Cambodia: Phnom Penh

5 6 January 2013

As the capital and largest city of Cambodia, economic growth is evident and many projects are alive in Phnom Penh. This charming city of over 2 million people is a great representation of the country’s motto: “Nation, Religion, King”.

Founded in 1434, the country’s own Khmer architectures blends quite well with the French colonial buildings that scatters all along the boulevards.  Tonle Sap, located at the heart of the country trickles down into the city and divides the more bustling side from the new apartments still under construction. Many projects are Cambodian own with some bigger ones, such as highways and fancy apartment blocks, being a part of Chinese investment – how many locals can afford it though?

SONY DSC

It is easy to find a starting point to see this charming city. Right by the waterfront, a landmark overlooks the city and is considered to be the central of Phnom Penh.

SONY DSCWat Phnom- the only one crowned by an active Buddhist wat was built in 1373. Standing at 27 m above the ground, it is the tallest religious structure in the city.  Legend has it that in 1372, a wealthy widow called Penh found a koki tree in the river and inside the tree were four statues of Buddha. She constructed a small shrine on a hill to protect the statues. This sacred place became a site for blessings and prayers.

SONY DSCRebuilt several times in the 19th century and in 1926, there is a seated Buddha in the central altar with beautiful murals on all four sides. I saw a couple of monkeys ( not a fan of them) running around the complex and I greatly appreciate the tranquility that the placed offered during that hot morning.

SONY DSC
Main stupa contains the remains of a King who moved the Khmer capital from Angkor to PP

The stroll down Sisowath Quay was refreshing. The long, yellow wall and the glistening white pavilions stood out from afar- signifying my slow approach towards the symbol of Cambodia- the Royal Palace. Built in the 1860’s, the Palace is home to the Royal Family. It contains four main compounds, inner court, garden, throne hall, throne chairs, bedrooms, the Silver Pagoda, many pavilions and other structures that are traditional in the Khmer artistic style.

SONY DSC
King Norodom Sihanouk passed away on 15 October

Attached to the Palace is the Silver Pagoda – the home of the ‘Emerald Buddha’.  This is where the King meets with the monks and royal ceremonies are performed.  It is known as the Silver Pagoda since the floor is covered with 5329 silver tiles.

SONY DSCSONY DSCSouth West of the Silver Pagoda and passing the Independence Monument (erected to celebrate Cambodia’s independence) is the Toul Seng Genocide Museum also known as S-21. Created by Pol Pot in 17 April 1975, it was a prison where people are placed under detention, imprisoned (2-4 months), interrogated, tortured and killed. Even if you do ‘confess’, you still end up dead.

SONY DSC

As one of at least 150 execution enters in the country, some 20,000 people were imprisoned at S-21. 20,000 were later killed in the nearby fields.  It started with 154 prisoners in 1975 and by 1978, figures increased to 5765. Most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and includes officials, soldiers, teachers, students, workers, academics, monks, young and old, men and women as well as foreigners. Only seven people survived.

SONY DSCIt is surrounded by fences and in some levels, there are glass panels and windows to muffle out the victim’s screams. Since it was previously both a primary + high school, the classrooms were turned into 0.8 x 2m cages to house individual prisoners.

SONY DSC

The wooden pole that was once used by students for exercise became an interrogation and torture machine.

SONY DSC
School playground turned torture place

SONY DSC

I walked from building to building and visited all the rooms and stared at the faces of those who once lived. The shackles, torture instruments and grave site forces visitors to learn about the atrocity that people are capable of committing. Tragic places have a dark energy where ghosts linger. It doesn’t take long to feel their presence nor imagine the horrors that went on inside these former school buildings.

SONY DSC

I went shooting to prepare myself for the killing field. I don’t know why I even went.

SONY DSC

Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (www.cekillingfield.com) was formerly an orchard before becoming a dumping ground for dead bodies during the Khmer Rouge regime. They killed over one million people between 1975 and 1979. 8895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek. Since it is only 15km SW of the capital, many from S21 ended up here.

SONY DSC

In order to honour and remember the victims of this site, a memorial was built in 1988. Marked by a Buddhist stupa, the glass sides is filled with more than 5000 human skulls.

SONY DSCThere was a total of 18 prisons and over 300 mass graves. Choeung Ek is just the most well-known one. At the memorial site, there is a truck stop (body transportation), working office, storage room (for chemicals), mass grave of 450 victims, bone and teeth fragments, victim’s clothing etc

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

My trip started out well then took a drastic turn – very much like Cambodia’s own history. I don’t want to go but I still went, just like how I couldn’t take my eyes away from the skulls that sits behind those glass cabinets.

SONY DSC

After a wonderful dinner with the kind Tes by the riverside, I made preparations to leave the Capital for Siem Reap. Yes and his group of mates took me to a local bar where, like my time in Bangkok, I saw young  girls sitting beside old Western men. It was a pleasant night out and Tes made sure that I’ll have someone to hang out with in Siem Reap- his cousin. I can’t wait to meet her.  

The wonderful Tang Reng will be my tour guide for the next three days as I run around Angkor Wat and devour all the temples in the vast complex. 

Random Observations and Facts

  • Textile and Tourism are the country’s top two greatest source of hard currency. Angkor Wat is on everybody’s list. 
  • Maybe it’s a climate thing but like their South East Asian neighbours, Cambodians love to smile.
  • Lots of local snack stands with small cute-looking plastic chairs.
  • Buddhist offerings and birds in cages (waiting to be bought and released for good wishes) at the various Wats.
  • Only big streets have names.
  • Great relationship with China and the people do love their Royal Family.
  • Many girls are dropping out of schools and some can’t afford an education. Gender inequality exists especially in rural areas.
  • Stigma exists in the country for people with mental health. People don’t like to talk about it and the current life condition of mental health is not conducive to psychological recovery. There are no doubt, domestic violence and substance abuse (cigarettes and alcohol are cheap). Many people turn to traditional healers to treat mental health.
  • Elections are held on two levels in Cambodia.
  • 95% of the people are Buddhist.
  • They have border disputes with Thailand.