Poignant Heartbreaking History in Phnom Penh

Trip Start Jan 20, 2012
Trip End Feb 05, 2012

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Ohana Hotel

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

We all start today with mixed feelings. We are seeing the sights of Phnom Penh – both good and bad. A city steeped in tradition and history offering both cultural and historical sights. I can only try and describe some of the sights but cannot express the emotions that go with some of them…..

Royal Palace. Phnom Penh's Royal Palace sits facing the river on Sothearos Boulevard. The palace itself is only about 100 years old, although the site has been used by Khmer royalty going back to the early fifteenth century. The most notable feature on the outside is the large open pavilion built onto the outer wall. Although it appears to be a reviewing stand to allow the royal family to view events or speak to the people, according to all descriptions, the pavilion is actually used for moonlit dance performances. A short way along the outer wall from the dancing pavilion is the large Victory Gate, traditionally used only by the royal family. While the exterior of the Throne Hall is an exquisite example of pure Southeast Asian Buddhist architecture, the interior mixes Asian and European decoration. The window shutters are painted red with gold stenciling, in typical Asian style, while the ceiling frescoes wouldn't be out of place in a European palace. At the very back of the Throne Hall is a large gilded altar, in front of which is a high gilded coronation throne, topped by a nine tiered parasol. In front of the throne are a set of more western styled chairs, which apparently are used by the King and Queen for most state occasions, rather than the high throne.

Within the walls of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is a temple commonly called the Silver Pagoda. It's properly known as Wat Preah Keo Morokot, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The common name comes from the thousands of solid silver tiles, each weighing more than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and etched with a sort of fleur de lis pattern that cover the floor of the Pagoda. Most of the floor is covered with carpets, and the little bit of tiles that is exposed isn't polished, it's rather dull, so don't expect a gleaming silver interior.

National Museum,The Cambodian National Museum is housed in an elegant Khmer styled red sandstone building. During the years of Khmer Rouge control the Museum, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was evacuated and abandoned. Tragically many of the Museum's employees had lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime. The resulting loss of expertise, combined with the deterioration of the Museum building and its collection, have made rehabilitation of the Museum a daunting task.Today it houses the world's foremost collection of ancient Khmer archeological, religious, and artistic artifacts from the 4th to the 13th centuries. Its collections can be divided into four main categories: stone, metal, wood and ceramics. Despite damage, the works still possess important values relating to art, history and religion. The museum also displays items from more modern times, such as royal accoutrements, a small barge, howdahs and urns.

Shopping at NGO shops - time to fit in some "responsible" shopping. Found some wonderful handcrafts and silk goods which simply had my name on them!!! Happily purchased with the bonus of knowing I had helped 2 well deserved organisations. Ta Prohm Silk is a self help team of women with disabilities that run a gorgeous shop in street 178 and as the name implies sells silk products. Daughters of Cambodia is an organization that assists girls to get out of the sex-trafficking trade by getting them trained and employed in fair trade businesses including their own shop, cafe and female spa!

Wat Phnom. In a large traffic circle at the north end of Norodom Boulevard is the temple hill that gave Phnom Penh its name. Legend has it that around 1372 a wealthy widow known as 'grandmother' Penh discovered five Buddha statues in the hollow trunk of a tree washed up on the banks of the river. She created a small sanctuary for the images on a mound near her home. The hill became known as Phnom Penh, literally, Penh's hill. The mound was enlarged and the first temple established here when Phnom Penh became a capital for the first time in 1432. The temple has been rebuilt many times over the years, most recently in 1926. Nothing remains of the original sanctuary, although there is a small shrine to granny Penh near the chapel.

It was then time for lunch and today we headed to Touk restaurant on the riverfront which provided brilliant views of the Tonle Sap River. Sitting in the calming breeze, dining on fantastic Cambodian food, drinking a nice cold beer......ahhhh SO relaxing...but we were to come back to earth with a jolt on our next visit.

Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The Killing Fields are an extremely sobering insight into the brutal and harrowing reign of terror inflicted by the Khmer Rouge during their power over the country. Actually, this is the name given to just one 'killing field' which is accessible to tourists, made recognisable worldwide by the film of the same name, however it's actual name is Choeung Ek. The reality is that there were more than 340 killing fields found all over the country, places where people were taken to be executed or the bodies of perished victims deposited. Before the regime, Choeung Ek was an orchard and Chinese cemetery before the Khmer Rouge took over the site and executed over 17,000 Khmers over a 4 year period - many of them transported here after detention and torture in Toul Sleng. In the center of the area is a 17 story glass stupa which houses 8000 skulls exhumed from mass graves. Many of the skulls bear witness to the method of execution: shattered by hammers, punctured by bamboo sticks, gashed by hatchets, and pierced by bullets. Perhaps even more tragically, many of the estimated one to two million Cambodians who died during the reign of Pol Pot were not killed outright, but were left to suffer a slow, agonizing death caused by starvation and illness. By some estimates, the Khmer Rouge killed one in every four people in Cambodia – either directly through force or as a result of starvation and disease. Mass graves and pits from which bodies were exhumed still exist today, while bones of victims still litter the site in certain places This final resting place for the more than 17,000 civilians and prisoners of Tuol Sleng is located in a peaceful, rural setting, where it is hard to comprehend the atrocities and brutalities of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that occurred here. Everyone was so quiet as we contemplated the history told so eloquently by our guide (whose own mother had been tortured during the regime but not killed). We walked slowly around the area trying to imagine how it must have been but finding it impossible to do so. There was a sign saying do not walk in the graves which I thought would have been self evident but apparently not..... for at least 5 minutes later a young Chinese girl walked through and I could not help myself as I told her to show more respect in Chinese (yea, haven't forgotten what I've learnt) - much to the surprise of my fellow travelers but to the horror of her travellling companions. Needless to say she hurried away with her head down in what I hope was shame. We then headed back into town to see the genocide museum.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The museum offers a disturbing glimpse of the mass extermination campaign waged against the Cambodian people during the maniacal reign of Pol Pot.  The prison and interrogation facility officially known as "S-21" was established by the Khmer Rouge regime at the Toul Svay Prey High School in Phnom Penh in May 1976. The classrooms were converted to prison cells with barred windows, while the open-air halls were covered with barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides (?). In a suffocating space roughly the size of a toilet stall, the prisoners were kept shackled 24 hours a day to iron posts embedded in the walls and floors of their cells. People were held in large groups on the upper floors, chained to long iron bars.

People suspected of being against the Khmer Rouge government ("anti-angkar") as well as people believed to be educated or high-born were sent to S-21 for interrogation and ultimate execution. In all, estimates put the number of men, women and children killed at around 17,000. The KR were equally ruthless in documenting their atrocities. Every prisoner was photographed on arriving at the prison. It's these pictures, hundreds of them, which form the bulk of the poignant exhibits. Room after room is filled with display boards covered with black and white photographs of numbered prisoners. The faces of every single prisoner – men, women, and children – are your silent audience. With expressions that are sometimes calm and defiant, sometimes hopeless and defeated, they remind you that almost no one who walked through these rooms survived the war. Paintings of torture at the prison by Vann Nath, a survivor of Tuol Sleng, are also on display.

Many rooms are left as the Vietnamese army found them when they "liberated" the prison in 1979. Four rusted shackles casually rest on top of the bare frame of a sinister-looking metal cot. A photo of a prisoner, dead, killed just before the advance of the Vietnamese and left tethered to the metal frame of the cot, hangs on the wall above the cot. These last victims of Tuol Sleng, 14 in all, now rest in the grassy courtyard just a few feet away from where they were found.

Once you get past the pictures, there are even more chilling things on display. One of the final rooms you pass through is a very real torture chamber, where some of the devices used to coerce confessions out of prisoners are shown and explained in far too much detail. Along side these is a case of skulls found in the mass graves operated by Section 21.

This was all too much for a few in our group who simply could not bear to be there. Our guide once again told the story from the bottom of her heart and even though she repeats it almost on a daily basis you can hear the pain in her voice. When I asked her why she does this job her response was " no-one must forget what happened here, we must make sure it never happens again". Hence I repeat their story and show my photos in honour of her sentiments. We need to all be aware of what happened and work towards ensuring history does not repeat itself.

After such a sobering afternoon we all headed back to the hotel to wash away the dust but not the feelings we were left with. As this was our last night as a group we decided that we should go out and celebrate what Phnom Penh is today.

Our first stop was The Foreign Correspondents' Club for pre dinner drinks. Long the epicentre of Phnom Penh's ex-pat cabal, the FCC remains an atmospheric joint in which to swirl and sip your G&T. Sink into comfortable seats under the high ceilings, while languid fans, photos of yesteryear and fine rooftop views add to the ambience – this old world institution feels lost in time amid the new go-ahead identity Cambodia is busily forging all around it. And therein lies the FCC's charm.

It was then off to dine at Friends restaurant. Part of the highly respected Friends NGO this restaurant teaches former street kids  cooking and service skills. The restaurant serves Asian and Western tapas, salads and a range of weekly specials, they are renowned for their delicious fruit shakes and daiquiris...guess which one I had????? Also I got VERY brave and actually ate some deep fried tarantula!!!!!!!!!!!! well it was only a leg but still......hairy and chewy is all I can say!!!!!
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Wayne on

How good is your reporting and pictures.........its gonna save me a lot of travelling!!!!!........how were the legs......what do you reckon a new Fast Food opportunity.............thanks for the news

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