Before arriving in Phnom Penh we had booked accomodation in the city for six nights. However we cut this down to four nights after our first three there, deciding that we had seemingly seen most of cities attractions too quickly. But this isn’t at all to say that the attractions that we did see there weren’t worth the journey, because quite contrarily they were deeply moving, very educational and extremely eye-opening.. Our days were not at all wasted in Phnom Penh. We simply thought that we would better be able to see the country if we didn’t waste time in moving on (especially on a budget which is quickly running out) …
So here is what we saw during our brief stay..
We started with a trip to ‘The Central Markets’ – a large,permanent, indoor market place which is packed with electronics, jewellery and clothing.
.. And we realised almost immediately that it wasn’t our kind of scene. And I really am unsure if it was just too westernised, or if it was too commercial, or maybe it just wasn’t the right collection of goods – we prefer arts, small nick knacks and handicrafts to electronic speakers, silver pendants and tartan shirts.. But what ever it was that didn’t quite sit with us.. It caused us to walk uninterestedly through the crowded space for only a few minutes before forfeiting the trip for some breakfast (maybe it was the fact that what we really wanted was some breakfast…).
So we found a quiet little Indian restaurant just across the road, where we ate Indian breads and a light curry, and chatted briefly with the owner about vegetarianism and our travels. He was so lovely. And, he was so excitable that he even took a photo of us to add to his Trip Advisor profile.
Then, after we had refueled, we decided to do some real exploring, and we ditched the mall-like Central Markets for the Genocide Museum. Which was a huge change of itinerary…
This place was amazing. In the most shocking kind of way.. and it was only the first of many eye opening experiences we underwent in Phnom Penh, but it was none the less the one which sparked our interest and raised a lot of questions for us both.
This museum was set up inside of the remains of the notorious S-21 prison (a former school before the take over of the Khmer Rouge, lead by Pol Pot, in 1975). You could walk through all of the old classrooms, which were converted into cells and torture chambers under the reign of Pol Pot, and read about the absolute atrocities that took place there. And the detail was extremely vivid. Stories from survivors of the regime (who lived outside of the prison) were there on the walls – describing the hardships of life as labourers, working long days without rest or food, pulling up rice for an entire nation in which everyone was going hungry.. Among these was the story of one of the five children who was actually found alive inside the prison when it was eventually disbanded by Vietnamese soldiers in 1979 – A story of innocent incomprehension, and of horrors seen.. The shabby wooden doors and brick walls that had been put up within some of the class rooms to divide prisoners were still in place.. As were some of the wire bed frames and iron shackles that were used to torture many thousands of innocent people there… Further, graphic paintings lined the walls – outlining torture methods that were used by guards to extract confessions from prisoners (many of which were untrue, but claimed in desperation as an attempt to halt their punishments). The entry photographs required of every prisoner incarcerated in the S-21 prison were there on display too, so you could literally look into the eyes of the thousands who died in this cruel place.. And there were even photographs of the last tortured bodies that were found, rotting, within the cells, when the Vietnamese unseated Pol Pot and opened the prison in ’79 – they were malnourished, bloodied and deformed, and there on display…
And… the preservation of these horrific events doesn’t stop there… The bones, of those killed within S-21 were also on display, in glass cabinets…
And although it was made very clear throughout the museum that this level of graphic information aimed to intentionally shock people in order to serve as a preventative of such crimes ever occurring again.. I just don’t know.. if those who died in that miserable place, are brought justice through the public display of their maimed remains… I’m just not sure that ALL of the ‘shock value’ is necessary..
But besides the horrifying photographs and paintings. Besides the sad stories of loss and isolation. Besides the descriptions of torture methods and the rusting remains of cell tools… there was so much information about the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge army that followed him. And all of it was absolutely new news to me.. It was incredible to find out that some 1.7million people died under this man’s regime.. during a period of only four years.. ending only 36 years ago.. and what’s more crazy! Is that Pol Pot had the support of almost the entire globe… propaganda, manipulation, tactics and alliances had the whole world believing that Pol Pot was the man who wanted to save Cambodia.. And so for four years the people of this country suffered.. and the rest of the world stood by.
To say the prison museum was ‘eye opening’, is an understatement.
And with minds weighed down with the wonders of human evil… we eventually left that hideous place, after several hours of education and contemplation.
We decided to ‘lighten the mood’ of our trip on day two, opting out of further Khmer Rouge education, and instead choosing to go and explore the ‘Russian Markets’ (to make up for our disappointment with the Central Markets) and the National Museum.
First, was the Russian Markets. And they were SO much better than the Central ones. This place was a big shed-like construction that housed in excess of one hundred stalls, selling cooked food and fresh produce, clothing and fabrics, tea sets, board games, toys and tools, and plastic containers in every shape, size and colour… In fact, there were so many things there, that in many places they were just dumped in piles for shoppers to dig through!
