The lighter side of Phnom Penh

Thanks to our early exit from Vientiane we found ourselves with an extra couple of days to spend in Phnom Penh. Having visited the genocide sites (our reason for stopping off here in the first place), we were faced with two options; kick back by the hotel pool and quench the soaring October heat with a frozen margarita, or venture out to explore what else the city had to offer us. An aptly timed poolside construction project made this decision an easy one so – ducking and diving past the tenacious tuk-tuk drivers clustered outside our hotel – we set out on foot.

Phnom Penh isn’t a huge place – certainly not if you’ve grown accustomed to incomprehensibly huge Chinese cities like Shanghai! – but with a population of about 1.5m, it’s at least twice the size of Vientiane (750k). On our impromptu wander we found a blend of Buddhist and Cambodian architecture (temples, monuments and palace buildings), French colonial influence (municipal buildings and townhouses) and modern development (leisure areas, malls and hotels).

It’s a city where you can wake up in a Western-style boutique hotel, spend your morning visiting some magnificent buildings from a bygone era, stop for an espresso at a cool and reasonably-priced cafe, then sit on a colour-bleached plastic chair on the edge of a public park while an old lady cooks you some fragrant spicy noodles on a camp stove attached to the back of a tuk-tuk. In fact, this was what we ended up doing while in Phom Penh and the transitions didn’t feel too harsh or incongruous. That said, there are still signs of a conflicted city wrestling with modernisation. We visited several cafes and shops devoted to raising funds for disadvantaged people, such as those caught up in and trying to leave the sex industry (the red light district is only a short walk from the Royal Palace grounds!).

Like Vientiane, Phnom Penh is in parts grimy, noisy, smelly and messy; however, unlike the Laotian capital we found it to be quirky, interesting, and full of charm. The presentation of the heritage sites reflected a deep pride in the city and in my view the architecture alone is enough to warrant a stay for a few days. Some of the highlights for us were…

Phnom Penh Royal Palace

The Royal Palace, built midway through the 19th Century, is the official residence of King Sihamoni. As we approached, a flock of pigeons scattered among the crowd of tourists swept up to the sky, circling above the palace gate before coming to rest momentarily on it’s elegant and intricately tiled classic Khmer roof. From the street outside you can see the gleaming gold spires of the striking palace buildings, which rise above the pale gold wall surrounding the palace compound. It’s certainly an impressive sight.

To enter the palace you need to dress modestly, with your shoulders and arms and legs covered (the rules on this are strictly upheld by the staff manning the entrance; we saw a couple of people in just-above-the-knee shorts being turned away). Once inside you can explore the two vast adjacent courtyards containing several magnificent white-and-gold buildings and a display of beautifully manicured gardens. Most of the buildings contained artifacts and treasures such as court costumes, tapestries and royal heirlooms (although many items were lost, stolen or destroyed during the turmoil of the war and subsequent Vietnamese invasion).

The Silver Pagoda

A popular attraction in the Royal Palace is the extravagant ‘Silver Pagoda’ – a somewhat misleading name given that it’s neither silver, nor a pagoda! Also known as Wat Preah Keo, it is a huge palace hall containing hundreds of gold and silver and jewel-encrusted Buddhas, whose name is derived from 5000 silver tiles inlaid on the floor (although these are largely covered for protection).

To the south of the Silver Pagoda is a giant wooden replica of the main temple at Angkor Wat (complete with a moat-like pool teeming with carp) and just beyond this you can find an intricate painted mural that stretches along its inner wall of one of the cloisters. Despite being faded in parts and apparently mid-way through a restoration project, this painting was one of my favourite parts of the Palace – the colour, detail and imagination was exquisite.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom is a Buddhist Temple which sits atop an artificial hill, right at the centre of Phnom Penh. It was originally built some 600 years ago to house and protect four statues of Buddha which legend says were washed up by the waters of the Mekong river and discovered by a wealthy widow, Lade Penh. Aside the temple is a huge white stupa (below). It’s still an active place of worship today, and we found a group of ladies clustered around a shrine, chatting amongst themselves while preparing offerings of food and flowers.

