We took the Giant Ibis bus down from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a very pleasent experience indeed. The bus costs $13, and takes 4-4.5hrs. It is very comfortable with AC, reclining seats, and even WiFi.
Phnom Penh was a much nicer city than we were expecting. Perhaps it was only relative to the experience we had in Jakarta, but Phnom Penh appealed to us. In my opinion, cities always benefit from having a river, and it was a good size city, not too big, not too small. Congestion exists for sure, but it's not too bad, and the streets and shops were more affluent looking than I had anticipated (In Indonesia, if you don't look where you are walking, you will fall down a manhole or be electrocuted by hanging wire!).
It's easy to be a tourist here, with plenty of western style eateries (in particular I strongly recommend the Coccina Cartel Mexican restaurant, not far from the palace; it's pretty authentic Mexican food and cheap), and lots of good quality Cambodian restaurants that are still inexpensive ($3 for an Amok or Green curry not far from the palace and still within a restaurant).
One of the main reason tourists come to Phnom Penh are, ironically, due to the events that happened over 40 years ago, which sealed Cambodia off from the outside world. On April 17, 1974, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh after overthrowing Marshal Lon Nol's forces (several years earlier, Lon Nol had led a military coup that had overthrown Prince Norodom Sihanouk, now remembed in the eponymous Sihanouksville). They were initially greeted with jubilation, but this joy quickly turned to despair as urbanites were forced from the cities into the countryside, "Year Zero" was proclaimed and Pol Pot's deranged vision of an agrarian, communist society unfurled.
Before we went, we mentally prepared ourselves by watching the great film The Killing Fields, which tells the story of a reporter from the NY times and his Cambodian friend Dith Pran, whom he had to leave behind in Cambodia. It was John Malkovich's debut film, and the actor that plays Dith Pran, Haing Ngor, really did go through this; he was not an actor beforehand, but a doctor in Phnom Penh, forced to conceael his training and even the fact that he wore glasses to avoid execution. We also watched (yes OK, probably no substitute for some proper research in good old books!), S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, that tells the story of the S21 genocide prison, or Tuol Sleng, first-hand from some of the few survivors (it was once thought that as few as 7 people survived this prison), and even the guards. It really did help to put the things we saw into perspective.
Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields, was the site where over 20,000 Cambodians were slaughtered in cold blood, and it was just one of many such sites across the country. In just the four short years that the Khmer Rouge were in power, up to 25% of the 8 million Cambodians were killed. The site now holds a memorial stupa, which houses the clothes, skulls and other bones that still surface in the surrounding fields to this day.
The entrance fee at the time of writing is $6, and the tour is particularly well put together, with an audio guide included in the entrance price, which is very good and informative. Obviously prepare yourself for this tour, as like any such place, Auschwitz etc, it's pretty harrowing, but very worthwhile.
The Killing Fields are quite a way from the centre of Phnom Penh (maybe 30-45mins by tuk-tuk?), and most tourists will go on the same day they visit the Teol Sleng Genocide Museum, much closer to town. This was formely a high-school, but was turned into a prison, known as S21. Here you will learn about the personal stories of the Cambodians (and several foreigners from Australia, NZ and the USA), who were detained and usually then later killed under the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. The records and photographs are very detailed, and stories of torture methods and forced confessions (of CIA membership amongst other things) are hearbreaking and disturbing. Entrance at the time of writing is $3.
We payed $15 for the day to the tuk-tuk driver, and spent about 5hrs seeing these sites in total.
The other things to do and see in Phnom Penh are not so heavy. We went to see the Royal Palace on our final day. It cost $6.5 to get in (it is marginally cheaper if you pay in KHR). Like most such sites, make sure you dress appropriately or you will be denied entrance, even after you've already bought the ticket!. The palace is impressive, but I feel we would have got more out of it if we'd hired a guide. We eavesdropped for a few minutes on another group's guide, and it sounded very interesting! :) The silver pagoda is probably the most famous building in the palace, but the silver floor from whence it derives its name, is covered with carpet, hmmph. Make sure you check the opening hours, as I believe it's closed for quite a long time during lunch, maybe 11.30am -2pm.
Go eat a tarantula at Romdeng restaurant. I blame Louise for this!
Dinner cruise along the Mekong with Phocea Mekong Cruises, which has great reviews, but we were short on budget
Go to the Wildlife Rescue Sanctuary
Maybe next time!