And, it was hot. The body heat of every shopper and every stall holder mixed in with that of all of the grills and boiling pots that were crammed in under the sheds rooftop, and a steamy heat lingered in every tight alleyway and corridor..
But it was an amazing place to see. There was just so much colour and so much atmosphere. Stall holders would jump out from all kinds of unexpected corners and crannies, calling at us to try there wares. While others gave in to the heat of the place altogether, and could be seen napping, buried within their stalls, surrounded by colourful chaos.
And after a few hours at the market we left for the National Museum. Which unfortunately was more of a gallery than a museum (much like the museum we visited in Bangkok), with many old, godly statues and monuments spread throughout, but with very little accompanying information.. The building itself however was very nice, and featured a beautiful central garden with fish ponds and pink lilies, which we lingered in for a while.
And before we left we bought tickets to an evening show of traditional Cambodian dance and music, which was held at the museum and preformed by local arts students.
And the show was great! It was a series of short dances, that told tales about local life – playing games, fishing, working in the fields, and falling in love. Some dances were very slow, and preformed by females, involving extremely delicate manipulation of the fingers and toes. While others were loud and boisterous, preformed with both males and females, and involving more exaggerated jumping and shouting. And the costumes, were amazing – tall golden hats, bright green peacock costumes, checkered Kramas (a multipurpose traditional Cambodian scarf), silver bangles and rings, and monkey masks. It was well worth our time.
On day three it was time to return to learning about the history of Cambodia. It was time to visit ‘The Killing Fields’.. And it was a long, bumpy ride out there in our Tuk Tuk.. but when we arrived it was a deserving, heartbreaking place to walk through.
An audio tour guided us through the area, telling us the stories of survivors, and of victims family members, and about the inner workings of the camp, and how it functioned.
We saw the spots where ‘delivery’ trucks would arrive, and prisoners would be unloaded.
We heard about the sheds that those who were condemned here were forced to stay in while they unknowingly awaited death…
And we were told about how the staff there never used guns to kill, because bullets were too expensive… they would beat prisoners to death with tree branches and common tools instead…
But I think the three most disturbing and unbelievable points.. were the ‘magic tree’, the field itself, and the ‘killing tree’..
The ‘magic tree’ ‘made music’ via speakers hanging from its branches.. The intention being to play propaganda based music loud enough.. that it would cover the dying screams of the people, as they were murdered in the fields.. It meant that the last sound these people heard.. was the disturbingly cheerful music of Pol Pots regime.. And it was all so that waiting prisoners would be kept unaware of what was going on, and wouldn’t try to riot or escape.. In fact, prisoners were often told that they were bring relocated, or even set free when they boarded the trucks to be brought to the fields.. They had no idea what was really going on.. untill they were dragged out of the dark holding shed, and forced to their knees in front of a mass grave….
The field itself, was a large green area, with trough after trough dug out of it.. But of course, it was not a field of beautiful, rolling hillside.. these troughs, where excavated mass graves where the bodies of thousands were recovered after the closure of this revolting place in 1979. And in many of them, bone fragments, clothing scraps and teeth are still being recovered, as rain and wind continuously shift the soils that so many people were buried in..
But the ‘killing tree’… was the worst.. This was the tree against which babies were thrown…in front of their mothers.. right before their mothers own deaths… The belief behind such an atrocious idea being, that to kill children at a young age, prevented them from taking revenge against the Khmer Rouge later in life..
Everything about this place was horrendous.
But the museum today is so much full of information.
It’s a place that is both heart wrenching, and completely fascinating to visit.
And springing up from the centre of the killing fields, was a very modern tribute pagoda. Dedicated to all of the lives lost during Pol Pot’s regime. And filled with all of the bones recovered from the fields..
On our fourth day we decided to get up early and walk through the Cambodian kings Palace before getting on our afternoon bus to Siem Reap. Which turned out to be a really easily achieved task. The palace in Phnom Penh was much smaller and less extravagant than the one on Thailand, and we couldn’t actually go into a lot of the buildings.. So within an hour we had seen the whole place.
One very slight hiccup however, came as I tried to enter the palace.. one thing that I keep forgetting and taking for granted in many of these types of sites, is that often, guests are required to ‘dress modestly’ in order to enter (palaces and temples).. This is not to say that I have been walking around in miniskirts, crop tops and stiletto heals.. but it is hot in Cambodia at this time of year.. And I have been walking around in singlet tops and dresses.. And to ‘dress modestly’ in this part of the world, shoulders and knees must be covered. And although at many locations throughout Thailand there will be scarves and long pants available for hire to get around the Western-Eastern clashes that this causes.. At the Royal Palace in Cambodia there was not..
So instead I had to buy a generic palace souvenir shirt and some very baggy, very poorly sewn pants to be allowed in. Which.. meant that I looked like the palaces greatest fan as I walked around the grounds..
But at least I got to see them!
And we were back at our hotel early for our bus out.