We were told that Wat Phnom was the best place to see the city from on high. However, at 27 metres there weren’t many vantage points that allowed you to see above the trees! That said, while the trees blocked our view, they did provide a thick canopy which allowed us some shelter from the glaring sun, while making our way through the hillside gardens back down to ground level.

Central Market (Phsar Thmei)

There were two markets we were recommended to visit in Phnom Penh: the Central Market and the Russian Market. The Central Market is a large domed Art Deco building of french-design dating back to 1937, which is still operational as a market today. There are 4 ‘arms’ that splay out from the central dome, each of which contains dozens of market vendors selling clothing, watches, jewelry and domestic goods, and we explored and tried-on without feeling any pressure to buy anything. The entrance to the market is crammed with vendors selling touristy t-shirts and cold juice drinks (the fresh coconut water was delicious) and the airy design of the market made it an excellent place to take a break from the heat (you may be noticing a theme here, it was too hot to spend a lot of time outside!). Although watch out if you visit in the rainy season… the market occupies a square that had previously been a lake, and it is prone to flooding!

Phsar Tuol Tom Pong (Russian Market)

The second we were recommended to visit was the Russian Market, so called because of it’s popularity in the 1980s with Soviets who lived in the area. Unlike the open, airy and geometric Central Market, the Russian Market is a cramped, dense warren of stalls selling everything from handicraft, antiques and art to kitchen hardware and motorbike parts. If you burrow your way to the centre of the market you will find a dingy but vibrant ‘food court’ (some tables and chairs), where people were somehow rustling delicious Cambodian noodles from the most rudimentary of kitchens.

The tasty and extremely cheap meal was important fuel, given it might have taken several hours to find our way out of this shopping labyrinth!

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Chasing Monkeys at Post Office Square

We’d sought out the old Post Office, an imposing colonial public building in a sleepy and very French part of the town (complete with cafes and chocolate shops) but no sooner had we arrived than we became distracted by a family of monkeys – fat old ones and cheeky babies – playfully traversing the street on overhead cables, climbing up buildings and harassing the irritable locals. We were immediately and completely distracted!

When the monkeys finally disappeared over the rooftops we took a look around the nearby square. Dating from 1890, Phnom Penh’s original post office is an elegant building which is still in use today, having been renovated several times. It’s fortunate, considering the state of the other once-great buildings in the surrounding area. For example, the Commissariat (Central Police Station from circa 1910), which commands a corner view by the Post Office is sadly at the point of disintegration, shuttered for decades and blocked off by a giant metal fence. It would be great if, as part of the development of Phnom Penh, some funds were earmarked for the restoration of areas like this – before they reach a stage beyond repair.

 Independence Monument

Modelled on the central tower of Angkor Wat – a lotus- shaped stupa consisting of 5 levels, each decorated with snake-heads – the Independence Monument was built in 1958 to commemorate the country’s independence from France in 1953. In the daytime the monument is attractive but doesn’t really stand out. To see it at it’s best, go in the evening when it is lit up; the resulting shadows demonstrate the beautiful complexity of the design. Walking inside the monument isn’t permitted, but you get a good view from across the street.

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Emma

Discovering the heartbreaking history of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh

Please note: this article contains sensitive content and images which some may find upsetting.

To be honest, I didn’t want to visit Cambodia’s capital. My preconception of Phnom Penh – based on a swift scan of our guidebook and some of my favourite travel blogs – was of a city inextricably and depressingly linked with the heartbreak of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Google confirmed this before I’d finished typing ‘Penh’ in the search bar.

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The rational part of me understood the historic importance of these sites, but the thought of visiting the “must see” Tuol Sleng Prison Genocide Museum and infamous Choeung Ek memorial (better known as the Killing Fields) made me feel uneasy and didn’t gel with my idea of a relaxing vacation. Matt on the other hand was keen to learn more about what had happened in Cambodia during the 1970’s and so we came to a compromise – to spend 24 hours on Phnom Penh before moving on to Siem Reap. However, our hasty departure from Vientiane meant that we arrived in Phnom Penh early, with double the time that we’d originally allocated..

