Phnom Penh - a fascinating blend of the past and the present
Phnom Penh is striking in its diversity with a fascinating blend of the past and the present. Stunning golden pagodas, exquisitely detailed stone architecture, dazzling white temples, serene statues of Lord Buddha placed between tranquil green pools share space with new governmental offices and tree lined boulevards, chromatic slums, crumbling colonial buildings and bustling markets that never fail to enthral and mystify.
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia
One of the capitals of French Indo China, the city has a mixture of the French style of architecture and the majestic grandeur of the many magnificent palaces and temples but you cannot escape being haunted by its history of savage violence. The capital city of Cambodia is just beginning to emerge from the ravages of its traumatic past. American bombing in the 1960s, civil war and more recently genocide sums up the previous fifty years.
The city has been torn by invaders and governments many a times and it is now that the commercial boom is visible. Parks, broader roads and colonial style villas are now being restored. Government buildings are being constructed alongside hospitals and schools, but it’s a gradual process and the poverty of the people will take time to overcome. The current bustle of utopian trade and commerce almost makes you forget that just thirty years ago the same city stood abandoned and empty from 1975-1979 during the forced evacuation by the barbaric Khmer Rouge.
On the outskirts of Phnom Penh is a place called the Killing Fields, where lie several mass graves of the murdered victims. The fields are completely bare and almost serene at first glance disguising their bloody past. A large temple built on the premises is home to thousands of human skulls. These skulls are categorized according to the victim’s age and sex. The majority of the skulls are cracked in. These are the skulls of the disadvantageous victims who were brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge by beating in their skulls with objects rather than wasting bullets on their bodies.
The Khmer Rouge overthrew the government of Cambodia and inflicted vicious murders and heinous atrocities on the people. All the citizens were forced to leave the city with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Anybody who was even distantly associated with the previous government or posed to be a threat to the administration was murdered immediately. Those with a formal education such as teachers, accountants and even students were considered a threat to the Pol Pot Regime and were executed. 8985 Cambodians were hacked to death with axes, wooden poles, stones and bullets by the Khmer rouge between 1975 and 1979. It is estimated that around 2,000,000 people died at the hands of the Khmer rouge in their 3 years and 8 months of rule. Those who were lucky enough to evacuate the city of Phnom Pen and find a home in neighboring villages were tortured by hours of hard manual labor in the blistering hot sun and were made to starve. Children were no exception, training to shoot and kill people began at five for most children.
The S-21 prison was a secondary school before the Khmer Rouge regime took it over as a prison. Of the supposed 17,000 prisoners who were kept here, only 7 are said to have survived. The others either died while being held there, or were taken to the killing fields where they were butchered and buried in mass graves. Though, not a particularly large complex, it is thought to have housed some 1,720 workers, undertaking roles from administration and torture to interrogation. The duration of imprisonment ranged from two to four months and in many cases entire families which included new born babies were brought in for execution.
The museum is not lacquered over like many of its kind, everything is displayed exactly like it was found. There is not much information available on display or in writing and visitors are just left to walk around the cells, viewing the beds and weapons of torture that have been left in place, largely as they were found and reflect on the beastly episode that almost wiped out two generations of the country. Framed pictures are hung on many of the cells, black and white photos of victims that had been tortured tell you their own story and there is no need for any written material. Even though the detainment and torture barracks are now a museum, the buildings are fairly unchanged and speak for themselves.
It is a depressing experience to visit but we need to be aware of the cruelty inflicted on people while the rest of us sit in front of our televisions and let it happen. In spite of the savageness of these crimes, it is amazing to see that the people are still so happy and friendly.
The scars are still healing though; the most unfortunate thing about this episode is that the UN has been unable to punish those responsible for these atrocities committed. The Cambodian Government continues to stall in finding many of those involved while others walk away Scot free from the trial room. It is important to punish those accountable to ensure history does not repeat itself.
The poverty of the Cambodian people haunts you long after you have left but their cheerfulness will always entice you to come back. The streets are swarmed with children. However, very few beg for a living, most try selling little knick knacks like bracelets, postcards, chewing gum or offer to polish your shoes. Despite their poverty, they have retained a sense of pride and rarely would they try cheating you. You can spend some time doing voluntary work at a local orphanage or donate a bag of rice and stationary for the children. The orphanages are usually short of funds and any gesture however small will be greatly appreciated. The children who have been either sold or abandoned are taken in by the orphanage and clothed, educated and fed till they become adults. A lot of families can’t afford to keep their kids so they give them to orphanages as an alternative to selling them into the sex trade which is still very common in Cambodia. It is a fulfilling experience to volunteer spending an afternoon at an orphanage as opposed to shopping or sightseeing.
