I first heard the name Pol Pot in our Asian history class back in high school, many years ago. I vaguely remember the details of what made him and the Khmer Rouge notorious, but they did very bad things, we were told. The thing is, when it’s something you have not experienced first-hand, it is not easy to claim full knowledge or even deep understanding of a situation, no matter the multitude of books written or documentaries made about it. I remember watching the film The Killing Fields some years back, the clumps of tears and snot-soaked tissues on the floor that resulted from it, and me making some vague promise to visit Phnom Penh one day, if only to retrace this part of history. Sort of.
Two weekends ago, that promise came into fruition. Chris and I traveled to Phnom Penh with only the fuzziest recollection of history and a compromise to just shoot the breeze when we get there, given that it was our first time traveling to the city. But what we saw, heard, and tasted of Phnom in a just one short weekend has driven us into a maelstrom of very strong emotions ranging from deep despair, some feeling of Asian allegiance, huge respect for what Phnom Penh has blossomed into after years of struggle that pressed on even after Pol Pot’s reign of terror has ended, and a sense of delicious wonder in large part due to the scrumptious Khmer cuisine.
We had a wonderful time in Phnom Penh, thanks to our friends Seima and Vite, for making sure we experience as much of the city and its history, even with our very short stay. Chris and Seima went to the same Graduate School in Thailand some years back and have not seen each other since graduation – until two weeks ago. So it really was a happy reunion with the two of them trading fond memories of their AIT days, usually with a feast of the most amazing local food laid out on the table before us.
So here it is, our weekend in Phnom Penh, in photos and lucid ramblings.
1. Tuol Sleng. The minute you step into the grounds of Tuol Sleng aka the S-21 concentration camp, you immediately get a sense of foreboding so acute that somehow tells you something utterly terrible and tragic has happened there. And that sinking feeling only gets more and more pronounced as you walk from cell to cell, scanning thousands of nameless faces captured in photographs, and some preserved fragments of bones and pieces of clothing that once belonged to Cambodians who were mercilessly tortured and starved, before they were put to death in what is now known as the Killing Fields, during the malevolent regime of Pol Pot and his savage Khmer Rouge. This is not the kind of place that would evoke jubilation as in most tourist attractions we know of; and perhaps we may never truly understand the kind of evil that was at work in the minds of those who carried out the genocide of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at that time (for that kind of evil is, I think, only something the devil himself would know), but it is important that we know so that our generation would know better than to allow something like this to happen again. The images, writings, and documentary that you will see at Tuol Sleng are gut-wrenching, so be prepared as some of those images will linger in your head long after you have walked away from the place. When we were there, we met Chum Mey, one of the ONLY 7 survivors (out of the 7, only 2 remain alive today) of S-21 concentration camp. He is now almost 84 years old. He is usually found sitting in a small booth surrounded by copies of his memoir – written in French and English – which are being sold for charity. His story is perhaps only one out of the 3 million that have suffered and died during Pol Pot’s reign of terror, but unlike millions of others like him, he lived to tell the harrowing tale. There are volunteers who conduct the guided tour a few times a day. If you’re lucky to visit when a tour is being organised, it would be great for you to join. Otherwise, the documentary video will provide you with more insights into Cambodia’s darkest period in history. Vite’s family is actually among those working very hard to preserve Tuol Sleng. Her father interviewed the survivors and wrote their account in Khmer, while Seima helped with the English translation.
2. Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (The Killing Fields). Truth be told, we were expecting a different Phnom Penh than the one that greeted us when we got out of the airport. The city, while sweltering hot and dusty on perhaps the hottest time of the year, is now visibly on its way to progress and development. Something the nation has been denied for several years by a regime so violent, so brutal, so inexplicably evil that it wiped out nearly a quarter of its population in mere four years. What we saw at the S-21 museum and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (aka the Killing Fields) were images so gruesome it would have been inconceivable that humans were capable of launching such atrocities against another – if the skulls, bone fragments, torture and killing tools, weren’t there staring back at us, as though daring us to go ahead and forget. The second you step into the Killing Fields, you are overcome by a sense of foreboding so chilling that it would not have been possible for you to just close your eyes and steel yourself from the pain. Nope, there is certainly no escaping the terror once you see the skulls, torn clothes, barbaric weaponry used to torture and kill. The evil regime responsible for the mass murder had left in its wake nearly 3 million people wiped out from Cambodia’s history. Artists, lawyers, doctors, educators, monks, children, wives, etc – people that could’ve propelled Cambodia to a higher stature in the ASEAN. That Cambodia, Phnom Penh especially, has emerged from this dark period to get to where it is today, poised for economic spurt, is in itself a miracle.
There is a fee of $3 for foreign visitors and also an audio guide for those who would like to know more of what really transpired in this small piece of land turned mass grave. At the center is a stupa where the skulls that were excavated were reverently stored, so visitors can offer prayers for their resting souls. There is also a museum within the compound. I would say Cheoung Ek is not for the weak of hearts but it is something that you must see for yourself when in Phnom Penh.
3. Independence Monument and the statue of His Majesty the King Norodom Sihanouk, known as the Father of Cambodian Independence from the French rule that spanned almost a century. The Independence Monument was built in 1958 as a symbol of Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It stands on the intersection of Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard in the city centre.
The statue of King Norodom Sihanouk was erected only last year to honour the late King who guided the country to independence from France and through two wars before backing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in a bid to retain power. The statue is said to have cost around US 1.2 million to build.
4. The Silver Pagoda. This pagoda houses many national treasures including gold and jewelled Buddha statues. Most eye-catching is the small 17th century Emerald Buddha and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds, the largest of which weighs 25 carats. During King Norodom Sihanouk‘s pre-Khmer Rouge reign, the Silver Pagoda was inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles and some of its outer facade was remodeled with Italian marble. However only a small area of these tiles are available to be viewed by the public on entering the pagoda as the rest of floor is covered with carpet.
5. Royal Palace. This complex of buildings serve as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. The Silver Pagoda is among the many structures within the palace complex. There is a fee of US $6 per visitor. Wearing of sleeveless tops and short, shorts are not allowed in the palace grounds. So we ended up buying a US $3 XL-sized t-shirt for me to wear as they don’t allow shawl as cover-up either.
6. Wat Phnom. Buddhist temple built in 1373 and is also the central point of Phnom Penh. According to legend, a wealthy widow called Penh found a large koki tree in the river. Discovered inside the tree were four bronze statues of the Buddha. Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill made by the people living in the village to protect the sacred statues. This site will eventually become the place for prayer and worship for buddhists.
7. Eclipse Sky Bar. Located atop the Hyundai Tower, one of Phnom Penh’s popular skyscrapers, Eclipse Sky Bar gives its loyal customers and infrequent or first-time visitors a grand view of the burgeoning commerce and palpable growth opportunities below. Phnom Penh, no doubt, is poised for an explosive debut in the region, after the long painful years of civil war. There is usually an acoustic band playing and the music/sound coming out of the fancy Bose speakers is just at the right decibel to be both soothing and conducive for proper conversations. The price of drinks is certainly not cheap but you do get an awesome view with it, so it’s not such a bad trade-off if you ask me. Eclipse Bar is definitely one of the hottest places in Phnom Penh so if you can, it is best to book a table before coming – especially if it’s Friday/Saturday.
8. Exquisite Cambodian Cuisine. Arguably one the oldest living culinary styles in the world, dating back at least a millennium, and nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, the Cambodian cuisine is a succulent combination of flavourful herbs and spices and various textures. Almost similar to Thai cuisine in many ways but distinctively different in some. Thanks to Seima and Vite, we feasted on so many local dishes including the famous signature dish called fish amok, green mango salad, papaya salad, majew prai (country-style green soup), and some traditional dessert as well.