I’ll start by saying that this post covers some heavy stuff so kids should not be reading this, nor should adults if they hope to stay in a cheery mood.
I took a plane from Hanoi to Saigon and then caught a plane to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I ended up spending a total of four nights in the city (three upfront, one night at the end) which I don’t regret, but it is certainly not one of my favourite cities. It’s worth a visit because the history of the Cambodian genocide is best laid out in two sites in/near Phnom Penh. The royal palace is also definitely worth checking out, and there are a few interesting neighbourhoods along the way.
I arrived fairly late on my first day in town so I really only had time to catch a late dinner at a nearby restaurant. As I would come to discover throughout my month in the country, Cambodian food is underrated or rather simply overlooked. I was expecting food similar to that of Vietnam but the Khmer culture is totally different in every way as reflected in the food. Cambodian dishes tend to use heavier sauces, which in my experience were generally phenomenal. The only downside is that in the brutal humidity of that latitude of the world the food is quite a bit heavier than I would have preferred.
My first meal:
I don’t think I’ve explained my travel process before. I usually book 3-4 nights in my first city in a particular country because I spend the first day or two just sorting out my travel details. When I’m in a country I prefer to focus on that country so I literally have no plans on cities to visit when I arrive in a new country. As you can imagine, it takes a bit of time to read up on where to go and incorporate recommendations from friends that are logistically feasible. As I mentioned back when I was planning for Thailand, I no longer bother making travel arrangements myself because I’ve made logistical mistakes that have cost me days in the past. So once I known where I want to go, I plan them out in what appears to be a geographically logical route and have a travel agent book the flights, trains and buses (well, Cambodia has no functioning railway system since the Vietnam war). But let me add, you HAVE to ask questions when you are booking travel even with a travel agent. On more than one occasion they’ve tried to book flights/buses where it would be difficult to make the next leg of the journey, so use your common sense.
I didn’t do much more on my first day in town aside setting up my local SIM and going to a travel agent once I was set with my intended destinations.
The main market downtown (on the way to the travel agent):
While I was waiting for the travel agent to book my tickets I went off for dinner at a nearby restaurant called Dot Grill. They specialize in delicious meats (the circular bit wrapped in bamboo is sticky rice). The food was excellent:
The problem with Phnom Penh is that many of the places to go for a beer at night are next to busy roads. The area next to the river is where a lot of the places are located and it’s not a particularly nice riverfront. As such, I was lucky to locate Eluvium which is in a primarily residential neighbourhood that is completely quiet at night. The bar is on a roof top, has reasonably priced drinks, and on one night that I was there they had great live music and even a bit of comedy. It was an excellent place to sit back and edit photos:
This is where the heavy stuff starts. I booked a tour group to visit the two most visited sites documenting the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge. But let me be clear, there are so many killing fields across all of Cambodia that most are not documented at all.
We started at the Tuol Sleung Genocide Museum that was originally a school but was later converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison complex and execution ground, though really their prisons were indistinguishable from execution sites. The site was operated by the Khmer Rouge under the name of “Security Complex 21” from 1975 to 1979 and an estimated 20,000 people were killed on the grounds. The number is astonishing because it’s not a large place, at most five three story buildings which for Canadian standards would be able to house at most 500 students a a school. Given that two of the buildings had entire rooms designed only to house two to three people on a crude metal bed where they were often just left to shit themselves and die, the numbers are even more astonishing. Many of the prisoners died from purposeful neglect, and they don’t pull any punches at this site. Each of the big rooms that were more sparsely occupied have pictures of the way that live and dead prisoners were found when the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese army in 1979—we are talking emaciated people with piles of shit everywhere. The Khmer Rouge were exceptionally paranoid about a political target getting away so their modus operendi was to take the whole family of a political target captive. The target would then be tortured to elicit a confession, and s/he would be executed there or at another site along with the entire family. The sickest part is that the Khmer Rouge even had propaganda slogans to justify the killing of entire families, one translated roughly as “If you want to kill the weed, you have to pull out the roots too”.
The temporary exhibit featured a whole section on forced marriages during the Khmer Rouge era, as written by both men and women who were forced into the marriages. The idea was that the Khmer Rouge wanted people to have kids, so they matched up random men and women who were working the fields, forced them to get married, and forced them to have sex in the hopes of producing the next generation. However, the women, who were already on starvation rations would be forced to work the fields during their entire pregnancy (12-16 hour days), were given no time off after delivering the baby, all the while being fed no additional rations. As you would imagine, most of the babies died. Because Cambodians of that time were very traditional, most remained married after the Khmer Rouge was ousted.
