A captivating city.

Trip Start Aug 19, 2010
Trip End Aug 31, 2011

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c'est wat

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cambodia's not so distant tragic history grabs you by the throat upon arrival into the country. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed genocide of their own people in the late 70’s killing 3 million people, with only a population at the time of 7 million it left a generation missing, the average age here is 22 years old. We needed to learn more; we read books and looked online a lot to fill in the gaps.

It was a sobering experience to walk among the fields where millions of people died, when it rains even now bones reappear under foot. Pol Pot and his men struck when Lon Nol tried to build the country back up again after war with Thailand. The Khmer Rouge had grown in strength telling the farming communities they had it right, that hard work was the only answer and that capitalism was bad. They went into the cities and told everyone to flee. They killed anyone who wore glasses, had a degree or spoke a foreign language. Pol Pot died of natural causes and was not even tried for his crimes, other generals are still free while some await trial, still. We were fascinated, bewildered and appalled at what humans are capable of.

We stood silent as we walked round seeing the tree where combatants were told to kill babies by grabbing them by their feet and bashing them against a tree. They killed men with bamboo sticks and bludgeoned them to death to save the bullets. Monks were found in mass suicides in temples, as were families of doctors, nurses and teachers because they knew what awaited them. It shook our very core to stand there and look up at one of the worlds most famous memorial sites, a huge tower with shelves and shelves of skulls and bones of the dead in it.

We wondered how anyone can ever overcome such a past; but the Cambodians have. They encourage people to learn and know their stories so that the world can remember. We walked around the S21 prison; it used to be a school but was turned into a holding place while people awaited execution, they couldn’t kill everyone in one day it was becoming too difficult with the numbers. Now it is a museum with ghostly images of some who perished, stories of the 7 who survived S21 and room after room of torture chambers and instruments for killing.

The conspiracy of it all got to us; they hid these crimes from the world. USA even praised the Khmer Rouge at one point for being an example of good work ethic, Pol Pot arranged for the executioners to also be killed because after a while, they knew too much. There were mass graves of combatants who revolted or had simply killed too many people. How did the world not know? The book we have read tells of a girl who was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge came and took over Phnom Penh. They were starved to death and told to work 16 hours a day. It has broken both our hearts.

Phnom Penh is a captivating city, embracing it’s past by encouraging reading and learning, thriving off tourism in the last decade and becoming a city with personality. The river front where we stayed is beautiful; clean and friendly with funny exercise dance classes all along the strip that you can join in for free! Loud music and laughing, families and friends all gather here to enjoy the atmosphere. Food is delicious, similar to Thai without the hot spice Khmer food has clean flavours and simple ingredients. I had a meat pepper curry and it had actual green pepper corns on stalks through it and a simple coconut sauce, really yummy! Angkor beer continued to go down a treat as we people watched from the many bars and cafes.

There are lots of markets with colours and shouting and sizzling and barbequing meats everywhere. The roads are mental; cars, tuk tuks and cyclos (men with a cycle and an arm chair in the front!) vie for the front of every road and pedestrians everywhere make crossing a road impossible! Phnom Penh is a brilliant city which will continue to expand, as will Cambodia. We were humbled by this city and indeed by this country.
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