Monday, October 29, 2012

Phnom Penh: The Cambodian Capital

The wireless connection has generally been unkind to me over the past few days, but at last I've found a signal with a little backbone. To be fair, it hasn't particularly helped that the Thai islands, although inspirational, don't bode well for those looking to accomplish great feats. And let's be frank, a blog isn't a "great feat," but it does involve taking a few moments of time not directly touching the sand (which is a feat in Thailand as far as I'm concerned). On my last post, I wrapped up my trials and tribulations in Vietnam, so now it's on to Cambodia. In Cambodia, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but it really surprised me in the best of ways. The people there are filled to the brim with kindness, and they're eager to share some of it with you. It's impossible to mention modern day Cambodia without considering its past (both brutal and brilliant), but its modern day formation also lets you consider its future, and it could be bright under the right leadership. Our journey through Cambodia began, rightfully enough, in Cambodia's capital.

Phnom Penh

People had told me that Phnom Penh "didn't really have much to see," which, in my opinion, is a condescending way of saying that it wasn't flashy or interesting enough. There is plenty to see in and around Phnom Penh, but a good portion of it will be difficult to stomach. This is largely due to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rough in the mid to late 70's, who were notoriously led by Pol Pot. I actually just finished reading Loung Ung's novel of her memories of those events "First They Killed My Father." It is breathtakingly sad, but it's worth reading memoirs of a story that has so often gone untold. I learned a tremendous amount about the genocide while I was there, and I've continued to learn more since. It's remarkable how little I knew about it all. 

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are located about 20 kilometres outside of Phnom Penh, but they feel worlds away from a functioning modern society. They are a relic of a horrid time under a sadistic regime, and they evoke tremendous sadness and contemplation. However, this kind of contemplation is so important, especially coming from a peaceful country like Canada. The world is a vast place where miraculous things have happened, but it's also a place where merciless tragedies have occurred, and sadly will occur again. 


In mass graves, like those above, around twenty thousand people were executed. If that number is shocking, then consider that around two million people died between the years of 1975 and 1979. Pol Pot valued the "base people," or essentially the farmers or people of the rural areas. That didn't necessarily spare them, but the cities (like Phnom Penh) were almost entirely cleared out. Anyone who could be considered a threat to the regime, essentially anyone intelligent, were eradicated. In the novel I mentioned earlier, Ung notes that even people who wore glasses could be killed because of their "perceived intelligence." For those who haven't read that book, there is a comprehensive audio-guide, which you can receive for free with your price of entry. It is one of the better audio-guides I've ever heard, and it is a must to follow the map and listen to each respective track number on the guide. It's difficult to imagine that some of the events actually happened, but they did. The audio-guide helps you realize why and how. I also would highly recommend Luong Ung's powerful novel. 


While I was looking at these sites, there were a few pieces of information that I couldn't get out of my head. The first piece of information was about how the executions were done. They often made the victims kneel forward, blind-folded, then hit them in the head with a blunt object to save bullets. I was blown away that to the Khmer Rouge a person wasn't even worth a bullet. The second thought was a quote from Pol Pot that I heard on the audio-guide. It is roughly as follows, "it is better to kill an innocent by mistake then spare an enemy by mistake." It blew me away then, and it still blows me away now. Towards the entrance, in the middle of the complex, stands a large stupa which is filled with the skulls of over five thousand victims. It is haunting, but I believe it captures what it is supposed capture, and it conveys even more than that.


The Killing Fields aren't something that you necessarily look forward to seeing, but they are something important to see, and something I'm happy I witnessed, and am beginning to understand a little better, if such a thing can ever be understood.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is yet another site where you can begin to visualize what Pol Pot's regime meant for the Cambodian people. It was originally a high school that was converted into a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rough. It was known as Security Prison 21, or more famously, simply S-21. As such, it isn't necessarily a "museum" in the traditional sense of the word, but more a former Khmer Rough site that is being used to educate, and also to remember those who were housed here, and spent their last days here.


As with most things in Cambodia, there aren't a ton of restrictions involved. You have free reign to investigate the cells in which people were kept, and generally around the grounds themselves. Unfortunately, some people took that freedom as an invitation to vandalize, which is pretty inconceivable to me. Graphic images of torture methods etc... are strewn about, but I found the room containing black and white mugshots to be the most troubling. These were the pictures taken by the Khmer Rouge jailers of the prisoners when they first arrived, and they show a wide range of emotion in their eyes. I believe of those many mugshots I witnessed only about seven survived, as many ended up at the Killing Fields. As with the Killing Fields, it isn't an enjoyable stroll by any means, but it's necessary to see, and I was really captured by it all.


S-21 was another learning experience for me, and I believe both Bri and I felt it was a place we had to visit while in Phnom Penh.

It's important to remember that all the sights in Phnom Penh aren't just depressing monuments to the Khmer Rouge regime, and no place more proudly agrees with that statement then The Royal Palace. It's a fairly large complex of buildings that serves as the royal residence for the king of Cambodia, and has since roughly the mid 19th century. It's a wonderful place to meander around and enjoy the gleaming gold of the buildings. The sun seemed to produce a lovely sparkle on the buildings, ensuring that you could only hold this complex in the highest esteem. The complex exuded an aura of purity that I can't entirely explain, but perhaps the following pictures can.

The Moonlight Pavilion
Phochani Pavilion
Silver Pagoda

Honourable Mentions

Although it's not one of my typical "honourable mentions" seeing as it's not a sight, I'd say that it's worth mentioning that Cambodia operates almost entirely on American currency. They do have their own currency, but you'll generally only receive it as change for a transaction in American money. Even the ATMs and banks dispense American currency, which struck me as quite peculiar. This ended up persuading me 
to spend a little more as I wasn't as hard a bargainer when the price was three dollars (as opposed to 60,000 dong as it would be in Vietnam). You can bargain when the price is 60,000 dong, but you just feel cheap bargaining a taxi driver down from three to two dollars.

The nightlife down by the riverside was surprisingly lively and fun. There are a plethora of restaurants down there that often have a great happy hour, and reasonably priced grub. At this moment, I must give a big shout-out to two friends we met in Phnom Penh that we took full advantage of the nightlife with. Tory (from Canada) and Lil (from Australia) are great people that we had a wild night with in Phnom Penh. I believe we wound up eating grilled cheese sandwiches at a mysterious restaurant at an undisclosed hour. It was glorious, just like the happy hour prices. We ended up continuing our friendship in both Siem Reap and Bangkok. They've gone back to Western Canada now, but I sincerely hope we cross paths again, and I have a good feeling that we will.


Wat Phnom doesn't have anything on The Royal Palace, but it worth the long walk there. Personally, I thought it was most impressive from a distance, as a cobra ornament at the entrance swoops up to a long staircase that leads to the spiral tipped Wat Phnom.


Phnom Penh may be overshadowed in some right by Siem Reap, and by proxy the Angkor Archaeological Park, but I found this city to very inviting and enticing. Yes, it has had a difficult and trying past, but it has also has a lot going for it now. On the riverside there's a sign that says "Phnom Penh - The Charming City." They could have used a lot of other adjectives to describe this city, but perhaps "charming" does suit it best. I loved Cambodia, and the love affair rightfully began in and around its fascinating capital. 

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