First Stop in Cambodia: Phnom Penh

2 years ago, we had thought of pausing our travels here and getting English teaching jobs. It felt weird to officially be in the city we had spent so much time looking into with the original end goal of settling here. Although those plans have changed, Cambodia has always been at the top of our list to visit. This was just the beginning of our month in this wonderful country.

We landed in Phnom Penh in the evening and got our first taste of Cambodia. Phnom Penh is normally only recommended for a day or two before leaving for the temples of Angkor Wat or the islands. But, we wanted to see a bit more of the city and get our bearings before heading to the next destination in Cambodia.

Welcome to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a busy and growing city. It is not as modern as places like Bangkok or Singapore, but it is obvious from construction that it will look completely different in 5-10 years. It’s messy, smelly, and busy with motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and fancy cars mixed together. We saw MANY Land Rovers, a Rolls Royce, and other cars that seemed very fancy driving around the city.

Side note: We learned that when countries like the US have floods and cars can no longer be sold from the dealership, they are resold for cheaper prices to countries like Cambodia.

Even with the smells and chaos, there was something about Phnom Penh that made all that matter less. It’s easy to breeze through a place like this and miss the beauty, miss the good. I feel like because we took our time exploring, we were able to see some of the heart of Phnom Penh, even if every 5 minutes someone was yelling “Need a tuktuk?” at us.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Exploring the City

We spent our first day in Phnom Penh exploring the city on foot. It was a BUSY city, and sometimes smelly. For roughly 5 hours, we wandered through the streets, seeing some things recommended on blogs if we happened to pass by, running away from tuk-tuks trying to sell us a tour, and really just taking everything in. 

We always felt safe walking around Phnom Penh. However, at one point a security guard told me to put my phone away in case of someone drove by and snatched it. That worried us a bit because we had been wandering around for a few hours and didn’t ever feel in danger. But, after that, we made sure to take more caution just in case.

Some of the places we visited included the Central Market and the Old Market, where we watched a little boy play with live crabs with tongs. On one of the quieter streets of the city, we found a shop full of handmade items from different regions of Cambodia. We even bought ourselves a blanket (hoping we had room to continue to carry it for a few weeks until Sam’s mom joins us) but the items in the shop were so beautiful and all handmade, we couldn’t pass it up!


We try not to buy much at all since we are limited to our backpacks. However, we do try to find a textile, painting/artwork, or something similar from each country to frame or display one day. Collecting things like this save room but also makes sure we are specific in what we purchase. A blanket is the biggest thing we ever bought but luckily we managed to fit it in our bags!

Learning About Cambodia’s Recent Past

Our second day in Phnom Penh was emotional. We spent the day between the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and Tuol Sleng, also known as The Killing Fields and S21 Prison. At both of these locations, we learned about Cambodia’s recent history and the horrific actions of the Khmer Regime. This is only a short description of the regime and our experience as it is too much to include in this short post. As a warning, the next section is very upsetting.

If you are interested, we recommend the film: First They Killed My Father. It is a movie based on the memoir by Loung Ung and produced by Angelina Jolie. The movie follows a young girl through her life and survival during the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s History

The Khmer Rouge Regime was a group formed by a few people that basically wanted to “restart” Cambodia after the country’s civil war. Making knowledge and learning a crime, they wanted a country without money, wealth, and religion only to be self-sufficient from the labor of the people but went about it in a disturbing way.

Between the years 1975-1979, close to ¼ of the population of Cambodia died both from being tortured and killed or dying from harsh working conditions they were forced into by the regime. The regime killed anyone who was educated (doctors, teachers, politicians, scientists, college graduates) anyone who questioned them, and often families of these people too. People were forced out of their homes, divided from families and the lives they knew, and driven to work for long hours each day and night, being fed very little. 

The flower we left at the Choeung Ek Memorial

The Killing Fields and S21 Prison

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is known as The Killing Fields. It is one of over 300 mass graves in Cambodia from this time period. We had a guide with us and learned about the history of the Khmer Rouge and the horrible things that happened at Choeung Ek.

Over 8,000 bodies were exhumed from this site alone and a towering memorial now stands housing 5,000 of the skulls. There are still human remains coming up from the ground each year and you can see clothes, bits of bones, and teeth in the ground when visiting. It was very hard to be there but important to learn about it to truly understand Cambodia.

At Tuol Sleng, S21 Prison, we had an audio tour and walked through the buildings and courtyard, stopping to listen to the stories of some of the survivors and view photographs depicting various things from this time. We learned about the people held here and some of the awful things that happened to them.

On this day in Phnom Penh, we learned so much about Cambodia’s recent history and were left numb, unsure of how to cope with everything we had taken in. It was different walking the streets afterward because we realized anyone our parents’ age and above lived through this and the healing that the country is still working through.