One of the sickest parts of the experience comes from the Western complicity in the massacres. At one point a team of Swedish pro-communist activists was invited to visit the country by the Khmer Rouge where they were given an obviously sanitized tour of the country. The idiots bought it hook line and sinker and for years fought against journalistic accounts documenting the atrocities. Even when the prison was liberated by the Vietnamese, the Swedes refused to believe that the atrocities were perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge and instead blamed the Vietnamese. One of the students who participated in that shameful propaganda has written an account featured in the museum that is sincerely contrite about his participation in the atrocities, but the leader of the movement continues to insist that the Khmer Rouge were not responsible despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
When visiting the site I would recommend the audio tour, it was excellent and has first hand accounts of survivors of the prison. There are also always one or two survivors on site that you can talk to. The Cambodian government has really dedicated some serious resources to documenting this horrendous chapter in their history.
The next stop, the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, made the prison look like a children’s wax museum in comparison. The site is not particularly large, perhaps the size of three soccer pitches, but between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge executed over one million people at the site. Prisoners would be transported there, again entire families of political enemies, held for a maximum of three days and would be routinely executed. Bullets were considered too expensive so a vast majority of the prisoners were executed using farm tools. To drown out the sounds of the killings at night, the Khmer Rouge would play propaganda songs at full volume during the executions.
I’ve encountered some travellers who think this site amounts to little more than genocide porn but I disagree. For one, the site is presented honestly, but without any exploitative elements. Live tours are not allowed, your only option is to get an audio tour. So rather than having large tour groups making the rounds, you see people wearing headsets, seeing things at their own pace. Also, what is included in the audio tour is truly haunting, they have accounts from the few survivors and their life stories. If you choose you can also listen to the propaganda music played during the killings. In the end I found it to be a place that was apt for quiet contemplation about the horrendous things that human beings are capable of doing to one another. The site is not gratuitous about it, but they also don’t sanitize what happened.
For example, grass roofed enclosures like the one pictured below signify a mass grave, where upwards of 500 people were executed and buried:
This tree will completely destroy your hope in humanity and is one of the many reasons why I would not be altogether sad if we were just to die off as the horrendously evil creatures that we seem to inevitably become. When the site was initially explored by forensic anthropologists they were puzzled as to why the bark on the tree contained chunks of human flesh, bones and teeth. When they interviewed former prison guards, they came to discover that the tree was used to kill children. Again, since bullets were considered to be too expensive to use, small kids would be swung by their ankles and bashed against the tree until they died. Query, what does a person ordering or doing this say to themselves to justify this atrocious behaviour? Do you really think humanity is worth saving? I’m rooting for the destructive power of climate change.
The site has so many unidentified bodies that the authorities decided to let most of them rest. If you walk around the site you’ll see a number of little hills covered in ribbons—those are mass graves. Also, because people were killed and buried all over the site for half a decade, some of the clothing and bones from unmarked burial areas get washed up during the rainy season. When you walk around I guarantee that you will see fragments of bone and clothing on the ground, I certainly did: hence the wooden walkways.
At the centre of the site is a simple memorial. In it, they display nothing but human bones, with a bit of music playing in the background. Many of the skulls have little colour coded stickers informing you of the type of farm implement used to kill the person:
This gives you a better sense of the scale, times four sides:
I’ll convey some practical information before leaving the topic. You can get a number of tours to go to the two sites, but they are not worth the money. Just rent a moped, both places are easily accessible by motorbike (and the driving isn’t crazy in Cambodia). You’ll save money and you’ll appreciate being able to visit the sites at your own pace—my tour felt rushed.
A soothing walk at night after the difficult day:
The following day I rented a motorbike and checked out the main sites in the city. Wat Phnom is pictured below, the actual stupa is hard to photograph because all of the greenery surrounding it, but I liked the huge clock in the grass (though aesthetically not exactly classy).
“Russian Market”, no idea about the reason for the name:
One of the highlights of Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace compound. I’ve seen a lot of palaces in my year of travels and this is near the top of my list:
As I mentioned before, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about the restaurant and and bar scene in Phnom Penh when I first arrived. However, for my last night I was lucky to meet an Australian lady who pointed me to the area around Bassac Lane. The cool chunk is really only two sides of one block, and one of those sides has about three bars owned by the same person.
I arrived a bit early so I had time to try out the tasting menu at one of the top rated restaurants in the city, Malis. The location was absolutely gorgeous, alas the food was just okay, I certainly had much better meals during my month in Cambodia:
I’ll leave you with two shots from the awesome Bassac Lane around the corner from Malis: