TRAVEL: Weekend in PHNOM PENH


I first heard the name Pol Pot in our Asian history class back in high school, many years ago. I vaguely remember the details of what made him and the Khmer Rouge notorious, but they did very bad things, we were told. The thing is, when it’s something you have not experienced first-hand, it is not easy to claim full knowledge or even deep understanding of a situation, no matter the multitude of books written or documentaries made about it. I remember watching the film The Killing Fields some years back, the clumps of tears and snot-soaked tissues on the floor that resulted from it, and me making some vague promise to visit Phnom Penh one day, if only to retrace this part of history. Sort of.

Team Altaie discovering Phnom Penh.
Team Altaie discovering Phnom Penh.

Two weekends ago, that promise came into fruition. Chris and I traveled to Phnom Penh with only the fuzziest recollection of history and a compromise to just shoot the breeze when we get there, given that it was our first time traveling to the city. But what we saw, heard, and tasted of Phnom in a just one short weekend has driven us into a maelstrom of very strong emotions ranging from deep despair, some feeling of Asian allegiance, huge respect for what Phnom Penh has blossomed into after years of struggle that pressed on even after Pol Pot’s reign of terror has ended, and a sense of delicious wonder in large part due to the scrumptious Khmer cuisine.

We had a wonderful time in Phnom Penh, thanks to our friends Seima and Vite, for making sure we experience as much of the city and its history, even with our very short stay. Chris and Seima went to the same Graduate School in Thailand some years back and have not seen each other since graduation – until two weeks ago. So it really was a happy reunion with the two of them trading fond memories of their AIT days, usually with a feast of the most amazing local food laid out on the table before us.

So here it is, our weekend in Phnom Penh, in photos and lucid ramblings.

1. Tuol Sleng. The minute you step into the grounds of Tuol Sleng aka the S-21 concentration camp, you immediately get a sense of foreboding so acute that somehow tells you something utterly terrible and tragic has happened there. And that sinking feeling only gets more and more pronounced as you walk from cell to cell, scanning thousands of nameless faces captured in photographs, and some preserved fragments of bones and pieces of clothing that once belonged to Cambodians who were mercilessly tortured and starved, before they were put to death in what is now known as the Killing Fields, during the malevolent regime of Pol Pot and his savage Khmer Rouge. This is not the kind of place that would evoke jubilation as in most tourist attractions we know of; and perhaps we may never truly understand the kind of evil that was at work in the minds of those who carried out the genocide of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at that time (for that kind of evil is, I think, only something the devil himself would know), but it is important that we know so that our generation would know better than to allow something like this to happen again. The images, writings, and documentary that you will see at Tuol Sleng are gut-wrenching, so be prepared as some of those images will linger in your head long after you have walked away from the place. When we were there, we met Chum Mey, one of the ONLY 7 survivors (out of the 7, only 2 remain alive today) of S-21 concentration camp. He is now almost 84 years old. He is usually found sitting in a small booth surrounded by copies of his memoir – written in French and English – which are being sold for charity. His story is perhaps only one out of the 3 million that have suffered and died during Pol Pot’s reign of terror, but unlike millions of others like him, he lived to tell the harrowing tale. There are volunteers who conduct the guided tour a few times a day. If you’re lucky to visit when a tour is being organised, it would be great for you to join. Otherwise, the documentary video will provide you with more insights into Cambodia’s darkest period in history. Vite’s family is actually among those working very hard to preserve Tuol Sleng. Her father interviewed the survivors and wrote their account in Khmer, while Seima helped with the English translation.

