I had three nights and two full days to explore Phnom Penh so thought it would be worth a little write-up. The city is an interesting place and I enjoyed my stay there.
For visitors arriving by plane the first things to hit you are the heat and dust. The heat seemed more intense than Singapore and the dust is plentiful. The shops that have goods outside cover everything in plastic to stop the thick red dust from ruining their products.
Next impressions driving through the city is that it is rapidly on the rise. There are new buildings and others being constructed everywhere, adding to the dust. There also a several improvements to the infrastructure happening across the city. These works and the number of people constantly on the roads make it a very busy place.
I think it will only get busier as well, the number of children and babies seemed to be really high. Every adult lap seemed to have a baby in it. It caused me to look up the Cambodian birth rate and they have one of the highest birth rates in Asia.
There are lots of westerners in Phnom Penh, not just on holiday many setting up business, working for NGO’s, investing in property or a number teaching English. There are also a lot of Cambodians who seem to be doing very well out of the development. It’s easy to see the huge wealth disparity. There are lots of obviously poor street kids and people living rough, but there was a massive number of US$100k + cars on the street. Range Rover must love Cambodia, I have never seen so many of them.
As a tourist one of the main things to do is find out more about the Khmer Rouge. I didn’t know anything about the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot and the horrific genocide they inflicted on their own people. In four years from 1975, it’s estimated 2 million people were killed from a total population of 8 million. There are a number of things to visit but the main two sites are the Killing fields and S-21. They are both worth visiting but much like visiting World War II concentration camp memorials leave you in a contemplative mood for some time after the visits.
Myself and a fellow backpacker Hannah, hired a tuk-tuk to visit both sites in a day. Firstly we visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which is better known as S-21. It was a school before the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975. It was converted into a notorious prison, where 20,000 people were sent with only 7 people surviving. The prison was used to purge the country of any educated people; all doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers or civil servants were sent there with their families. They used various horrific torture methods to force false confessions of working for the CIA or KGB over a number of weeks. Following the ‘confession’ the victims would then be sent to the killing fields to be executed. The museum show the photo’s of the people sent there, it’s harrowing to see how many children were killed.
Following that we were taken through a rain shower (fun in a tuk-tuk) to the Killing Fields which is about 15km outside of the city centre. A memorial, museum and a skull filled stupa are there to commemorate the people who died there and in the other 308 mass grave sites that have been found across Cambodia.
Upon entry you are given a descriptive audio tour which takes you round the site explaining what happened sometimes in very graphic detail. Of the 20,000 people who were executed, guns were hardly ever used. Bullets were to expensive, so gardening tools were used. Now it looks like a very peaceful garden around a lake, making it difficult to imagine the atrocities that took place.
The tour ends with the same warning as Auschwitz, this memorial’s purpose is to remind people what happened so they can ensure it doesn’t happen again. After the tour I began to realise how recently it happened, anyone older than me would have been directly involved and all those younger indirectly. One of employees at the hostel I was staying mentioned both his parents were sent to forced labour camps when they were 15 for those four years. They don’t talk about it to him apart from when his dad has a couple of drinks with his uncles and it all gets very sad thinking about what they endured and lost friends and family.
The next day was a lot lighter, just strolling round the city. Going through the massive central market with just about everything on display. I enjoyed the excellent French bread served with pâté and pickles.
I also visited the Royal Palace, quite similar to other palaces in Thailand and had a couple of drinks on the riverfront. This is where most of the bars and restaurants are located.
The dust was good for something, it caused a fantastic sunset that evening.