Cambodia, Destinations, Travel log

Phnom Penh: lively city with a tragic past

lady smiling in photo

We arrived in Phnom Penh in the middle of the afternoon. The ride went quite smoothly with a break every 2 hours, in which we were able to buy some juicy pineapples. The van was globally comfortable except for the back row where they fitted 4 seats instead of 3… guess where we had to sit? Anyway we made it safely and with a sore back.

The bus stop was about 10-15 minutes walking distance from our hostel so we decided to walk there. It was really warm and we were happy to arrive in the A/C! We decided to rest (and cool down) for a little bit before going on the rooftop of our hostel which offered a very nice view on the Tonle Sap river (that falls into the Mekong just a bit more south). We then went to the Night Market that was just nearby our hostel and could not resist having some yummy yummy ice-cream! The ice-cream actually comes served in a fresh coconut!

The next day, we managed to wake up quite early and go… jogging!!! Finally! The promenade along the Mekong river was too inviting for us not to catch that opportunity! But to be honest even at 7 in the morning it was really hot! We managed to run around 45 minutes and still gather enough energy to add some abs and some running up-and-down the stairs! Yes we are proud… even if our current rhythm is once every month! 😀 We are hoping to improve that …

After a breakfast at our hostel we headed out. Our final destination would be the notorious S21 (known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), a secret prison during Pol Pot’s regime. We chose to get there by foot (about an hour away) in order to wander around the city, as we usually do. On the way there we visited the Central Market which develops around a central clock like a starfish. The market is overflowing with products, including a lot dedicated to tourist fashion. We also saw very interesting shops on the way; usually specialized in one specific type of product or service. It was definitely very warm in the streets though! So our memories from the street trip are kind of melting away.

The traffic was also very busy but definitely less than in Vietnam. We believe it is because there are less scooters and more cars. And surprisingly we saw many many expensive cars like Lexus, including on our way from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. But as in Vietnam, scooters and tuk-tuks do not hesitate to park and drive on the pavements!

Another surprise was the mess electric cables “network”. In many neighborhoods it seemed like the buildings themselves never got connected to the public network so each apartment simply connect directly itself to the closest electric pole available. What a mess!

We eventually arrived to the S21, the story of a school, turned into prison. The business around the center doesn’t prepare you to the horror in it. Nothing does. We’ve been warned it would be a tough visit but from the outside the place looks peaceful. It used to be a high school. The name of the place, Tuol Sleng, refers to the mango trees in the courtyard. Indeed the buildings are spread around a beautiful courtyard full of blossoming frangipani trees and other fruit trees. It’s hard to believe that this place was one of the 167 secret prisons set up across the countries by the Khmer Rouge to “deal with” political enemies; which included almost every intellectuals the country had. S21 was one of the most important, dedicated to high-ranked graded people. The most awful one, probably. At the end of the Khmer Rouge era, when the place was discovered by the Vietnamese and Khmer armies, only 7 adults and 5 children survivors were found. It is believed that between 12.000 and 20.000 people were imprisoned (and sentenced to death) in S21 only; if they would confess and survive the torture, they would be sentenced to death in the so-called “killing field“. There was no escape. No one knew about those places. No one knew what to expect when being brought there. And for many of them, they didn’t know why there were brought there. But “Angkar” is never wrong, as they said.

We will not describe what we saw inside. We recommend to use the audioguide, although some of the testimonies you will hear are heartbreaking. Nothing is mandatory, you can chose to look or not, to listen or not. But this Genocide Museum is definitely an important landmark to visit as to understand the violent and nonsense past of this country. The country has been through a civil war, followed by a genocide, followed by the Vietnamese invasion that led to another civil war. What we admired, was the resilience of Cambodian when you realize that anyone above 40 years old today have lived through those terrible times in one way or another.

Some of the few things we were very surprised to learn:

  • the support to Pol Pot from Western countries. In the museum we learnt that Sweden was the leading support, denying the crimes and praising the established model. Until today many people from the Swedish delegation consider that some sacrifices were needed and minimize the crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge Regime.
  • the invasion by Vietnam was not just an invasion, but rather a reaction to Pol Pot attacking and claiming Southern territories of Vietnam as well as persecuting any Vietnamese descendants living in Cambodia. Many Khmer Rouge leaders accused of treason managed to escape and take refuge in Vietnam: they prepared the future government of Cambodia. Of course it was also fully part of the strategic consequences of the Cold War in the region.
  • despite all its crimes, the Democratic Kampuchea party, led by Pol Pot (who took refuge in Thailand) has been recognized by the UN for another 12 years.
  • the international trials against Khmer Rouge leaders for Crime against Humanity started only in 2007. Pol Pot died in 1998, the others are old and sick now. Read more here.

After this visit we didn’t really felt in the mood of continuing our explorations and instead went to get a recovery coffee. We ended staying there until closing time before heading out for dinner.

The next day we had to pack and check-out from our acommodation, as we were to take the night bus to Siem Reap. We decided to spend the day visiting around. Our first stop was Wat Phnom (mountain Pagoda), a pagoda erected in honor of Penh a widow whose legend said she found 4 statues of Buddha in the tree located just there. She gave its name to the city and Wat Phnom is its heart. The pagoda is located in the middle of roundabout and surrounded by a peaceful park where many Cambodians hang out in the shade of the trees.

We then headed to the Presidential Palace. However, we were surprised to find a huge crowd of people hanging out in front of it. We understood that this was a popular Sunday afternoon meeting point and decided to spend some time here instead of the building! Many many kids around, it was so funny to observe them!

We noticed on our way another building with a lot of animation and decided to have a look. We understood that this was a Krama Festival (the Krama is the cotton traditional garment, usually with a tartan pattern). The festival included a photo exhibition, classes for learning how to weave karmas, dance demonstrations, handicrafts market, but also many activities and games. A dance party started soon after we arrived which attracted many young Cambodians. After sunset there was a movie played in the open-air theater. We tried to assist to a performance but we got discouraged after 20 minutes of stand-up performance in khmer… people were laughing though so we guessed it was funny! 🙂

After a great evening, we headed back to our hostel and decided to have dinner at the night market. Clearly not our best food experience.

We finally headed back around 10pm; with our bus leaving at around 11h30, so we had another hour to waste. The bus station was very close so we walked there half an hour in advance as requested. Around 11:15 we were able to board the bus. We were sharing a “bed” on the top level, which included a mattress with a pretty large bed. We installed ourselves comfortably ready for the 7 hour ride to Siem Reap!

Wait… one of the staff is talking to us… he is explaining us in English that the second driver (lying down on the first bed) is too drunk to drive so he will ask him to get out. OK… So starts a 10 minutes conversation in khmer where we understand the the driver refuses to get off and think he is completely able to drive. We do realize that he is indeed drunk. The staff then has to call the police. We are thinking “this is not very smart of him, now he is in trouble”. But no, this is not the way it happens here! The police came, talked with him for 10 minutes, nothing happens. We are the requested to get out the bus because the driver would not get out if we are still in. So we do. It is then another conversation between the driver and the police that ended with the police asking us (the passengers) if we are OK with him driving or not!!!! Of course we say no and understand that we need to play it soft on the guy as to convince him to let us go without him!! Crazy!

Eventually we managed to get back in the bus with 2 other drivers and to leave. With one hour delay, that we will somehow recover as we still arrived very early in Siem Reap!

Next beer on you? Beers cheers

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