From Paris to Phnom Penh: a very welcome cultural shock

As we walked through the city on our first morning, the impression of wandering in a post-apocalyptic world invaded me. All these scooters driving around the pedestrians with absolutely no care for which side of the road they were on was confronting and hilarious at the same time. The sweet and sour sound of “a tuk-tuk mister miss?” was constant, alongside the loud noise of road works and honks. Where the hell were we?

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Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. A place buzzing with energy; sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. To the people who asked us if the city was worth their time, we definitely said yes. The heat, the dust, the pollution and the smell are overwhelming but what are a few dirty sweat drops compared to a mountain of things to learn about a country’s history?

Between fascinating architecture and underground cultural world, Phnom Penh has a lot to offer to the people who are willing to dig a little for what’s underneath the surface. Some places – although filled with horrific collective memories – are a must-see.

We can conceive that visiting Tuol Seng Genocide Museum or The Killing Fields (further away from the city) isn’t for everyone but to us, it felt like it was an important step to understand Cambodia’s history and therefore the country’s current society and mentalities. Entering such places can be quite hard and we left both sites with heavy hearts.

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Phnom Penh has one of the largest gaps between the poorest and the richest population. The vision of massive Range Rover looking over the tiny tuk-tuks is somehow disturbing. But this capital isn’t just a demonstration of injustice and tragic memories. Phnom Penh’s cultural life is fascinating and includes a high numbers of small art galleries, theatres proposing traditional and contemporary art dance shows, underground clubs with DJs and a brand new jazz club.

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Our lovely Korean couchsurfing host took us to a contemporary dance show at the National Museum of Cambodia and it was quite fascinating to see the underlying traditions and issues within this dance form.

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We obviously didn’t miss our chance to check the two markets in town. We first went to the Central market in the centre of the city but this one felt more touristy than anything. However, the Russian market was a lot more authentic.

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There, we had our first Vapassana silent meditation experience at Wat Langka. This beautiful temple in the city offers free meditation sessions multiple times throughout the week and although we had no idea what to do or where to start, a lovely monk gave us a book and a few indications on the practice. Due to bad weather, we couldn’t attend the free outdoors aerobic sessions but Phnom Penh has a lot to offer in terms of free activities outside.

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Unfortunately we didn’t get enough time to experience everything the city had to offer in two days. Indeed, once the cultural shock has passed, it’s an energetic, full of life and eagerness environment that emerges. A great first step into our future adventures.

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