The 'Rules and Regulations'  imposed by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng.
The ‘Rules and Regulations’ imposed by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng.
This is one of the few cells at the ground floor of one of the buildings. This type of cell was reserved for the 'VIP' prisoners tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. VIP prisoners constitute mainly of the high-ranking officials of the government overthrown by the genocidal regime of Pol Pot.
This is one of the few cells at the ground floor of one of the buildings at Tuol Sleng. This type of cell was reserved for the ‘VIP’ prisoners tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. VIP prisoners constitute mainly of the high-ranking officials of the government overthrown by the genocidal regime of Pol Pot.
The Gallows. This was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside down and dunking their heads into the big pot of water until they are drowned.
The Gallows. This was used to torture prisoners by hanging them upside down and dunking their heads into the big pot of water until they are drowned.
Chum Mey's cell. Chum Mey was one of the only 7 survivors of S-21.
Chum Mey’s cell. Chum Mey was one of the only 7 survivors of S-21.
Meet Chum Mey. He survived because he managed to fix the typewriter used by the Khmer Rouge at S-21 and from there, he became an all-around handyman. he is almost 84 years old now.
Meet Chum Mey. He survived because he managed to fix the typewriter used by the Khmer Rouge at S-21 and from there, he became an all-around handyman. he is almost 84 years old now.
These are the people RESPONSIBLE for the genocide that obliterated one fourth of Cambodia's population in the late 70's. These spawns of the devil led the extermination of Cambodia's educated people, women, children and even babies.
These are the people RESPONSIBLE for the genocide that obliterated one fourth of Cambodia’s population in the late 70’s. These spawns of the devil led the extermination of Cambodia’s educated people, women, children and even babies.

2. Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (The Killing Fields). Truth be told, we were expecting a different Phnom Penh than the one that greeted us when we got out of the airport. The city, while sweltering hot and dusty on perhaps the hottest time of the year, is now visibly on its way to progress and development. Something the nation has been denied for several years by a regime so violent, so brutal, so inexplicably evil that it wiped out nearly a quarter of its population in mere four years. What we saw at the S-21 museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (aka the Killing Fields) were images so gruesome it would have been inconceivable that humans were capable of launching such atrocities against another – if the skulls, bone fragments, torture and killing tools, weren’t there staring back at us, as though daring us to go ahead and forget. The second you step into the Killing Fields, you are overcome by a sense of foreboding so chilling that it would not have been possible for you to just close your eyes and steel yourself from the pain. Nope, there is certainly no escaping the terror once you see the skulls, torn clothes, barbaric weaponry used to torture and kill. The evil regime responsible for the mass murder had left in its wake nearly 3 million people wiped out from Cambodia’s history. Artists, lawyers, doctors, educators, monks, children, wives, etc – people that could’ve propelled Cambodia to a higher stature in the ASEAN. That Cambodia, Phnom Penh especially, has emerged from this dark period to get to where it is today, poised for economic spurt, is in itself a miracle.

There is a fee of $3 for foreign visitors and also an audio guide for those who would like to know more of what really transpired in this small piece of land turned mass grave. At the center is a stupa where the skulls that were excavated were reverently stored, so visitors can offer prayers for their resting souls. There is also a museum within the compound. I would say Cheoung Ek is not for the weak of hearts but it is something that you must see for yourself when in Phnom Penh.

Entrance to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre aka The Killing Fields.
Entrance to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre aka The Killing Fields.
The stupa where skulls and bone fragments of those mass murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are stored, along with recovered weapons used to kill them.
The stupa where skulls and bone fragments of those mass murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are stored, along with recovered weapons used to kill them.
The truck stop. This is where prisoners to be killed were dropped-off by truckloads. They say that at the peak of the genocide, the Khmer Rouge were killing up to 300 Cambodians per day.
The truck stop. This is where prisoners to be killed were dropped-off by truckloads. They say that at the peak of the genocide, the Khmer Rouge were killing up to 300 Cambodians per day.
The Killing Tree. This trunk was where babies and small children were being smashed against by the barbaric Khmer Rouge.
The Killing Tree. This trunk was where babies and small children were being smashed against by the barbaric Khmer Rouge.

3. Independence Monument and the statue of His Majesty the King Norodom Sihanouk, known as the Father of Cambodian Independence from the French rule that spanned almost a century. The Independence Monument was built in 1958 as a symbol of Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It stands on the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard in the city centre.

The Independence Monument.
The Independence Monument.

