Escape the City

Trading the hustle and bustle of the city for a backpack

Phenomenal Phnom Penh

Our first stop after Vietnam was to take a short flight from Saigon to Phnom Penh.  It was a bit of a weird flight as it was in a huge Qatar Airways plane which was half empty.  We could only presume that it was some weird arrangement to service Cambodia!

To be honest, we weren’t really sure why Phnom Penh was on our itinerary to start with as we’d only really added it as its a bit of classic two-stop strategy in Cambodia of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.  We’d heard mixed things about it – particularly in relation to some of the Khymer Rouge sites like the Killing Fields.  Anyway, we’d booked a flight so we were going and so decided we’d take a couple of days to see what there was to see.

I had envisaged us chilling out and walking around the city and this is certainly how we started.  It was nice that Phnom Penh was a little bit more chilled out than Vietnam and so when we started wandering around on the first evening it was really pleasant.  You could actually almost trust the ‘green man’ lights on the crossings!  The next day though, the heat hit and unfortunately they didn’t build the Irish for 30 degree heat and so Sue started melting.  This led to a change in tack and we used the Grab App (Uber for South East Asia) to get Tuk Tuks around the city.  This turned out to be a great and very cheap way to get around.

Khmer Rouge

One main thing that people do when visiting Phnom Penh is visit some of the Khymer Rouge prison and execution sites.  The Khymer Rouge ruled over Cambodia in a short period after the Vietnam war but led an extremely brutal regime.  Literally a third of the population died across four years through execution and starvation.  The story just doesn’t sound real as you hear it:

  • The day after ‘liberating’ Phnom Penh, the Khymer Rouge forced everyone out of the city on forced marches into the rural areas
  • For a long time, most of the people of Cambodia didn’t know who the individuals who were ruling were as this was kept secret
  • People were imprisoned and executed for as trivial things as wearing glasses
  • Schools and universities were closed and many converted into brutal prisons.
  • People were executed by being clubbed over the head to save on bullets and avoid noise.
  • If one person was ‘guilty’, then the whole family including children would be executed.

Unfortunately, it was all too real and what strikes you is that it was all too recent.

We’d heard a lot about the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek from some people on our tours in South America and, to be honest, it had put us off.  Whilst it’s incredibly important to learn about aspects of history like this, the idea of walking around fields where they are still finding new bones and bodies didn’t feel like either that respectful or necessary.  We decided that we would head to the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng, the site of the former, infamous S-21 prison but give the Killing Fields a miss.

The museum is incredibly moving as you learn the story of how what was once a school was converted into a prison.  There are tour guides available, however, we’d highly recommend the excellent audio tour.  It’s estimated that about 17,000 people were imprisoned and executed in S-21 whilst it was in operation and there are only seven known survivors.  It’s terrifying to hear the stories and to see the cells where people were held and tortured and particularly to think of the fate of the last 14 victims of the prison found shackled to beds where they had been tortured and executed as the Vietnamese forces closed on the city.  I actually found myself completely choked up and lost for words when I came to the end of the tour and spoke with one of the survivors, who along with another survivor often come to the prison to promote their accounts of the prison.  What do you say to a man who has been through that and who has lost his family there.  How brave and courageous was he, not only to survive, but to testify in the trial of the prison commander in later years.  It’s a bleak and important reminder of the darkness that can descend when an ideology that refuses to accept any contrary views at all is in power.  All the more important with the polarised politics that seem to de riguer in Europe and the US at the moment.

Royal Palace

The Royal Palace, the following day, was a very different experience and a beautiful reminder of just how peaceful the Cambodian nature really is.  The politics of Cambodia during and after the Vietnam War are incredibly complicated so it’s fascinating that the monarchy was restored and the same family remained in power.  It’s also interesting that whilst a lot of buildings in the city were destroyed during the Khymer Rouge period and a lot of religious buildings were targeted, the Royal Palace survived.  There are no audio tours available at the Royal Palace so we decided to hire a guide – he was fantastic and, frankly, we would never have got some much out the visit without him.

The Palace itself is a beautiful compound of buildings including the throne room.  What is really incredible is that it was originally built as a Hindu temple before the country converted to Buddhism.  There was even a bit of switching between the two religions as successive kings changed their mind.  Unlike a lot of places where this has happened, a lot of the original hindu artwork and architecture remains so there is a strange but incredibly beautiful hybrid of the two.  For example, whilst the throne room contains a huge amount of Buddhist artwork, there are loads of Hindu deities included in the building including the impressive four faces of Brahma on the spire.  Despite visiting Asia a number of times, I had never appreciated the reason for the large spires and spikes on crowns and helmets but these as our guide brilliantly described are the ‘wifi antenna’ to God!  The tour was brilliant and one touch I particularly liked was that rather than haranguing you into a gift shop and out the door at the end of the tour, the guide left us for a while to explore again at our own pace.  We’d definitely recommend visiting in the morning before it gets too hot but an additional bonus of visiting at this time is the opportunity to see the Cannonball Tree (Couroupita guianensis) flowers.  This plant flowers every day in the morning but the flowers drop off in the afternoon, this happens every day and the plant is often found in temples around this region.

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