Phnom Penh is the best city that I have visited on this trip. I had a good feeling about the place from the moment I arrived. I passed a man weaving his way through the traffic carrying a cart full of goods by hand as he dodged the motorized traffic. Two empty cans dropped from the back of his cart and onto the floor. Rather than carrying on, he stopped, picked them up and placed them in the bin before continuing on his way. Phnom Penh is the busiest city I have been to since Mumbai. However despite this it is wonderfully clean and green, with tons of trees and plants. Hand drawn carts make their way past, tons of busses, thousands of cars, millions of bikes, and what feels like billions of tuk tuks and motos, all whilst amputees clamber for money and children attempt to sell junk to anyone who looks remotely western. Yet strangely, despite the traffic, it’s actually a quiet city. Across the Indian subcontinent I always said that you had to appreciate the moments of quiet and solitude amongst nature because the towns and cities were so overbearing on the noise front. Phnom Penh however showed that it is possible to have a busy city without the horns and shouting! In amongst the fast pace are numerous communal areas, where groups of people are united in dance and exercise, theatre groups perform and families enjoy each others company. Along the waterfront are lots of tasteful bars and restaurants catering for any culinary interests and delivering excellent food and cheap bear. All in all, the atmosphere goes from the frantic to the relaxed, it’s utterly compelling and never boring.
Outside of the joy of just wondering around it also has a few keynote sites. Firstly there is the Royal Palace. If you read my post on Bangkok, you’d hopefully have got the impression that I really liked their palace. Well the one in Phnom Penh is every bit as impressive. The main difference is that it’s very green with lots of trees and bushes surrounding the various traditional Khmer buildings and pagodas. It’s a sanctuary away from the madness around it. Very grand and very Asian, its numerous buildings have appeared on many postcards and adverts attempting to show traditional Asia.
The other main site is split into two and neither are the sort of places you would describe as being particularly nice! The first is the S21 museum. Contained within the old prison it used to house political prisoners during the Khmer Rouge reign. Around twenty thousand people were kept here in horrific conditions and tortured beyond comprehension, only seven people survived. It’s low on information but prefers to use pictures to tell the story of what happened. As you walk from cell to cell you pass photos of the prisoners. Looking at their faces, many are defiant, some look heartbreakingly scared, the memory that everyone on these boards died at the hands of their fellow nationals is incredibly moving. By far the most interesting room was the one designated to some short quotes from a number of people who at the time were in their teenage years and supported the Khmer Rouge. From fighters, to the torture guards their quotes are at times filled with regret, others bringing memories of the Nuremburg Trials in Nazi Germany in that they were just following orders. As you leave the building you can’t help but wonder whether the desire to survive is alone capable of leading many normal individuals, both men and women to take part in the brutal killing of anywhere up to three million people.
The second site is a little bit of town, the killing fields. It’s another very poignant place. In the center is a huge memorial filled with thousands of human skulls and bones reaching up to the sky. Surrounding it are numerous pits containing the remains of thousands of babies, children, teenagers and adults. After S21, people of all ages were brought and killed here, normally with an instrument to the back of the head before being tossed into the ground. There is a tree where babies and small children were swung against to kill them on the methodology that if every family member was killed, there would be no one to come back and seek revenge. Around twenty per cent of Cambodia’s population perished between the years of 1975 and 1979. The first hand accounts and pictures tell the story of one of the darkest years in human history. Leaving both of these sites I left in shock what human beings are capable to do to one another, and in the case of Cambodia so quickly.
With so much to see in the day time, Phnom Penh’s waterfront provides the perfect place to kick back and enjoy a few drinks, play some pool and share stories. It was great to meet up again with Carly and Ben and Hannah and Liz, who I’d met at various times in Laos and India. It’s kind of amusing how at times people you’ve met before either fall behind or go ahead of you and yet you meet again quite randomly. No more than Carly and Ben who I told in no uncertain terms that I wanted them to go away and stop bothering me. After finally having enough of the tuk tuk trawling me I turned around to see both of them in the passengers seats. The tuk tuk had not been scouting for business, it had been following me trying to get my attention after they had spotted me! Cue plenty of laughs, mostly because it symbolized one of the two main problems with Phnom Penh. First is the sheer amount of motos and tuk tuks. There are too many, meaning you are just continuously asked if you want one, which whilst they are not as persistent as the Indian ones, in fact they are rather smiley, is still thoroughly annoying. The other is the child workers, a lot of them coming from reasonably well off families. It’s child exploitation and frankly very dangerous for children as young as four and five to be walking around bars at ten in the evening trying to peddle various junk. The NGO’s and government need to get a serious grip on the issue.
But despite those two issues it didn’t detract from my love for Phnom Penh. If it wasn’t for the need to cross the border into Vietnam, I would have gladly stayed there for many more days.