The statue of King Norodom Sihanouk was erected only last year to honour the late King who guided the country to independence from France and through two wars before backing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in a bid to retain power. The statue is said to have cost around US 1.2 million to build.

Photobombing the statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodia's Independence from France.
Photobombing the statue of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, the father of Cambodia’s Independence from France.

4. The Silver Pagoda. This pagoda houses many national treasures including gold and jewelled Buddha statues. Most eye-catching is the small 17th century Emerald Buddha and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds, the largest of which weighs 25 carats. During King Norodom Sihanouk‘s pre-Khmer Rouge reign, the Silver Pagoda was inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles and some of its outer facade was remodeled with Italian marble. However only a small area of these tiles are available to be viewed by the public on entering the pagoda as the rest of floor is covered with carpet.

The Silver Pagoda. Photos are not allowed inside.
The Silver Pagoda. Photos are not allowed inside.
Hello from the Silver Pagoda!
Hello from the Silver Pagoda!

5. Royal Palace. This complex of buildings serve as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. The Silver Pagoda is among the many structures within the palace complex. There is a fee of US $6 per visitor. Wearing of sleeveless tops and short, shorts are not allowed in the palace grounds. So we ended up buying a US $3 XL-sized t-shirt for me to wear as they don’t allow shawl as cover-up either.

The Throne Hall.
The Throne Hall.
At the Royal Palace grounds.
At the Royal Palace grounds.

6. Wat Phnom. Buddhist temple built in 1373 and is also the central point of Phnom Penh. According to legend, a wealthy widow called Penh found a large koki tree in the river. Discovered inside the tree were four bronze statues of the Buddha. Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill made by the people living in the village to protect the sacred statues. This site will eventually become the place for prayer and worship for buddhists.

Wat Phrom.
Wat Phrom.

7. Eclipse Sky Bar. Located atop the Hyundai Tower, one of Phnom Penh’s popular skyscrapers, Eclipse Sky Bar gives its loyal customers and infrequent or first-time visitors a grand view of the burgeoning commerce and palpable growth opportunities below. Phnom Penh, no doubt, is poised for an explosive debut in the region, after the long painful years of civil war. There is usually an acoustic band playing and the music/sound coming out of the fancy Bose speakers is just at the right decibel to be both soothing and conducive for proper conversations. The price of drinks is certainly not cheap but you do get an awesome view with it, so it’s not such a bad trade-off if you ask me. Eclipse Bar is definitely one of the hottest places in Phnom Penh so if you can, it is best to book a table before coming – especially if it’s Friday/Saturday.

Beautiful 360-degree view of Phnom Penh from up here.
Beautiful 360-degree view of Phnom Penh from up here.
With our wonderful hosts, Seima and Vite, hanging out at Eclipse Sky Bar.
With our wonderful hosts, Seima and Vite, hanging out at Eclipse Sky Bar.

8. Exquisite Cambodian Cuisine. Arguably one the oldest living culinary styles in the world, dating back at least a millennium, and nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the Cambodian cuisine is a succulent combination of flavourful herbs and spices and various textures. Almost similar to Thai cuisine in many ways but distinctively different in some. Thanks to Seima and Vite, we feasted on so many local dishes including the famous signature dish called fish amok, green mango salad, papaya salad, majew prai (country-style green soup), and some traditional dessert as well.

Papaya salad.
Papaya salad.
Crab meat fried rice.
Crab meat fried rice with a side of duck spring rolls.
Mango salad
Green mango salad
Majew prai.
Majew prai.
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TRAVEL: KRABI-utiful Weekend


For only our second travel adventure of the year, Hubby and I chose to hie-off to the island of Krabi in Thailand. If you recall, not too long ago, I kind of gushed about my soft spot for Phuket. But as much as we adore this island, I couldn’t really bring myself to go there again. At least not so soon. And so Krabi, which is an adjacent island, and one that I had never been to prior to this trip, won almost by default. Like going to Phuket, it only takes an hour and a half (sometimes less, depending on how efficient and fast the aircraft is) to get to Krabi from Singapore via air. As most of you would probably agree, when you only have the weekend to burn, short trips make practical sense.

