The only reason we decided to go to Phnom Penh for less than 24 hours was because it was the starting point for a relatively unusual experience in Cambodia, a passenger train ride, but more on that later.
This was my third visit to Phnom Penh and like previous ones, it did not fail to disappoint. Let me be clear, I am a fan of big, chaotic cities. I live in one, and I love visiting vibrant places, but I’ve never warmed to Phnom Penh. I love Cambodia and its people but Phnom Penh will never get any prizes from me.
G Mekong Hotel
The flight on Singapore Airlines to Phnom Penh was uneventful and quick. I’d arranged a pick-up from the G Mekong Hotel and our driver was waiting when we exited immigration. The ride into the city from the airport was a bit shocking. I hadn’t been to Phnom Penh for over a decade and the sprawl of the city coupled with the huge high-rise buildings was unexpected. By the time we got to the hotel, it was mid-afternoon and no one was in the mood to go anywhere. We walked to a local market to buy snacks for the train the next day and had a drink by the rooftop pool.
The room itself was incredibly spacious, with a large King bed, several places to sit, and a shower with a glass wall open to the bedroom (there was a curtain inside). The sink and the mirror were outside in the room. This room was $35 per night and would have included breakfast had we not been leaving at 5:30 in the morning. Swipe through the photos below to see more of the room.
If you’re looking for more info on Phnom Penh and specifically on seeing the genocide museum of S-21, check out my previous post on visiting Tuol Sleng (S-21).
On a previous trip in 2010, I stayed at the Pavilion Hotel which was an absolutely charming oasis. Unfortunately, they were booked or I would have loved to stay there again. For a mid-range US-based hotel chain, there’s always a Marriott or Hyatt. If you are looking for something more luxe, there’s always the Raffles Hotel.
In the early evening, we walked to dinner at a lovely restaurant called Kravanh located in a villa only a few blocks from the hotel. There’s a walled garden surrounding the restaurant and we were seated in a raised outdoor pavilion. The food is classic Khmer and the chef has her own organic gardens as well as working with local producers. Our meal was exceptional. The standouts for me were the traditional fish amok as well as the eggplant with minced pork.
The Train to Nowhere
The whole point of coming to Phnom Penh instead of flying into Siem Reap was so that we could take the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang, a six-hour journey through the countryside of Cambodia. Passenger trains in Cambodia disappeared in the era of the Khmer Rouge and only recently returned.
Currently, there are only 2 trains; one to Battambang in the north and one to Sihanoukville in the south. Our train was scheduled to depart early in the morning and we left the hotel for the station in the dark piled into two tuk-tuks. When we got to the station it was almost deserted save for a few people who may have worked on the trains. There were two trains on the tracks but we couldn’t tell which one would be ours. As we waited, more people, obviously passengers, showed up and we finally determined which train was ours after a sign was put out.
We boarded the train, claimed seats that had no connection to the seats listed on our tickets and waited, excited for the journey. As the train filled up, someone brought on 5 very large dirty jerry cans, filled with gasoline by the smell of them, and placed them on a tarp in between some of the seats. Eventually, we started to pull out of the station, almost on time. A woman came around and collected our tickets. Windows open, fresh air coming in, and we were on our way!
About a half mile from the station the train stopped on the tracks. Two men walked through the cars, one older, yelling at a younger man. The younger man was laughing. According to Lori, the older man was yelling “you always do this!”. We have no idea what “this” was but a few minutes later, the train started moving again, only this time, back toward the station. We got back and waited a few minutes only to be told “No train today. Bus”. There was no explanation and no refund for the tickets (which were only $8).
At that point, we decided to cut our losses, skip going to Battambang by bus, and head to Siem Reap. Lori reached out to her contacts and within half an hour we were ensconced in a luxury minibus and on our way for a 6-hour drive to Siem Reap. The ride was uneventful and we arrived in Siem Reap a day earlier than expected, giving us time to relax and plan the week ahead.