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A Visit to Cambodia’s Old Capital – Oudong

Oudong is the former capital of Cambodia, it is built on a hill of the same name. Oudong (also spelt Udong) was the capital from 1618 until 1866, when the French convinced King Norodom to move the royal court to Phnom Penh.

Oudong is situated about  40km northwest of Phnom Penh. You can travel there by tuk tuk, local bus, motorbike or taxi, a taxi costs around $20 there and back.


It’s always nice to travel to a tourist site and have the place to yourself. I visited Oudong on a Wednesday and I only came across one other tourist. Apparently it’s popular with locals at the weekends.

Oudong is a series of temples and stupas on a picturesque hillside setting. The hillside location means that there are spectacular views. Don’t forget your camera – Oudong is very picturesque. Get there early as the midday sun made walking up the hills a little tough going.

Oudong is a charming mix of the old and new. There are stupas and shrines to by-gone kings. Many of which were built after Oudong ceased to be Cambodia’s capital. Some of the shrines are deceptively new. Sanchak Mony Chedai, which is surrounded by serpent deities, elephants and lions, was only finished in 2002. What makes this structure particularly revered is that it holds three small pieces of Buddha’s bones. There are also plenty of my personal favourite – gaudy animal statues.

The signs at Oudong aren’t in English. If possible it’s advisable to take information about the site with you. The Cambodia Rough Guide had a decent section on Oudong, outlining the history and routes around the complex. Local children will ask to be your guide. I can’t vouch for how informative they are, but if you don’t want a guide, it’s best to tell them (a polite) no from the outset.

Oudong is not spectacular in the same way as Angkor Wat, but it’s interesting and an easy day or half a day out from Phnom Penh.

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Meet the Bears outside of Phnom Penh

Free the Bears is a bear sanctuary, situated 40km outside of Phnom Penh, off National Road 2. The sanctuary is part of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, the entrance is $5 for foreigners and $3 for Cambodians. There isn’t much in the way of public transport to the centre, so it’s best to make your own way there via motorbike, tuk-tuk or rent a taxi.

Free the Bears was founded in 1993 by an Australian called Mary Hutton. There is clearly still a need for the sanctuary as they currently house 118 sun bears and Asiatic black bears. I was shown around by Chuon Vuthy , the Cambodian Programme Manager. He told me that some people buy bears as cubs, and abandon them as they grow into full size bears. The sanctuary also houses bears who have been injured by animal traps.

I also chatted to Emma Gatehouse, who is the Volunteer Coordinator and Technical Expert. Emma tells me Fortnam’s story (pictured in the Hammock). Fortnam is a sun bear cub, he arrived at Free the Bears six months ago. He had been kept as a pet and was in a bad way when he arrived. His fur was balding and brown – a sign of malnutrition in sun bears. Since arriving at the sanctuary, Fortnam’s coat has got darker, but he still needs to put on weight.  Emma tells me that the hammock is Fortnam’s favourite spot, he can often be found there fast asleep.

I had an agenda behind organising my visit to Free the Bears – my agenda being wanting to photograph sun bear cubs. Fortnam and his friends don’t disappoint. The cubs are either, wrestling, eating ants or napping in hammocks.  I had naively imagined being able to get closer to the cubs, but the staff explained that they bears would try and wrestle with me, so I reluctantly Iet the idea go.

Lonely Planet’s website erroneously states that visitors can wash bear cubs as part of the ‘bear keeper for a day’ programme. I must confess to liking the idea of washing bear cubs, but Emma and Chuon Vuthy explained that it would be bad for the bear cubs to have a series of tourist washing them. It’s generally important to manage how much human contact the bear cubs have. Where possible the sanctuary will introduce a rescued cub to a group of similar aged bears. If this is not possible, trained members of staff help the cubs learn bear behaviour, such as how to climb trees and catch ants.

I generally have reservations about zoos, but these bears aren’t kept for our entertainment. They are rescued bears. It wouldn’t be possible to release these bears into the wild. The bears seem content wrestling and eating in their large enclosures.

The sanctuary does offer a ‘bear keeper for the day’ programme (without bear cub washing). They also welcome volunteers from between 1 week – 8 weeks.  The Free the Bears team are really friendly and passionate about the bears’ welfare. If you like bears, I think it would be a great experience.

Read more about volunteering at Free the Bears on their website:

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One Day in Phnom Penh

If you are limited to one day in Phnom Penh, you have plenty of things to see within a short period of time. Phnom Penh was once known as “The Pearl of Asia” with its beautiful French architecture and was one of the most modern cities in Southeast Asia from the 1920s to the 1950s. Unfortunately the recent history has taken its toll on the city but you can still see the beauty beneath the surface.

To get the most out of one day in Phnom Penh you will have to start early and rent a Tuk-tuk for the whole day to get around (Approximately $15- $20). Phnom Penh is not a big city but it is too hot to walk and the city is not always walking friendly since most of the sidewalks are either used as parking space or outdoor seating area for restaurants.