When we landed at the Krabi International Airport at half past three in the afternoon, I thought it wouldn’t take us half an hour to cross the immigration and collect our weekend luggage because there weren’t (at that time) an overflowing number of tourists. And so we took the stairs leading up to the second level of the airport building where the Immigration checkpoints were located. Half an hour passed and we barely moved an inch. Something clearly wasn’t right. People were getting restless. A few of us would leave our queue for a few seconds to sneak a peek at the Immigration situation and see what could possibly be causing the hold up. That’s when we realised that there were only two counters open and with the officers’ very slow and deliberate processing of each visitor, it would take about three to five minutes from the moment you hand you passport to the time you get it back with a stamp! Two more planes landed and offloaded their passengers and the hall got even more crowded and chaotic, with the slippery sort of tourists cutting queues whenever they can. I flew off the handle several times, it was like having mini coronary episodes every 5 minutes that we were stuck there. After almost two hours (yes, we ended up queueing at the immigration longer than the time it took us to fly from Singapore to Krabi), we were finally out and had only an hour or so before sunset. Luckily, our airport pick-up waited patiently for us and we were no sooner on the road to the resort.

Pakasai Resort's welcoming committee (member)
Pakasai Resort’s welcoming committee (member)

We stayed at Pakasai Resort in Ao Nang, Krabi. From the outside, Pakasai Resort would strike you as just another regular resort you’ve probably visited in most of your travels. But once you step into the property, your impression drastically changes from ‘Okay, I could stay here’ to one of sheer wonderment. At least that’s how positively our stay in Pakasai has affected us.

Pakasai Resort Krabi _vickyras

The place was built entirely around the little forest the owners and their staff have worked very hard to cultivate. I don’t know exactly how many species of plants and trees they have inside the property but I’m guessing it’s quite a lot. They even grow their own salad vegetables, as well as, make their own compost fetilizers. It’s like living in the midst of a happy, fragrant garden (with the occasional pee-like smell coming from one of the tree species there, the name of which I had forgotten) with the cicadas serenading you with their unique sounds, especially during the day when the temperature is absurdly high. More or less an hour away from the Krabi International Airport, Pakasai Resort gives its guests the unique experience of being so close to nature (by that I mean trees and flowers and the insects and small animals that have made the place their natural habitat) and at the same time, a few meters’ walk to Ao Nang Beach.

Pakasai Resort Krabi_vickyras

The rooms are spacious with individual balconies (some of which have the swinging daybed) and big bathrooms. I especially loved the shiny hardwood of our bedroom floor and the ultra comfortable bed which had us sleeping like babies during the two nights that we stayed there. The are no lifts at the resort so if you are given the room on the higher plane of the resort (we were at room 421), you will be taking several steps on a slightly steep incline. Hubby and I loved it though! I mean, it’s a pretty good exercise for the legs, too. There aren’t a lot of channels on the TV – only one movie channel in English and the rest are news, TV5 Monde (French), a German channel, and some channels in Thai. But it didn’t really matter to us because we were too happy exploring the resort and the nearby beach.

Pakasai Resort Krabi _vickyras

Food is not bad. Breakfast selection is quite diverse. The pool sitting on top of the restaurant is pretty neat. The water is great and super clean and there’s a pool bar to cater for your drinking needs. Lastly, all members of the resort staff are hands-down wonderful! Always cheerful and eager to serve. We are DEFINITELY coming back and when we do, we are thinking of doing the guided bike tour around the island and taking Thai cooking lessons – two things the resort offers its clients.

Pakasai Resort Krabi_vickyras

There’s that and a few other things that we absolutely loved about Krabi. First of all, Krabi is nothing at all like her raunchy, nasty bad-girl big sister, Phuket. Perhaps it’s because the island is predominantly Muslim (we saw more mosques than buddhist temples on our way to Aonang Beach from the airport), which explains why it’s quieter and people were more – for lack of a better word – proper.

