The Pleasure and Pain of Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh feels like a capitol city that is still trying to establish its identity. It seems caught between its ancient and traditional Khmer past, the aftermath of the more recent terrible events in Cambodia, and the business of becoming a modern 21st century capitol.

The city is a mixture of opulent palaces and temples, French colonial architecture, monumental communist era public spaces and ultra modern buildings which contrast starkly with the rubbish strewn, run down streets that form the larger part of the city. We didn’t find it to be a particularly tourist friendly place; it was expensive and several times we felt we were being slightly ripped off with charges for transport, attractions and food.

A partial view of one of the grand public spaces taken from the rooftop pool area of our hotel
Taken in another area of the public space close to our hotel, showing a rather blingy, modern Buddhist Temple with four monks in attendance

The Royal Palace is the foremost of the tourist attractions in Phnom Penh with a visit costing US$30 including a guide. The Cambodians have great respect for their King who still lives in the Royal Palace, so tourists have access to only a limited number of buildings on the site. Even after paying for a guide, we didn’t find that much of interest there – there were a number of temple areas housing many solid gold statues of the Buddha, some decorated with many massive diamonds. The Silver Pagoda is also so called as it has floor made from thousands of solid silver tiles weighing a kilogram each! However most of the floor was tarnished and largely covered in carpet, and the jewelled gold Buddhas were all so dust covered and dirty that it was hard to appreciate their gorgeousness! Also such ostentatious displays of wealth felt incongruous to us in a country where most of the population still lives in significant poverty.

One of the few photographs we took inside the Royal Palace compound. Pictures of the fabulous insides of the Temples were unfortunately forbidden.

The other big attraction is the Wat Phnom Temple which, legend suggests, was founded on a small hill in the city in 1372 after a middle aged lady called Grandmother Penh or Lady Penh found 4 statues of the Buddha in a tree trunk floating in the river. The site is now a Buddhist Temple visited by many Cambodians to make offerings and prayers, but we were shocked by the dirt and plastic waste strewn all around the place of worship.

Going up the steps to Wat Phnom
All the junk and rubbish left on the floor by worshippers around the Temple

In Phnom Penh we were reunited with the Mekong River, which had become truly enormous since we last saw it in Laos. One of the most fun things we did was to enjoy a sunset boat trip at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. We booked an “Unlimited Beer” cruise and were lucky enough to meet up with Simon and Tracy, a fabulous and fun British couple on an extended holiday to Cambodia and Vietnam. We had a great time drinking beer with them, watching the sun go down and later, eating dinner. We’ve said it lots of times but one of the best things about travelling is definitely meeting up with fellow travellers!

People living on boats just a few yards from from people paying over $100 a night for a room in a hotel.
Sun setting behind a typical temple spire
The Phnom Penh skyline with almost as many new skyscrapers under construction as fully completed.
A lovely meal with our holiday friends Tracy and Simon. Tracy is holding her tarantula off the top pf her tarantula burger!

The Visit to the Toul Sleng Prison and The Killing Fields
We knew we needed to visit these sites, although after our visits to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, we have to admit we were not really looking forward to the experience.

Toul Sleng is the name of the former school in Phnom Penh where the Khmer Rouge regime held and tortured thousands of their fellow countrymen and women during the years 1975 to 1979, before sending them out to the Cheung Ek Killing Field for extermination. Visiting the prison was an intense emotional experience, particularly as our guide was a lovely lady, a little younger than us who had lived through the horror of the regime and lost her father and at least one sister and brother, before escaping with her mother, across the border to Vietnam. She told us she had worked as a guide at Toul Sleng for the last 5 years so the pain and suffering remains fresh and is present everyday for her. Talking to her was heartbreaking and we were both pretty much moved to tears – this was probably our hardest experience, even more so than visiting Cheung Ek. As we were teenagers in the 1970’s, we can remember hearing news reports from Cambodia and this visit really brought that limited knowledge to life for us.

The outside of one of the prison blocks at Toul Sleng

17,000 men, women and children were believed to have been murdered and buried at The Killing Field at Choeung Ek. This was the largest and most notorious of over 20,000 “Killing Fields”, or sites of mass graves across Cambodia.

Now Choeung Ek is a peaceful place of memorial with little to see apart from depressions in the ground to show the sites of the mass graves. Bones and clothing still regularly work their way up to the surface and the caretakers of the site collect and store them respectfully
The only proper building on the site is this beautiful modern stoupa which was built in 1988 to house the skulls and large bones of some of the victims. Every year on National Remembrance Day – 20th May, a ceremony takes place here to commemorate those who died
You can go inside the stoupa and are encouraged to take photos so those who died are not forgotten. The Cambodian people we spoke to hope that by sharing their experience, other nations might recognise and avoid any future path to genocide.

More cheery entries on the next blog!

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