If you do not have breakfast at your hotel a recommendation is to have breakfast at The Shop on Street 240 just behind Royal Palace. It is a small western café with a lot of breakfast options and they also have a selection of bread and sandwiches if you want to buy some snacks to have during the day.

When you are finished with your breakfast you should take the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace and look at the King’s residence, the beautiful garden and the Silver Pagoda. The Royal Palace is only open until 11AM and then the closes for lunch and opens again at 2 PM. It takes about an hour to see Royal Palace and remember that if you what to go into the pagoda you should wear shorts that cover your knees and a shirt that covers your shoulders. Next to the Royal Palace is the National Museum and if you are interested in sculptures and art from the Angkor era this can be worth a quick visit.

After the Royal Palace take your tuk-tuk to Wat Phnom, the oldest pagoda in Phnom Penh, built in 1373. Wat Phnom means ‘Mountain Temple’ and is a Buddhist temple where the Cambodians go to pray for good luck. Wat Phnom is located in the north part of Phnom Penh close to the old French part of the city. On your way to lunch you can ask your tuk-tuk driver to make a quick stop at the post office just to see some of the old French architecture.

Time for lunch!  A perfect place to eat delicious authentic Khmer cuisine and enjoy the view of the river is at Bopha Restaurant by the riverside, just 2 minutes ride from Wat Phnom. This restaurant often has live khmer music and dance performances during lunchtime.

After lunch, it is time to go to the south part of the city and visit the tragic past of the Khmer Rouge era, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng is a former high-school that was transformed into one of the most notorious prisons, Security Prison 21 (S-21), during the Khmer Rouge era. This museum is heartbreaking but definitely worth a visit, it will give you a glimpse of the suffering the Cambodian people have gone though during the Khmer Rouge.

Not far from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum you will find the Russian Market, which is the most popular market among tourists and expats. This is the best place in town to pick up souvenirs; you will find everything from beautifully hand carved statues, colorful lanterns and handmade silk scarves to fake bags, printed T-shirts and DVDs.

After a busy day like this it can be nice to take a break for some relaxation so why not take a massage before you have dinner? One of the popular Spas in Phnom Penh is U and Me Spa at Boeung Keng Kang 1.

For dinner we highly recommend supporting the local community and dining at the NGO restaurant Lotus Blanc, which provides a great selection of western and Khmer cuisine.

Finish off the evening with a drink at Le Moon, a rooftop bar with a beautiful view near the riverside.

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Visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21)

Tuol Sleng is a former high school that was transformed into one of the most infamous prisons, Security Prison 21 (S-21), in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era. The name Tuol Sleng translates to ‘hill of poison tree’ but to many Cambodians the prison was known as “Choul min dael chenh” – the place where people go in but never come out.

In August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge took control over Cambodia, this High School was turned into a prison and interrogation center by Khmer Rouge. They renamed the High School to Security Prison 21 (S-21) and reconstructed the building into a prison. The classrooms were converted into tiny cells and torture chambers, all windows were covered with iron bars and the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire.

During the four years S-21 was in use over 17 000 people were imprisoned and killed at this prison. Only six people are known to have survived the prison.

In 1979 the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and the prison was uncovered. When the Vietnamese Army found S-21 the prison staff had already fled leaving thousands of written documents and photographs of all the people that had been imprisoned at S-21. Altogether more than 6 000 photographs were found and these photographs are still remaining at the museum today.

In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.


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Enjoy the sunset from a boat

A boat trip is an excellent way to get a way from the busy and noisy streets of Phnom Penh and just enjoy a relaxing afternoon and sunset on Tonle Sap and Mekong River. A boat cruise typically takes about 1 – 2 hours and runs up the Tonle Sap River along the central riverfront area providing a photographic view of the Royal Palace and Phnom Penh skyline. The cruise continues across the Tonle Sap and up the Mekong River which will give you a sense of the country side close to Phnom Penh.

You can also turn the boat trip into a party either by asking the boat owner to arrange food, drinks and music or you bring it yourself. If you are bringing your own music don’t forget to ask the boat owner in what format you need to bring it in.

Short river cruises and sunset cruises are easy to arrange, the tourist boats are clustered together on the river along Sisowath Quay (Riverside) on the corner of street 118 . The price of the boat tour depend on the duration of the trip and the size of boats and not the number of the passengers. Small boat ( up to 20 passengers) cost about 15$/h , medium size (up to 30 passengers) about 20$/h, large size (up to 40 passengers) about 25$/h.

Here is some of the companies that are organizing boat tours:

Mekong Flower Tour Boat, Tel: 011 977 484/012 432 268

Paris Le Mekong, Tel: 016 700 249/012 298 918/016 869 447

Mekong Boat Angkor, Tel: 012 879 300/012 207 789

Chheoun Menghiek Boat & Tours, Tel: 017 717 078/015 717 078

Tourist Boat, Tel: 012 407 931

Note: The price of hiring is the same between expat and Khmer.