After a brief 36 hours in Vietnam and final, final goodbyes to our favourite place, we were bundled onto a 7-hour bus to Cambodia. It’s funny how crossing an invisible border line into a new country that sits side by side with Vietnam can see such a drastic change in culture, food and people. While there are no doubt many similarities between Vietnam and Cambodia, the move to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and most populous city, felt a long way away from Saigon.
Located on the banks of the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is a French built city noted for it’s historic architecture and of course the Killing Fields, documenting Cambodia’s tragic past. Phnom Penh is full of monuments and memorials to the genocide during the Khmer Rouge era that ran through the 1970s in which around 2 million people (that’s a quarter of Cambodia’s total population) were brutally murdered.
On our first full day in the city we took a tuk tuk (this is the only way to be taxied around the city and offers a fun open windowed view onto the streets) to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to explore Cambodia’s turbulent past that they’re still very much recovering from today. This Buddhist memorial site is situated in the village of Choeung Ek, 15km from Phnom Penh’s centre. The memorial park was built around the mass graves that are still visible today.
The Killing Fields refer to a number of sites where millions of people were killed and buried during the Khmer Rouge regime, under Pol Pot’s orders, during it’s rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. The Communist Khmer Rouge regime arrested, tortured and executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former governments as well as professionals and intellectuals. There was no logic behind the deaths of many of the innocent people who were killed, the Khmer Rouge was unprejudiced in their torture methods and murders. In some cases infants were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Chankiri trees and were then thrown into the pits alongside their parents. The ‘rationale’ was to prevent them growing up and taking revenge for their parents deaths. We saw one of these trees on our audio-guided tour, ordained in colourful bracelets offered by visitors.
17,000 men, women and children were buried in this particular mass gravesite that was once an unassuming longan orchard. They were often bludgeoned to death in order to save precious ammunition. The fields are a peaceful place today, masking the horrors of what occurred several decades ago. It’s quite eerie how serene the grassy fields feel. Everyone within the grounds wandered around absorbing the chilling information through the headsets, not saying a word to one another as we walked in our own bubbles of reflection. Stories by those who survived the Khmer Rouge were recounted, including those by guards and executioners.
Fragments of human bone and rags of clothing are evident among the dirt, as more are uncovered with each rainy season that passes. Many of these remains are carefully preserved by the memorial park officers and displayed in clear boxes for visitors to pay their respects. Behind glass panels in the memorial stupa are more than 8,000 skulls are arranged by sex, age and details of how they were killed noted. It was evident from their fragmented, fractured skulls how each individual had cruelly died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Pol Pot had a wide range of sickening propaganda slogans including ‘better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake’ or ‘no gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out’ and ‘when pulling out weeds, remove them roots and all’.
It was a heavy start to the day but essential in understanding more about Cambodia’s people and history. The next stop was the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes, one of Pol Pot’s prisons that housed the people later taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be murdered. The two sites are usually visited as a pair and Tuol Sleng follows the same audio headset framework, feeding more appalling information to visitors as we walked through the complex.
The site was a former high school, transformed into what was known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) and is just one of 150 execution and torture centres established by the Khmer Rouge. The complex itself still looks very much like a high school with a similar layout to the buildings we worked in while teaching in Vietnam. But each room had been converted into prison cells and torture chambers where victims were interrogated, shackled to the walls and floor. As individuals were tortured (we’ll spare you the graphic details) they were coerced into naming family members who were then arrested and tortured in turn, and confessing to whatever the Khmer Rouge had accused them of, whether it be true or not. The prisoners’ photos lined many of the walls of Tuol Sleng and it was painful seeing how young some of the inmates were, a look of terrified despair in their eyes. There are only 7 known survivors of the 17,000 people imprisoned at S-21, spared because they had skills their captors deemed to be useful.
It was a rather harrowing day and we felt exhausted after only a small breakfast and mango smoothie keeping us going until 4pm. We headed back to the city centre for some handmade noodles and reflected on the information and personal stories that had been shared with us.