This change in itinerary prompted me to reconsider my position; after all, those guidebooks and bloggers had all insisted that to really get to know Cambodia today, you first had to understand it’s recent past  – so the next morning we clambered into a tuk-tuk and set off for the Choeung Ek.

NB – At this point you have to make a grim choice of route: (a) visiting Tuol Sleng first and then Choeung Ek, so following the final steps of the genocide victims, or (b) do it the other way around and avoid the bulk of the tourists. We chose the latter.

Tuk-Tuking through Phnom Penh

As in Laos, Phnom Penh was teeming with tuk-tuks. Unlike Laos (and Thailand for that matter), the passenger area of Phnom Penh tuk-tuks were equipped with wrap-around metal cages, to make it harder for scooter-driving theives to snatch your bag/ phone/ camera. Friends had warned us about the high level of street crime here and I made Matt keep tight hold of our rucksack while I kept a watchful eye out for suspicious-looking-people (which had the ironic consequence making everyone look suspicious!).

After 10 minutes of not being mugged, and forgetting our destination, I relaxed a bit and became engrossed in the sights and sounds of the streets which whizzed by. Haphazard houses of concrete and wood; shopfront-after-shopfront, primarily dedicated to construction of some sort (the dull buzz of electric drills and heavy machinery made a soundtrack to the city); women in brightly coloured pajamas grooming each other by the streetside; goods and people loaded precariously on motorbikes.

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Understanding the past

As we headed across and out of Phnom Penh, we witnessed a whirlwind of clamorous development. The city has that tangible sense of change, which juxtaposes barefoot children playing with gravel on dusty streets with minimalist-chic coffee shops selling flat whites, and sees upmarket boutique hotels with green credentials neighbouring abandoned and disintegrating buildings. The chaotic roads are clogged with tuk-tuks and motorbikes weaving between Range Rovers, blaring their respective horns as they negotiate their way forward past potholes and people.

This mish-mash of tradition and progress, wealth and poverty, energy and lethargy is something we’ve seen many times during our travels across Asia. Often what distinguishes it is a recent political or social event, the shockwaves of which are still visible should you look for them (such as the occupation and bombing of Laos, the cultural revolution etc.).

Only 40 years ago, Cambodia was devastated by the attempt of Khmer Rouge party leader Pol Pot to turn the country into a communist agrarian utopia. In reality, this involved the forced evacuation of millions of Cambodians from the cities into the countryside, where they laboured as slaves for a federation of collective farms. Having been brought up in the city, they had no idea how to grow crops or live off the land, and so millions perished from execution, starvation or disease (ironically, doctors were classed as intellectuals – ‘potential opposition’ – and killed, meaning that in the end there was no-one left to save even the most powerful Khmer Rouge).

It’s estimated that between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians – 25% of Cambodia’s total population – lost their lives between 1975 and 1979 at the hands of the Pol Pot’s regime – who operated under such dehumanizing mottos as ‘To have you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss.’.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields

Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 300 killing fields set up throughout Cambodia in the late 1970s. At the entrance gate we bought audio-tour tickets ($3 each) and walked into a grassy field surrounded by a thick forest of lush trees and bordered on one side by a vast lake. It was a quietly peaceful spot and we joined the trickle of headset-wearing tourists following a guided route round the site, stopping periodically to listen to the horror story which unfolded on each audio track – an account of what we now know based on the stories of survivors.

The stark natural beauty of place took on a new dimension as we learned that the rolling depressions in the grass were the sites of mass graves. Two or three times a month, in the late evening, trucks packed with 20-30 people would arrive at Choeung Ek; the prisoners, blindfolded, were executed immediately or detained overnight only to be killed the following day. A killing field is literally just a field where people went to be killed and buried.

We observed the glass box filled with fragments of bone and bits of clothing, washed up in the rainy season. On the ground next to the path, more pieces of clothing, bone and teeth were visible. We then stood in front of the thick tree trunk against which Khmer Rouge soldiers had, holding them by the feet, swung babies and small children until they were dead. Adults were clubbed to death with sticks, or hacked at with farm implements or sharp palm branches. After all, money was tight and bullets were expensive.

