Phnom Penh at sunrise

How to Spend One day in Phnom Penh

With only one day in Phnom Penh before travelling north to Siem Reap to board our cruise ship, I asked a friend, recently returned from Cambodia, if I should visit the Killing Fields. His reply: “You can’t go to Cambodia and not visit the Killing fields.”

How I spent One Day in Phnom Penh

Decision made. I would spend my day in Phnom Penh visiting the Killing Fields, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Security Prison 21, better known as S-21) and Phnom Penh’s Central Market. 

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields is, as expected, a sombre place. People walk slowly and silently along the path, heads bowed. Couples and groups split up, each following the audio guide at their own pace.  A young woman dabs her eyes with a tissue, another’s eyes well up in her red face. Hearing stories from survivors and listening to a haunting composition, written specifically for the audio, I too choke up.

The Killing fields is a must visit, if difficult, experience in Phnom Penh
Sobering walk through the killing fields
A visit to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh is a must do.
Quiet Contemplation

S-21 or The Genocide Museum

The Khmer Rouge created S-21 in the buildings and grounds of a secondary school. A place of torture and deprivation S-21 is right in the heart of Phnom Penh.

Our driver suggests that we allow two hours. We can’t manage that long. Besides the photographs of Cambodians tortured and killed here I find a photograph of a New Zealander and an Englishman. When their boat strayed into Cambodian waters, they were captured, tortured, and killed in S-21. 

Also known as the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh
The Genocide museum in Phnom Penh is also known as S-21
This place of torture was once a secondary school

Soon the torture, deprivations and horrors that happened here become overwhelming, and I join our group after just over an hour.

Later, on my travels I spoke to a survivor and others whose lives were directly affected by the Khmer Rouge. Even though this happened in the last century, the horrors experienced by millions of people lay just beneath the surface.

My friend was right. The Killing Fields and S-21 are tough but important places to visit.

An Afternoon in Phnom Penh

Lunch beside the rooftop pool of our hotel, the Anik Palace Hotel, is a time for quiet reflection. In the afternoon, seeking light relief, we hire a tuk-tuk to Phnom Penh’s Central Market.

Anik Palace Hotel Phnom Penh
Entrance of Anik Palace Hotel
Anik Palace Hotel Phnom Penh
Rooftop Pool and Bar

Near the central dome of the cross-shaped market, a woman sells fried crickets, grasshoppers, cockroaches, silkworm pupae and tarantulas. I’d read that I’d find tarantulas in Phnom Penh’s Central Market and planned to eat one. This sounds so weird as I write this from my quiet desk looking out at the Hawkesbury River. Who in their right mind would seek out a tarantula vendor?

Taking a tuk tuk in Phnom Penh
A Remarque is the Cambodian tuk-tuk
Jewellers in Phnom Penh's Central Market
A Jeweller at work

Faced with the prospect of enacting my plan, I find I’m not ready. Instead, I explore the market. A row of jewellers tap tap away shaping silver and gold trinkets stabilised on what looks like reddish brown sealing wax.

Jewellers in Phnom Pehn’s Central Market

A young traveller approaches one, hoping to get his broken silver chain fixed. Without a word, the shirtless man delicately picks up the ends of the chain with a pair of tweezers. He arranges the chain on the table in front of him and peers at it through a small round eye piece. Reaching behind him he grasps a red felt tipped pen and marks the chain.

Jewellery repair in Phnom Penh Central Market
Concentrating on fixing a chain

I move on. When I bump into the traveller later, he’s beaming. “You can’t even see the join,” he exclaims. He paid US$1 and, he says, “I have a story to tell.”  

It all happens in Phnom Penh’s Central Market

Everything happens in this market. Women lean back on reclining chairs to have their hair washed, dyed and styled. A pump and hose provides clean water, a big plastic drum collecting the wastewater. Customers relax as others provide manicures and pedicures.  

Have your hair done in Phnom Penh Central Market
Hair and Nail Care
Clothing alterations at Phnom Penh Central Market
Seamstresses at work

Another woman sits on a low chair, a semi-circle of playing cards spread out on the table in front of her. Her female customer listens intently to what she has to say. Seamstresses sit one behind the other against a wall, focused on the fabric they’re feeding through their electric sewing machines.