So here’s our list of favourite things (to do) in Krabi:

Sunset dinner at the Long Tail Boat Restaurant. We took a stroll down Ao Nang Beach just in time for the sunset, when we saw this row of restaurants along the banks, and decided with this one. Come to think of it, the cost of the food on this side Krabi is quite high compared with most of the restaurants elsewhere and my guess is it’s because of – you’ve got it right – the view! When you offer an unobstructed view of the sunset, I believe you have every right to charge a premium. Food was good – though perhaps not the best one you’ve had yet (if you’re a fan of Thai food – but who isn’t?!) because in Thailand, it’s not that difficult to find great local food. We ordered vegetarian spring rolls for starters, fried rice with crab meat, some fish dishes – and they were well-prepared. Food portion is just right for our kind of appetite. Though a small part of me wished they could’ve been more generous with the fried rice with crab meat. The restaurant staff were quite nice and friendly and we didn’t have any issues with the way our food was prepared and served. All in all, Long Tail Restaurant is a good place to dine at when you want a killer sunset view and you don’t particularly mind shelling out a bit more baht for it.

Sunset dinner at Long Tail Boast Restaurant.
Sunset dinner at Long Tail Boat Restaurant.
Sunset in Ao Nang.
Sunset in Ao Nang.

Sunbathing at Ao Nang Beach. I wouldn’t really put Ao Nang beach in the category of the world’s best beaches but it does have its fine points. Ao Nang is pretty charming during sunset, when you actually have a wide room for romantic walks on its fine, light-coloured sand, due to low tide. During the day, though, it’s not so easy to find a spot to put your blankets/mats if you want to sunbathe as the water occupies most of the shoreline. You may have to walk further down to where the ‘Last Fisherman’ bar is and if you’re lucky, you can have a nice little spot to plop on to. It’s pretty striking how much different Krabi is from Phuket. I love how quiet and less raunchy it is in Krabi, but with food and massages that are just as good as in Phuket, yet a lot less expensive. There are restaurants, massage places, and souvenir shops aplenty for you to discover. And speaking of massage…

Team Altaie in Krabi
Team Altaie in Krabi
Wheelin' it.
Wheelin’ it.

Get as many massages as you can until your bones are almost as malleable as claydoh. After our morning sunbathing session, Hubby convinced me to get a foot scrub with him. After foot scrub, we ended up having back and shoulder massage as well because we wanted to take advantage of the happy hour discount of 50% off published service rate! Note: Most of the massage and service salons along the banks of Ao Nang beach offer Happy Hour promos from 10am to 2pm. After our foot scrub and massage, we took our late lunch and went back to the beach for the afternoon sun salutation. As the sun started to descend, we gathered our stuff and walked over to this massage place we saw on our way to lunch, offering a One Hour Coffee Body Scrub + One Hour Body Massage for a jaw-dropping price of only 500 Baht! And so there we were, husband and wife, naked as the day we were born, getting pampered from head to toe at a fraction of what it would have cost us in Singapore. The massage place is called SMILE and I’m pretty sure they would appreciate more business from island visitors, so please do look it up when in Krabi.

Smile! Coffee body scrub + Body Massage (2 hrs), FTW!
Smile! Coffee body scrub + Body Massage (2 hrs), FTW!

Eat as much Thai food as your stomach can accommodate and digest. Who cares if you gain a pound or two over the weekend? You must never deprive your senses of a great meal – and especially not when it’s everywhere you look and it also happens to be super affordable.

Dined at Blue Mango on our last night. They serve local and western fusion-ish type of food. Not bad.
Dined at Blue Mango on our last night in Krabi. They serve local and western fusion-ish type of food here. Pas mal.

Repeat from one to four, until it’s time for you to leave the island. Sadly, all we had was one weekend so we had to stop at some point, right? But with our Krabi-utiful experience, don’t be so shocked when you see us back there again before the year is over.

Deep bend at sunset.
Deep bend at sunset.
Team Altaie: Seven years and counting!
Team Altaie: Seven years and counting!