Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Destination: Phnom Penh (Cambodia)


One of the jewels of Southeast Asia is unquestionably Cambodia. With its tremendously rich history of kingdoms and religious monuments, to the more troubling history of Pol Pot and his murderous regime in the 1970s, it reflects a complicated reality faced by many of its neighbors. Visiting the capital of Phnom Penh gave me my first glimpse into this convoluted but stunning country. 
Choeung Ek - The Killing Fields


Our first visit took us to Cheoung Ek, the site of some of the worst mass murders during Pol Pot's rule. It is about an hour south of Phnom Penh, and lies innocently enough off of the main dirt highway. Here, thousands of men, women, and children were offloaded from trucks and dragged out into the fields, where they were brutally murdered in cold blood. Anyone who was educated or was suspected of undermining the Communist party could be nabbed and killed.

It's an unbelievably tragic story, but one that needs to be told. For the Cambodian people, they expressed their fear of another Pol Pot wielding power and destroying their country again. I would highly recommend watching the movie "The Killing Fields," which gives a tremendous look at the horrific impact of the Khmer Rouge. You can find the trailer here.

Many of the mass graves were clearly visible to the naked eye, as the unnatural bulges in the ground could be found throughout the area. There were also certain areas reserved for harsher techniques, like the Magic Tree. Here, children were thrown against the trunk repeatedly until they

The audio guide led the listener throughout the area, and did an excellent job capturing the day-to-day fears that Cambodians felt during this time period. The tour ended at a central stupa, which was filled to the brim with various bones and other remnants. It stunned me - the brutal nature of the murders could not be hidden with the sight of hundreds of smashed skulls.

One of the mass graves, which cover almost the entire area. Sometimes fragments of bone or teeth were visible
The Magic Tree


Inside the stupa. More than 5,000 skulls are stacked inside

The stupa, constructed in the Buddhist tradition

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

We then visited Tuol Sleng, which also played an instrumental role in terrifying Cambodian citizens under Pol Pot. What was once a high school was transformed into the notorious S-21, a security prison for "undesirables." The prison cells were tiny, the torture devices were absolutely horrific, it was simply a nightmare of a place. It was especially haunting that they could change the place from a site of learning to a site of death.

There were many pictures of inmates and their captors. The fact that Cambodians were arresting and murdering their fellow citizens is still a terrible issue that affects the country today.

Building B. In front, one sees a torture device used by the prison to extract confessions from prisoners, who were hung from their feet and then dunked in the water basins beneath
Entire rooms were filled with photos of victims, many of whom were children 
Crudely constructed cells that were barely wide enough to stand in

Raffles Hotel Le Royal 


Our visit was not all gloom and doom. We spent one night at the marvelous Raffles Hotel, which has been visited by notables such as Jackie Kennedy (they even named a drink at their Elephant Bar for here). It was an oasis amid the hustle and bustle of modern Phnom Penh.

Reprieve from the tuk-tuk madness
The Elephant Bar. Very classy, very touristy
Best dressed bellhop that we've ever seen

Best of the rest

Walking around the city is manageable, but it is probably best to hire a tuk-tuk for getting around, at least for part of the day. Here are some of the other sights I was able to catch:

Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple built in 1373, 
Inside Wat Phnom, which means "Mountain Pagoda" in Khmer
Chanchhaya Pavilion at sunset. Sadly, the streets are not actually paved with gold

While we stayed here, the police completely blocked off streets in the city center to prevent protestors from gathering in public spaces. This is another issue facing Cambodia - the gap between the have's and have-not's is huge, and any attempt to change this is met with resistance. As both a tourist and an American, I am clearly one of the "have's", and I am able to see many amazing sights that locals will never be able to visit. This is a dilemma of traveling that really began to make me uncomfortable at times throughout my year in Southeast Asia. Even though I strived to respect the local cultures and not be a tourist, I could never shake the feeling that I was intruding on someone else's life. 

I ought to hash out those thoughts more fully, but it will take a bit more reflection. For now, I can say that my time spent in Phnom Penh was eye-opening in a wide variety of ways.

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