The stunning Royal Palace is in complete contradiction to the orphanages and slums. Built in 1866, the palace is beautifully crafted with various buildings of interest in its vicinity. Attractions include the Khmer-style Throne Hall, still in use for special ceremonial occasions. The Royal Treasury and the Villa of Napoleon III, built in Egypt in 1866, for the opening of the Suez Canal, which was later presented to the Cambodian king as a gift lie to the south of the Throne Hall. The magnificent Silver Pagoda was originally built in wood in 1866, later it was added onto in 1962 by King Sihanouk who had the floor tiled with 5,329 solid silver tiles. The most endeared image is the Emerald Buddha, dating back to the 17th century it is made of Baccarat crystal. Another statue of Buddha cast in 1906 and made of 90 kg of gold which was later encrusted with 9,584 diamonds stands behind the Emerald Buddha. Large Cabinets display gifts presented to royalty and dignitaries.
The national museum, which lies close by has many artifacts from various places in Cambodia.
The garden is a must see, a statue of Buddha in the center of a pool amongst flowers and goldfish is the centerpiece of the garden. Colorfully painted characters from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana and mythological figures of Hanuman-the monkey god, Ravana and other characters surround the statue. It is the perfect recluse to get some peace and quiet in the exceedingly noisy Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh is home to some excellent restaurants that range in cuisine from regional Cambodian to French, Thai, Italian and English. This culinary revolution is evident in the many restaurants and pubs that have sprung up in the city. Especially worth a mention is the subtly flavored vegetable and soup at Malis, an open-air Cambodian restaurant. If you are adventurous then try some fusion cooking, Sweet Café Restaurant cooks some fantastic Chinese-Cambodian dishes- spicy, innovative and fragrant, you couldn’t have asked for better. Boat Noodle Restaurant is famous for its eclectic Thai-Cambodian menu, while English food is best experienced at The Rising Sun besides these; there are numerous French and other European restaurants that dot the city.
Try some local cuisine at Khmer Borane restaurant, which specializes in local Khmer food. The Beef Lok Lak which is diced beef with lemon pepper dipping sauce served fresh with rice paper rolls is worth a visit and so is “Friends” the café is run by an organization that trains young adults in the field of hospitality. “Friends” also offers hospitality training, accommodation for the students, health care, education. The food at the cafe is absolutely incredible. All for a good cause at a great value…
Street food can be bought from the many vendors and street stalls, the Cambodians are very adventurous with their food, they will eat just about anything, including beetles, tarantulas, sparrows, crickets, scorpions, cicadas and duck embryos, a large variety of crispy fried insects are available besides the usual rice, meat and vegetables.
Cambodia has hotels to suit every budget. The riverside is the best place to stay if you are backpacking. The guesthouses are clean and located much closer to the city. You can walk along the riverside at night. A bit further along from the crowds and the action of the bars and restaurants is the quieter area where hundreds of local families spend hot evenings at and picnic on foods purchased from an array of street vendors. A kind of backpacker shanty town has build up around the lake area with narrow alleys and numerous cheap shacks, bars and restaurants.
Most of the hotels overlook the lake which is the best place to enjoy a cold beer watching the orange sun disappear into the shimmering lake.
The Russian market is definitely worth stopping by at. Although it isn’t very large it is full of stalls and tiny shops that are crammed into the narrow lanes. It offers cheap and trendy clothes, bags and accessories, costume jewelry, handicrafts and much more The Russian Market is much better than the other markets in Phnom Penh which sell the same things to tourists after hiking up the prices.
Phnom Penh is truly a rich experience from the moment you set foot into it till you leave, and even then this enchanting land beckons you to return. Full of stimulation and color, visiting Phnom Penh is a truly incredible experience. Whether it’s walking along the riverside with it bustling crowds, stalls and families enjoying a night time picnic or spending an evening sipping wine at one of the cosmopolitan restaurants, Phnom Penh enriches, teaches and strengthens you. It is not easy to forget the horrors that gripped this city only three decades ago but the Cambodian people are cheerful and warm hearted.
Despite all the tragedy and heartbreak that everybody in this tiny country has endured, somehow – incredibly – the Khmer people manage to still have a warm and willing smile when you meet them, to offer friendship and hospitality without expecting anything in return. The people here will never fail to touch you with their simplicity, their kindness and their courage.
Getting to Phnom Penh
By Air: Phnom Penh is serviced by the Phnom Penh International Airport. The following airlines offer service to Phnom Penh: Bangkok Airways (http://www.bangkokair.com)
Thai Airways (http://www.thaiairways.com)
Vietnam Airlines (http://www.vietnamairlines.com)
By Road: Taxis and motorcycle taxis offer service from the airport to your final destination.
Bus services are available from Thailand, Vietnam, and Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. However, road conditions make this an inadvisable form of transportation.
By Ferry: Ferries are one of the most efficient was of reaching Phnom Penh.
Getting Around: There is no organized local bus system in Phnom Penh, but cycles, motorcycle taxis and taxis are common enough. Motorcycle rental is also offered.