If you are ever in Cambodia, we believe both of these places are very important to visit. Again, this is only a short description of what we saw and learned, as there’s no time and words for us to describe all of it but we are forever impacted.

Bear Carers for a Day

After an emotional day learning about Cambodia’s recent history and awful things people have done, we visited a place where people are doing GOOD work today.

We spent one of our last days in Phnom Penh at an animal rescue, learning about the quirky little creatures known as Sun Bears and the larger fluffy Moon Bears. Free The Bears is an organization that runs 3 bear sanctuaries in Southeast Asia and works to rescue and protect Asia’s threatened bear species. The organization works to rescue bears from the illegal pet trade and farms as well as working to strengthen protections for the bears.

Why are the bears threatened?

Along with the threat of habitat loss and deforestation, Sun Bears and Moon Bears are also victims of illegal exotic pet trafficking and bear bile farms. At bear bile farms, bears are taken from the wild, kept in small cages, and hooked to catheters that collect their stomach bile while they are alive (and kept alive to continue producing bile). The bear’s bile is used for medicinal purposes in this region.

Moon Bear lounging in a pond

Our Tour with Free the Bears

Our tour with Free the Bears was a “behind the scenes” tour where we learned about the bears, toured the sanctuary, and got to do some fun volunteer work.

Free the Bears runs one of their three bear sanctuaries in a section of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center right outside of Phnom Penh. They house over 120 bears here and have been open in Cambodia since 1997.

First, we were taken to the volunteer headquarters and learned about the organization. The presentation taught us about how it all started and the work done at the sanctuary. Next, we got to visit some of the bears (outside of their enclosures of course). 

Meeting the Bears

Moon Bears are a type of bear found across 18 countries in Asia. They are similar in size to black bears found in the US. They have longer black fur surrounding their head and a large white v shape on their chests. Although most are black, there are some rarer brown and golden moon bears.

Look how precious this one is posing on the tree!

Moon Bear

Sun Bears are a bear species found in SE Asia. They are much smaller than Moon Bears and the smallest bear species in the world. They are about the size of a medium/large dog and are adorable. Sun Bears have long claws and the LONGEST tongue of all bear species in the world. They are mostly black with yellowish fur on their faces and a yellowish crescent shape on their chests.

The sun bears seemed to expect a treat and came right up to the fence!

Sun Bear

Every bear’s chest pattern is unique, although similarly shaped, like a human fingerprint. Also, these bears can walk on their back legs for long distances, it was so funny to see them standing up at the fence!

At the sanctuary, the bears are matched together in enclosures based on age, sex, and personality. If they don’t get along, they are moved and paired with a better match. Some bears benefit from being solo and the sanctuary provides them with that space as needed.

Prepping for Play

After visiting some of the bears, we got to put together some enrichment toys for them. Technically a dog toy, these balls are stuffed with fruits and veggies that the bears then play with to get the food out. 

Sun Bear with Enrichment Toy

After adding chopped fruits and veggies, we spread a small amount of jelly on the inside of the opening and then finished by plugging the ball with some leafy greens (see below). The smell of the jelly attracts the bears and since some of it will get on the veggies, it ensures they don’t leave those when going for the fruit. 

To deliver the toys, we threw them over the fences and then watched the bears get to work. It was so funny to hear some of them whine when they didn’t get to the ball first (even though there was always enough for each of them).

They were SO cute! 

Touring the Sanctuary

After lunch, we got a tour of the rest of the animal sanctuary park. The park itself looks quite sad and most of the animals are in smaller enclosures. Most of the animals were pets, confiscated for unfit living conditions, or rescued from the illegal exotic animal trade. Because of this, many cannot be released back into the wild. However, there are a few programs run in the park that release animals back into the wild after rehabbing them if possible.

There’s an awesome organization that works with the elephants at the sanctuary. For one elephant who was caught in a snare and lost part of his leg, they constructed a partial prosthetic for him! Obviously, without a full leg, he will never be able to be in the wild, but he is provided with a better life and has made friends with the other elephants rescued there!

Hide and Seek with Snacks

The last activity on our tour was sort of like hide and seek with food. We hid treats around a bear’s enclosure and then got to watch them find them. We chopped and then hid fruits and vegetables including guava and sweet potatoes (the bears were not in the enclosure at this time).

Once we were done, we exited the enclosure and the bears were let out to find the snacks. This is done for bears on rotating days to encourage foraging behaviors that they would normally use in the wild.

After watching the bears for a while, it started to rain and our behind-the-scenes tour was officially over. Overall, we had an amazing day.

Farewell to Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh was a roller coaster of emotions. We learned so much about the people of Cambodia and its history. We also learned so much about the wildlife and the people working so hard to protect it!

It was weird to be walking the streets of the city we dreamed of living in for so long. We’re glad to have taken the time to get to know Phnom Penh better than many tourists racing through. But we were also ready to head to the next destination: Siem Reap.

Until next time,

Sam and Ty