marking one of the massed graves
The Killing Tree. Victims, including women and children, were put against the tree and murdered.
Bones rise to the surface during the rainy season. This jawbone was on top of the display case instead of being inside it.
Human bones and clothing surface during the rainy season and are left where they are found out of respect for the fallen.

We finished the visit with a personal time of reflection inside the stupa when the rain started. Our Tuk-tuk driver made sure the flaps were down while he got soaked during the torrential rain.

Flooding and Food

Driving back we headed to Feliz’s Hostel for some lunch. The roads are flooded and a real mess.  We ended up paying the Tuk-Tuk driver his original asking price and giving him a tip of $2USD.  That might sound cheap but to put it in perspective the driver agreed to $16USD which was probably still a bit high.  We gave him 37% on top of that mainly for his good service ensuring we stayed dry.

The rain started up again as we sat down.  Had to move into a table further way from the balcony because the water was pouring in.  Hannah snapped these shots of the street below and a person across the way on an adjacent roof.  Can you say -WET!

When the umbrella becomes pointless
That moment when you realize you should have stayed inside
Making the most of a rainy afternoon

Walking after the rain

We spent the afternoon on the deck of the Feliz hostel enjoying the torrential rain.  When it finally ended we set out on foot back to our hotel, the Kabiki with all the side roads flooded.

A monk arrives by motorcycle taxi at his temple down the road from our hotel
Emma standing on the street outside our hotel.

The next morning the roads were back to normal.  The temperature spiked into the 40s and I decided to walk, alone, to the Wat Phnom resort.  It was $1USD entry for foreigners.  I ended up seeing monkeys and buddhas.

Monkeys wait to be fed by tourists on the western side of the temple
The back of the Stupa which houses an active temple to Buddha
Looking down from the temple at the stone lion guardians
The genie Preah Chau, revered by the Vietnamese, who brings good fortune and luck

The Palace

Colleen and I, sans children, went to visit the palace on one of our last days in Phnom Penh.  It was a beautiful site although not well laid out or explained for tourists.

Let me comment first on the guards. Having stood guard at Rideau Hall and having commanded a regiment of Foot Guards I was beside myself with annoyance.

The Guards are on duty – or are they?


Sorry, I need to take this call!
I think it is cooler if I stand over here


Okay, I am over it. Let’s talk about flags for a moment.  Along the boardwalk of the Mekong River in front of the Palace are national flags.  The U.S. is a one end and out of site while many of the commonwealth countries are closer to the centre.

The Cambodian Flag
Check out the leaf, I think the Cambodians have learned that we are legalizing marijuana.


The interior of the palace with manicured gardens
The palace from the temple steps
A close up of one of the many Buddhas
A stupa on the palace grounds
Detailed carving of the stupa

Phnom Penh is too big a city for our liking and moving on to Siam Reap came at the right time.  We looked at options and the private car was once again the easiest and most efficient.  The Kabiki hotel offered an outrageous price and it was the Manager of the Feliz Hotel who provided a better deal at $75USD for all five of us.   If you haven’t read about Angkor Wat I encourage you to have a look:  Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

2 Replies to “Pchum Ben, the Killing Fields, Torrential Rain and Phnom Penh”

  1. Mr. Tay is an interesting character. I like the pics, the history and the beer. I can’t believe how much rain came down. Is that a common occurence or just once in a while? I hope you had the guards standing at attention when you left. Overall a very interesting visit.

    1. Hey Don,

      They don’t call it the rainy season for no reason. We’ve seen torrential rain in Vietnam, Cambodia and also in Thailand. The real issue is the capacity of a city to absorb it. Days after we left Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – they were hit with massive flooding. The guards, well … the only way to get their attention is to phone them…

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