Morning found us steaming into Phnom Penh, a city from whose ramshackle medium of corrugated iron shacks and French colonial architecture grow gleaming new buildings and the beginnings of a modern infrastructure. Phnom Penh is a city of the young, an unhoped for measure of how close a people can come to self-destruction yet still rebuild a working society.
Phnom Penh traffic is dense but not as crazy as Saigon, with many cycles towing trailers rather than having 2-4 people piled on a motorbike. Also, where the Vietnamese rely on helmets for fashion and protection, the Khmer seem to trust more in karma. The Khmer Rouge evacuation of cities left most cars and bikes destroyed; most vehicles on the street now were imported in the last 10-15 years. Phnom penh has two rush hours a day, because most people take a long lunch/siesta during the hot midday.
The Khmer seem very curious about foreigners. They smile at strangers more than the Vietnamese.
Our first stop was the royal palace, which we reached by pedal rickshaw. The old man who pedaled for me didn’t know English, but we exchanged a few words of French.
The palace is a sprawl of high, peak-roofed buildings — some royal, some Theravada — crisscrossed by gardens. For the abode of royalty, it didn’t feel terribly extravagant, except inasmuch as one might question whether maintaining a royal family at all makes sense for a country this poor. With the need to have some stability post-Khmer Rouge, though, I imagine it’s widely seen as a trade-of in favor of national unity. The royals do appear to be quite popular, although not to the same degree as the Thai royalty.
In the gardens, we saw a “Buddha’s tree,” unusual for flowing from its trunk rather than the ends of branches.
On the day we visited, a red carpet extended from a large audience hall for a diplomatic visit. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy; King Nouradoum Sihanouk is head of state but has no power. A blue flag flying on the grounds indicated that the king was currently in residence.
The palace was built in 1886, then restored after communism in 1991. We viewed the royal regalia, the audience hall, and stupas holding ashes of past kings before moving on.
After the palace, we went to the Central Market. The ATMs there — and everywhere I went in Cambodia, actually — only gave dollars. Cambodian riel had to be acquired from moneychangers, who I’m pretty sure were all Chinese.
The Central Market isn’t much of a spot for Cambodian crafts. Mostly, you’ll find a shopping mall atmosphere, only consisting of dozens of little, tightly spaced stalls rather than stores. One think I noticed was that the Khmer seem to have taken with gusto to internet memes. We saw a “U MAD BRO?” Trollface shirt and a Lolcat tuk tuk.
Phnom Penh is a bit like Mexico City — whole neighborhoods specialize in a type of merchandise. Tools, pharmacies, etc. The Cambodian health care system is poor. Well off people go to Vietnam, Thailand, or even Singapore for treatment. Broken glass, barbed wire, and concertina are common atop roofs and fences. Phnom Penh feels fairly safe now, but an era of high crime looks recent.
In the afternoon, we headed out to see the killing field at Choeung Ek. On the way, I noticed people playing a game of beach volleyball — sitting. Wonder whether this is a thing over there.
The killing field was one of hundreds of such places, and once held 17,000 prisoners. Villagers in 1980 found it upon making their way home from the fields to which they’d been taken. Bones still litter the site; I found a molar embedded in the foot path. In the 100 mass graves on the site, 8098 skulls have so far been found. The victims are impossible to identify, but it’s known that 166 soldiers of the Republic of Cambodia were killed there by beheading.
It’s surprising that all of this happened, and so recently in history. Many factors combined to add to Cambodia’s misery, but Chinese support for Pol Pot, which continued even after he lost power, definitely complicated the responses of other nations. And Pol Pot’s sealing of the borders was extremely effective at keeping world from knowing what went on inside Cambodia.
Following the Choeung Ek, we headed back to the city and visited Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S21. Tuol Sleng set my teeth on edge. It’s one of those places where the enormity of what was done there remains written in the walls and floors. Still present are the rusty rebar shackles, the hand tools used in beatings, and the abandoned American ammo boxes given to the prisoners as toilets. Still more discomfiting is that S21 was a high school before the Khmer Rouge boarded the windows up, added barbed wire, and turned it into their most notorious house of execution and torment. Some of the chalkboards are still covered with lessons, probably written in the days right before the Khmer Rouge deported the populace to the killing fields.
The tools of torture, the photographs of the victims — the Khmer Rouge, unlike the Nazis, documented their genocide for us — all combine to make one feel as if these atrocities, if one stands alone in a room and can’t see the drink stand below — could’ve happened not long ago at all. Which in fact they didn’t. In 1980, the prison still had a lot of blood and smell of decay.
Late in the day, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the National Museum, whose collection consists primarily of antiquities dating from about the 8th to the 17th centuries. Worth seeing, especially if you enjoy Buddhist and Hindu sculpture. It was also my first experience with an art/anthropology museum also being used by the locals as a shrine. There are little old ladies with jasmine and incense attending some of the Buddhas in the museum’s collection, and they’ll offer you incense to put in front of the statues. It’d be rather like if there were a bunch of pious Irish grannies offering you votive candles in the Renaissance wing of the Art Institute.
A lot of Phnom Penh’s nightlife is concentrated near the night market, where our ship docked. A large number of bars cater to westerners, and although I spotted more than one young local getting into a tuk tuk with a middle aged foreigner, the nightlife here is a lot more chill than Bangkok if you don’t fancy being pestered by carryout hostesses and dudes with signs hawking thirty different kinds of pussy show.