Phnom Penh Central Market
Cute Kids

Young children accompany their mothers to work. A baby laughs, his first two bottom teeth bright in his little face. I pick him up (with permission) and hold him high in the air much to his amusement. I ‘high five’ a little girl. A three-year-old runs across the shiny tiled floor his mother has just cleaned – and playfully skids back on his bottom towards her.

Eating a Tarantula

If I’m going to eat a tarantula, I must do it now. I’ve read that I must only eat freshly cooked spiders – sometimes they are sold days or weeks after cooking. As the vendor has no English, I seek the assistance of a nearby woman. She’s intrigued and happy to translate for me. The vendor says that the bugs were cooked this morning.  

Starting Small

I start small – with a cricket. My translator takes the head and legs off and passes me the body. Cooked in a salty sauce, it’s crunchy and not at all unpleasant. Next up, a grasshopper. Again, I eat only the body. It’s crispy and tasty. The silkworm pupa has been steamed. It has a soft texture similar to that of a ripe peach.  The taste is nothing to write home about. Neither interesting nor horrible.

Eating bugs and a tarantula in Phnom Penh
The vendor, me and my helpful translator
Eating a tarantula in Phnom Penh
Big and Hairy

Now for the tarantula. The vendor offers me a leg. I put the thin hairy black ‘stick’ into my mouth and bite down. It is like eating a dry twig. I cant’ swallow it and the vendor thoughtfully provides a tissue. She’s had experience with foreigners.

However, I’ve read that the body is the best part, and don’t stop there. BK looks on with horror, scrunching up his mouth in disgust as I put the tail into my mouth. It’s big, black and round, the size of large grape. I crunch down and chew. Nothing like a juicy grape, it feels like there’s a teaspoon of sawdust in my mouth. Disappointed, I swallow, thank and pay the woman, and leave.

Another day, another Tarantula

On another day, in Siem Reap, I try a freshly fried tarantula. The experience is quite different. Read more in this post on One Day in Siem Reap. What is it with me? When travelling I seem to do things I’d never do at home.

Is One Day in Phnom Penh Enough?

I’ve hardly touched the surface in Phnom Penh. There’s plenty more to do there, some of which I’ll do when we stop in Phnom Penh for a day on our cruise through Cambodia.

NOTE: I stayed in Phnom Penh as a guest of the Anik Palace Hotel and cruised through Cambodia and Vietnam as a guest of CF Mekong Cruises.

Useful Information

  • Read more about visiting the Killing Fields in this blog post here
  • Read more about visiting the Genocide Museum (S-21) here
  • I stayed at the Anik Palace Hotel

Two Books I read when preparing for a trip to Cambodia

  • “Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom” by Australian, Walter Mason is a perfect introduction to the gentle humble people of Cambodia.
  • You need to be in the right frame of mind to read “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung. I was ready for this difficult but useful read after I had read Walter Mason’s book.  


    1. Author

      Hi Robyn, When I read that I could eat a tarantula in Phnom Penh, I decided that I would put my fear in my pocket and go for it. It makes for a fun story!

  1. So pleased your writing has been recognised. And that you are back travelling again.
    Sorry but I don’t think I could go to the killing fields.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Caroline. I understand your reticence. Not everyone in our group went to the Killing Fields. I had to prepare myself mentally, but even that wasn’t sufficient.

  2. Hi Jo
    Great to read about the trip. Agree about the Killing fields and S-21. Incomprehensible. Happy travelling to Japan!

    1. Author

      Thanks Di. Aa you say, incomprehensible what man is capable of doing to fellow man.

  3. I think it’s important to acknowledge what happened to millions of innocent people through the grim reign of the Khmer Rouge. Thank you for sharing this sad history with your writing and photographs.
    Good plan to visit the lively market afterwards.

    1. Author

      You put it so well, Bernadette, and thank you for your kind comments. The lively market did cheer me up.

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