Our travels in Cambodia cover Ancient Angkor and Phnom Penh, continuing here with the capital city that was once known as ‘The Pearl of Asia’!
Our late afternoon flight took us on from Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. We were met by Bunna, a charming 23 year old tourist guide, with excellent English and a wealth of knowledge, doing a difficult job in this city. Cambodia has a population of 15 million of which 2 million live here on the confluence of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers. Though there are pockets of prosperity, Cambodia is essentially a very poor country, with a colourful, war-torn history that is sometimes difficult to comprehend. It is governed by the Cambodia People’s Party, though the last election results were deeply suspect, and the opposition party refused to attend the opening of parliament.
Our tour started off early the next day with a visit to the Royal Palace. Distinguished by its classical Khmer architecture, elaborate gilding, roof top spires and golden temples, it is the jewel in the crown for the Cambodians and still lived in by King Sihamoni, single aged 62! His father King Sihanouk led the country to independence from French rule in 1953 and proved a popular sovereign until 1970 when he was forced into exile.
The images are self-explanatory!
We deliberated long and hard before finalising our tour whether or not we should include not only the Cho Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, but also the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh. A tough decision in both cases. The latter is a gruesome memorial to the millions who were killed by the regime of Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, and the slaughtering here of 17,000 to 20,000 men, women and children, all bludgeoned to death to save the cost of a bullet. A 17 metre concrete stupa has been built to house victims’ skulls, bones and clothing found in the area near a river where remains of mass graves are still obvious in the one time orchard. An eerie and for some a distressing experience as we learned so much more from our guide about the radical way in which Pol Pot endeavoured to change the country to a purely agrarian society, annihilating all human obstacles in his path.
In conjunction with Choeung Ek, we went on to Tuol Sleng, the Museum of Genocide in the city, which used to be a high school until converted by the Khmer Rouge to a prison called S-21 (Security Prison 21) and used for interrogation, torture, and execution. Only seven inmates survived incarceration, one of whom was signing a book of his story to sell to tourists, on site, when we visited. Here in our blog, we feel it inappropriate to dwell on Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, its barbarism and horror during that five year period; it has been extensively reported on and documented elsewhere.
Far less depressing, the National Museum exhibits a fascinating collection of sandstone carvings and sculptures dating back to the 11th century, as well as pottery, bronzes, ceramics, textiles and glass. Theoretically no photographs are allowed but we managed to sneak in a few, notably of the imposing Duryodhana statue that was stolen in the early 70’s and returned to Cambodia as recently as May 2014, just before it was due to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in the US.
Built by the French, the Central Market provided a short stop to buy fruit. Other curious delicacies stayed where they were!
We finished our afternoon by climbing a 27 metre artificial hill, Wat Phnom, which is the city’s tallest Buddhist temple. Of more interest to us were the hundreds of fruit bats sleeping in an adjacent tree!