Everyone we’ve met in Cambodia has been so friendly, always greeting us with smiles on their faces. It’s hard to think that hundreds of thousands were made widows and orphans and those who lived through the regime are still severely traumatised by their experiences today. Several thousands of Cambodians fled their country to become refugees and a large number of the population suffers from mental health issues. The relatively recent horrors of the Khmer Rouge are still very raw.
We made a more lighthearted visit to the Royal Palace on our second day. This is the official residence of King Sihamoni, so parts of the massive complex are closed to the public. But what we did see was quite beautiful; the gold, glittering embellishments looking particularly striking against the blue sunny skies. The roofs of the palace are built in a classic Khmer design and dominate the skyline. It bares a resemblance to the Royal Palace in Bangkok but didn’t shimmer in the same way. It felt more practical and less extravagant, perhaps due to the fact that this is the King’s home after all.
While Cambodia has technically crept into the rainy season, we had beautiful weather in Phnom Penh and it felt even hotter than Vietnam if you can imagine. The sun beat down relentlessly every day as we walked around the city, sweating in abundance. Our visit to the Royal Palace was a particularly sweltering day as we were so exposed in the vast courtyards.
We had some lunch at Daughters of Cambodia after the palace visit. There are so many ‘dining for a good cause’ restaurants and cafes in Cambodia, as well as Vietnam; the Lonely Planet even has a whole page dedicated to their top choices. Daughters of Cambodia exists ‘to empower those trapped in the sex industry in Cambodia to walk free and start a new life, with healing, dignity, and the means to prosper’. They offer employment opportunities in their café and gift shop, in order to learn how to sustain their new lifestyles.
We’ve been enjoying the Cambodian cuisine since arriving. We didn’t know much about it and coming from Vietnam, anything we tried would be hard to beat. But the vast range of curries, spices and creamy coconut flavours are a welcomed change. It was a struggle to get your five a day in Vietnam but Cambodian dishes are full of vegetables. Since being in Phnom Penh we’ve tried chicken and mango salads, green and red Cambodian curries, Lok Lak, mango fried fish, and Amok curries (amok refers to the process of steam cooking a curry in banana leaves). All have been excellent.
After lunch, we went on to the National Museum, the country’s leading historical and archeological museum. It houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art, including sculptures, ceramics, bronzes and more. It’s a beautiful burnt red building in the centre of the city with a particularly lovely courtyard area situated in the middle.
After the National Museum, we strolled up to the White Building. It is one of the many buildings designed by Vann Molyvann, a renowned Cambodian architect, responsible for many of Phnom Penh’s most iconic structures. Completed in 1963, it symbolised modernism in Cambodia and became home to many on low to middle incomes. However, the tenants fled the building during the Khmer Rouge and never returned after the regime collapsed. The building has since fallen into a state of disrepair and is being eyed up for redevelopment, however it’s status as a symbol of New Khmer architecture is keeping developers at bay for the time being.
We then headed to Wat Langka, one of the oldest buddhist temples in Phnom Penh. Founded in 1442, the temple was able to avoid the destruction that many other places of worship suffered during the Khmer Rouge as it was used as a storage facility. When we arrived, the temple was basking in the glow of a setting sun.
Phnom Penh had a really nice, relaxed vibe that felt very un-capital-city-ish. Everything was very walkable and there were lots of peaceful pedestrianised areas we could meander through in the evenings. In this way, it reminded us of the walking street around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Similar to Hanoi, lots of families and their children poured out onto the streets in the evening, walking, running, rollerblading, singing, playing games and partaking in various other group activities. One of the most entertaining was a mass zumba dance class. About 40 teenagers performed a variety of brilliant choreographed dances in the boiling heat, sweating through their clothing, giving it everything they had.
We really enjoyed our introduction to Cambodia in Phnom Penh and will be returning here later on in the month, as it’s a central stop over point to take us to other locations. We’re glad we have the chance to see even more of the city as there’s so much choice for food and drinks along the riverside that we want to explore.