Phnom Penh was emotional. It covered the scars of the past well, with new buildings, friendly people and beautiful views. But the pain was always just below the surface.
The first evening myself and my two friends spent in Phnom Penh was lovely. We wandered down to the Mekong River, only a ten minute walk from where we were staying behind the Royal Palace, to find some food (mango shrimp stir-fry with butterfly-shaped rice) before taking a stroll along the riverfront and a look around the night market. The atmosphere was calm, relaxed and happy. People were selling various food products on little stalls and out of baskets; children were playing; a group of people were dancing. To end the evening we had a cocktail at a rooftop bar overlooking the river; so many stairs to climb to get there, but the view was worth it.
Before visiting Cheoung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, I had no idea the extent of the atrocities that had taken place in Cambodia. I’d heard of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the Killing Fields of course, but I had only a vague inclination as to what had happened. We spent about three hours at the Killing Fields, listening to and following the audio tour, as told by a survivor. It was so emotional, moving, heart-wrenching, to be there, listening to his words, seeing the remains, the place all that horror happened. We followed this with an hour’s visit to Tuol Sleng, by the end of which I couldn’t face seeing any more information or photos of the horrific things that happened or the people who carried out those acts.
For those that don’t know, Tuol Sleng was a school that was turned into prison S21 during the Pol Pot regime where ‘enemies’ of the Khmer Rouge were tortured before being taken to Cheoung Ek to be executed. Around 14,000 people were held there during this time, of which only 12 people survived. 129 mass graves were discovered at Cheoung Ek, with almost 9000 bodies being found in the 86 graves that have been excavated, including soldiers, teachers, farmers, women and children, to name a few. Cheoung Ek is only one of around 300 killing fields across Cambodia. Nearly two million people, mostly Cambodians, were killed in the three years, eight months and 20 days of the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Cheoung Ek is now a memorial and site of remembrance, where they hope that as many people as possible learn about this great atrocity to try and ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Click here or here for more information about the history of the Khmer Rouge. The trial of two of the top ranking leaders of the Khmer Rouge began in October 2014 – you can read more about that here. Pol Pot himself died in his sleep aged 73 while under house arrest in 1998. He never went to trial for his crimes.
After a late lunch, we had a quick look around the Russian Market before heading back to our hotel. There we ended up in an argument with the tour organiser as he had forgotten to book our bus tickets to Siem Reap and now they were sold out for the day and time we wanted. He eventually managed to find a bus at the right time and on the right day, but only after we kept pestering him to phone other places and get us the tickets we wanted. We decided that we needed to do something relaxing after such an emotional and stressful day, so we all got pedicures before having cocktails and dinner.
The next day, and our last full day in Phnom Penh, was a busy one but much less emotional. We began with a visit to Wat Phnom, the oldest temple which is stood on the only hill in the city.
Our next stop was to Central Market, where underneath central dome are many stalls glittering with gemstones and jewellery. I bargained successfully for a lovely pair of amethyst earrings; time living in China paying off in my haggling skills!
A visit to the National Museum followed: a gorgeous building full of statues and sculptures from various periods in Cambodia’s history. Amazing really that so much survived after the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of anything historical.
I had a traditional lunch of Khmer Amok, a dish made with fish, coconut and various spices and served in a coconut. It was delicious. We ate at a little place called David’s Restaurant, the owner of which also runs a project to raise money for the school in his home village.
The afternoon was spent at the Royal Palace being given a guided tour by a local man named Rits. He was very informative and as well as telling us all about the palace and all the different buildings within the complex, including the Silver Pagoda (so named because the floor is tiled with over 5,000 solid silver tiles, each weighing one kilogram), he also told us a little of what it was like when he was young and the Khmer Rouge came to power. Everyone was evacuated from the cities; Phnom Penh was like a ghost town.
After a tea break at Costa (yes, I found Costa in Cambodia, which all my friends will find hilarious, I’m sure!) we headed back to the National Museum to watch a show of traditional dances. These were performed by a company called Children of Bassac which is part of Cambodian Living Arts, an NGO that is trying to ensure that the traditional arts in Cambodia are not forgotten or lost after the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out anything to do with the arts, history or education. They performed eight different dances and gave a little information about each one. Each dance was very different and very impressive. I would definitely recommend going to see them if you get a chance.
Our final meal in Phnom Penh was at The Latin Quarter where we had sangria and tapas, all delicious. We didn’t have a late night though as we had to get up at 6am to get ready for our pick up at 8am and our long (7and a half hours) mini-bus ride along the bumpiest road ever (there were several times that I felt air between me and the seat as we went over a particularly large bump). Next stop: Siem Reap…