A Family RTW Travel Adventure (2008-2009)
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City of Contradictions


What can you say about a place where the top two tourist attractions are a torture museum and a genocide memorial?

From early the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the people of Phnom Penh (and all of Cambodia) were brutalized, starved and murdered by their own government while the rest of the world largely looked the other way.

Given the city’s sad recent history, we did not know what to expect – especially since we had to spend five days in Phnom Penh while we waited for our Chinese visas to be processed.



In the 1950s and 60s Phnom Penh was one of Indochina’s most cosmopolitan cities. Some influences from its days as a French colony remain: Wide boulevards, lively restaurants and buzzing nightlife.  If you look closely, you can imagine the city it once must have been.

Today the most striking thing about Phnom Penh is the incredible resilience and optimism of its people. During our stay, we met two ordinary people who taught us something about the extraordinary spirit of the Khmer people.

The first we met by chance.


On the night we arrived we emerged from our hotel after dark, searching for a place to eat.  We had not yet oriented ourselves to the city and had only a vague idea where we were going.

A tuk-tuk driver approached and offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go, wait for us, and drive us back.  When I asked him how much, he said: “You decide.”

He had a nice smile, a gentle manner and spoke pretty good English. We accepted and asked him to take us to Sisowath Quay, the epicenter of tourist nightlife in Phnom Penh.

“My name Lau,” he said.

When he dropped us off at our hotel after dinner he asked: “You need transport tomorrow?”  There was something I liked about Lau, so I said yes.  We made a plan to meet – and he became our driver for the week.

Lau took us on our errands to the U.S. Embassy and the Chinese Embassy.  He took us to the sites in Phnom Penh – the National Museum, the Royal Palace, the Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng Prison.

And each night, he drove us to dinner and home again.  He was a careful driver in a city of insane traffic – always on time, always smiling, always with a kind word.

After our third day together, Lau said: “I want you to meet my family.  Will you come?”  Dani said: “That is so nice” – which Lau took as yes.  “Good,” he said.  “Tomorrow then?  Two o’clock?”

We nodded, not exactly sure what we had just agreed to.

The next day Lau picked us from our hotel.  We drove for about 35 minutes, further and further from the center of the city.  Soon we were driving on a narrow dirt lane through a shantytown.  People looked at us with curiosity.

I doubt many western tourists had visited their neighborhood.


Eventually Lau stopped the tuk-tuk in front of an opening in a corrugated metal fence.  “This my house,” he said.  “Come in.”

We walked through the opening in the fence to see a brick and wood shack with a dirt floor. We were greeted by Lau’s wife, son, mother-in-law and a few curious neighbors.

For the next hour and half, Lau interpreted for his family, as we answered and asked questions about our families and our lives.  Lau’s wife served us a simple, delicious Khmer meal.

This Cambodian family, living near the edge of poverty, shared what they had with us. It was an experience I’ll never forget.


During our stay in Phnom Penh we also had the opportunity to meet a man named Phannak, owner of the Fancy Guest House, where we stayed.

One evening, sitting in the guest house lobby, Phannak told me his story.

He was born in a small village in northeastern Cambodia, near the Vietnam border.  When he was about 8 years old, Pol Pot came to power and began his reign of terror and genocide.  Phannak’s aunt and uncle were tortured to death.

In 1979 Pol Pot was driven from power when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese captured Phannak’s village, but fortunately he and his remaining family escaped.  Ten years later the Vietnamese withdrew, and Phannak made his way to Phnom Penh to find work.

He got a job in a European-owned hotel.  He told me: “I did every job in that hotel, from bell boy to night manager.  I worked day and night, sometimes 24 hours straight.  I saved my money and learned everything about what guests want.”

“When I got married, my wife’s family helped me buy this building and start this hotel.  Now I am top-rated on TripAdvisor.”

Phannak said:  “I used to be afraid, but I am afraid no more.  I have faced my fear.  I will take care of my family because I know I will work harder than any man.”


More pictures from Phnom Penh are here.


1 megan { 03.23.09 at 5:46 am }

These are both such beautiful and poignant stories that put a huge lump in my throat. They both exemplify the kindness and the resilience of the Cambodian people. Phnom Penh is one of my favourite cities, and you’re so blessed you got to experience it with people like Lau and Phannak.

2 trababe23 { 03.23.09 at 5:54 am }

Wow! This is the best education a kid can get, your kids will have learned so much about life and reality in this trip, then in all the years of formal education. I applaud your deciosion and life attitude.

3 The Hutchison's { 03.23.09 at 7:46 am }

Hi James Family! What a wonderful experience for all of you. What a touching story…thank you so much for sharing!

4 Doug Spiro { 03.23.09 at 9:04 am }


I think it is fantastic that you and your family are truly seeing the world and the amazing people in it. So many people take these trips and never venture to far from what the guides want you to see.

Thanks for introducing us to Lau and Phannak!

5 Mauri { 03.24.09 at 9:30 am }

I stumbled on your blog through google reader and your recent post was familiar. I often explore travel logs on the net. This is the second time I have read about Cambodian Hospitality.

Here is the original post that sparked my memory


Perhaps the two of you should exchange notes.

6 Mike Pugh { 03.31.09 at 9:06 am }

Wonderful story. The kindness and hospitality of strangers – especially, it seems, from those who have so little – is humbling and heart warming.

7 ScubaKay { 04.02.09 at 1:19 pm }

What a heart-and-eye opening experience! Cambodia and it’s wonderful and incredibly strong people really show what the human spirit is capable of. Cambodia helped put things into perspective for me, especially coming from the US. Here we are complaining about the economy and needing bailout packages left and right…. whereas Cambodians like those you met helped themselves out of devastation – with their heads held high and warm hearts open.

If you get the chance – try to visit Laos! The people are just fantastic – so warm and friendly also.

8 Bibiana Bailey { 04.02.09 at 8:20 pm }

Thank you for your wonderful stories. It’s amazing how people in different countries with different problems and languages are different yet the same on some deeper levels. You are very fortunate to show your children the world most of us will never experience.That is the best education they will ever get.

9 Afterward | The Wide Wide World { 07.15.09 at 2:04 am }

[…] days, when life feels hard or overwhelming, I think back on a conversation I had with Phannak, owner of the Fancy Guest House in Phnom Penh, […]

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