Phnom Penh is situated on the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. Thriving is not the adjective that best describes the city but it is lively and people scurry about their daily business. What this city lacks in wealth, it makes up for in culture and some delicious food. We need to appreciate that Cambodia is still a country in recovery.
Phnom Penh has a bit of a wild west feel about it. The streets are clogged with traffic along with the odd ox cart. People swarm the suburban streets and the buildings are a bit run down or empty. Like many cities across Asia, this is a city of contrasts. Luxury hotels stand next to abandoned buildings. Modern cars park alongside old ricksaws. It’s gritty, polluted and full of dust as not all roads are sealed. Cars zoom past rickshaw drivers, buses dodge motorbikes. But the people still look cheerful.
Let’s get the horrible history out of the way…
The Khmer Rouge’s mass genocide that engulfed Cambodia just 40 years ago still affects aspects of Cambodian life. The Khmer Rouge hoped to change Cambodian a society believing that it was affected by wealth and Western philosophies. They persecuted their population, from those with educational backgrounds to those who wore glasses. Generations were wiped out, some family trees ceased to exist and other families starting over from being sole survivors. The S-21 Prison (Toul Sleng Genocide Museum) is where thousands were taken, documented and tortured and killed or sent to the ‘killing fields’. This is a haunting place, with hallway walls adorned with photographs of the victims. It is here that we learn about the Khmer Rouge atrocities, often with first-hand experiences from our guide, a survivor. This is an incredibly moving place.
Many of those who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime ended up in one of the dozens of ‘killing fields’, which were ad hoc places of execution and dumping grounds for bodies. We were taken to Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh, which was once an orchard, ironically providing life to its community. But under the Khmer Rouge, the area became one of the infamous killing fields. This particular ‘killing field’ is the site of the brutal executions of approximately 17,000 men, women and children, most of whom had first been through S-21 Prison.
Prisoners were executed in the most horrific of ways. Today, the skulls located in the memorial stupa on the grounds of the ‘killings fields’ are a sobering and haunting testament to these gruesome deaths. Seeing the condition of the skulls, it is hard to imagine the horrific events that occurred here. This conflicts with the ideal of walking around a seemingly peaceful orchard. Memorials are now set up at many ‘killing field’ sites.
A visit to such a site need not turn into a sideshow. It educates us, makes us think more deeply about humanity and repoints our moral compass. Sadly, these events took place in my lifetime, as a teenager. It is not something that I read about in a history book, but witnessed through news reports and Time magazine articles. This makes our visit to the site all the more compelling.
Back in Phnom Penh, the extravagant Royal Palace and surrounding compound illustrates the rich past of Cambodia and portrays a bright future. This is a site which beautifully presents Cambodian history, covering Khmer artefacts and architecture.
With its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, the Royal Palace dominates the skyline of Phnom Penh, which is pleasantly devoid of high-rise structures. It’s a striking structure near the riverfront. It is remarkably similar to the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Being the official residence, parts of the palace compound remain private.
The adjacent Silver Pagoda is, however, open to visitors. The Silver Pagoda is so named for its floor, which is covered with five tons of gleaming silver. You can sneak a peek at some of the 5 000 tiles near the entrance, but most are covered to protect them.
The National Museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art, including sculptural, ceramic and bronze artefacts from Hindu and Buddhist faiths. This is the perfect spot if you are looking for a cure to the overwhelming loss of faith in humanity felt after a visit to Choeung Ek. The museum is located in a beautiful Khmer styled building, evoking Oriental imaginings. This is an airy and breezy museum situated around a central courtyard with tiny lotus-fringed ponds, pebbled paths and lush greenery. It has a calmness about it.
Phnom Penh deserves attention. It is a vibrant city. But your experience will be unpredictable. It’s a city of stark contrasts, a rich culture and gentle people, conflicted by the Pol Pot regime and all the atrocities associated with it. This is a city that is being reborn. It is developing. It is enlightening. But above all, it is a city that has retained its imperial and colonial charm and we are grateful for the experience.