It was as terrible as I had anticipated; impossible to comprehend and too much to bear. I had to stop some of the audio-tracks part-way through,  conscious that I would never be able to un-listen to them.

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The guided tour ended at the Memorial Stupa, a tall white obelisk towering above the surrounding trees, erected in memory of the victims. Inside the memorial are thousands of skulls, arranged neatly by age and sex, many disclosing evidence of the trauma suffered in their last days or moments.

Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)

Back in the tuk-tuk we returned to the centre of the Phnom Penh and stopped outside an innocuous looking mid-20th Century concrete building, on a dusty urban road packed with bustling grocers and cafés. This building was Tuol Svay Prey High School until 1975 when it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and converted into S-21, one of the regime’s top-secret security prisons. From here, prisoners were loaded onto the trucks which transported them to their final destination at Cheoung Ek.

S-21 quickly became the largest and most notorious of the network of around 200 prisons; it’s estimated that between 17,000 – 30,000 Cambodians were imprisoned here, interrogated and brutally tortured. Only seven are known to have survived, and the site now serves as a testament to the horrific crimes which it bore witness to.

Again guided by an excellent audio-tour, we walked slowly and silently through the former school buildings. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis, were meticulous in keeping records of their inhuman cruelty, and the museum is a harrowing collection of the black-and-white photographs taken of the prisoners, and the transcriptions of the often bizarre forced confessions they made.

At the Killing Fields that morning, we had witnessed the shadows of the genocide – unidentifiable remains and marked graves. At S-21 however, we came face-to-face with thousands of pairs of eyes, of men and women and children and babies and these eyes bore a searing hole into my heart. While imprisoned, they had been shackled to the concrete floor or to each other in tiny makeshift cells, without mats or blankets. They received four small spoonfuls of rice soup each day and were forbidden to talk to each other. Routinely beaten and tortured in the most horrific ways, and made to confess to being CIA or KGB members – yet from the language they used it was clear that many had no idea what these organisations were.

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You’re not allowed to take photos inside the museum, but I did take one – below – which was the final straw for me (after this I took a seat outside in the garden and waited for Matt to finish the tour). The little chap in the middle reminded me so much of my brother as a baby; unbelievably chubby cheeks and a mop of dark hair – only he wasn’t given the opportunity to grow up. This was one of hundreds of photos of innocent children.

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One of the few prisoners to survive S-21 is Chum Mey, pictured below with Matt. After ten days of torture he confessed to being a secret agent for the US, but managed to survive due to his skills as a mechanic. He now returns to the former prison each day where he sells his memoir. You can read about his story in this BBC News article.

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There is a lot written online about the Cambodian Genocide, the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng and I wanted to focus this blog more on our personal impressions than an in-depth account of the history; however, if you are interested to learn more about what happened:

Last thoughts

Given that I wasn’t keen to visit Phnom Penh – and more specifically those sites now dedicated to remembering the recent genocide – do I regret my decision to go?

It was certainly difficult. There are some images and stories that I imagine will haunt me for a long time – perhaps forever – and the experience clashed with my usual criteria for a ‘holiday’; but in this case I’m glad I pushed out of my comfort zone. And not for the reason I expected.

Setting out on this day-trip I’d convinced myself that I would learn more about Cambodia’s history and in doing so, would better understand the Cambodia we would experience over the coming week. To an extent this was true, but another very powerful reason occurred to me over the course of the day: if people like me don’t visit the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, then there is a risk that one day there won’t be any demand to keep them alive. These sites rely on tourists who can afford to pay the entrance fee – an unrealistic prospect for many ordinary Cambodians. A charity stand in Tuol Sleng asks for donations to fund visits for local schoolchildren, who otherwise may grow up wondering “was it really all that bad?”, or even worse, “did it really happen?”.

I’m not saying that visiting these places is the right thing for everyone, and I put a disclaimer at the start of this blog post for this reason. It’s emotionally exhausting. But we need to remember how easily the genocide happened, and how devastating the repercussions were for a whole country.

– Emma