After an incredible month of Thai travel (and a few days of overstay that I paid off quite slickly at the airport), I took a flight to Phnom Penh to begin a couple of weeks of wandering in Cambodia. This was, from the get-go, a slightly more exciting country to travel in than Thailand, in that its tourism industry is not such a well-oiled machine- perfectly evidenced by the crowd scramble at the airport to receive visas as officials called up names in slightly incomprehensible hollers. Once the sacred sticker had been issued, all was plain sailing, however- and the famed warmth of the Cambodian people was exemplified right from the taxi ride to my hostel. The driver was charming, genuine, and a true font of wisdom about Phnom Penh city, which was an ideal way to begin the visit. I was pretty sold by the ambience of the capital right from the start- especially compared to Bangkok, it is an entirely comfortable city to be in, with less high rise and hustle, and far more old Asian charm. As we drove through rush hour, the roads were alive with my first experience of erratic Cambodian traffic- all manner of cars, motos and tuk tuks weaving around the roads, carrying at least double their intended capacity of passengers. Here, it is entirely usual to see a whole family of 5 plus possessions on a bike, or two people sharing the driving seat of a car… Madness or genius, it somehow seems to work.
I stayed in the BKK1 area of town, a leafy suburban haven of an area, popular with NGO workers and expats- close enough to the city centre to be fully convenient, but also quiet, attractive and pretty much devoid of the usual trappings of tourism (which are mostly concentrated around the riverside). As a visitor, there are a few key attractions in Phnom Penh which are easy to visit in a couple of days, though I could definitely have lingered longer. I began the obligatory tourist circuit with the tough stuff, however, keen to better educate myself in the horrific historical context of the country, and spent the most sobering day of my travels so far visiting the S21 torture prison and the killing fields of Choueng Ek. On the surface, it’s not entirely obvious that this nation was a mere 40 years ago ravaged by a regime that wiped out a quarter of its population, along with the culture and lifestyle that had gone before- the scars inevitably run deep, but are well concealed in daily life. The years of tragedy however are very sensitively showcased in these two memorials, which serve as much as education and reconciliation centres for the Khmers themselves as for international visitors.
S21 is an entirely haunting place- a former high school overtaken by the Khmer Rouge when they evacuated Phnom Penh city, and turned into a prison and torture camp for all those suspected of defying The Organisation. Built in the 1960s, it’s an uncomfortably modern building, much like other schools used in Phnom Penh today- though its PE equipment was turned into gallows, its classrooms into cells and holding pens, and its walls into a barbed wire fortress. The treatment of citizens here was inexplicably shocking, demonstrated by the torture instruments on show and images of dead bodies left behind when the building was liberated. Perhaps the most moving aspect of the museum, however, was simply the hundreds of black and white photos that the Khmer Rouge took of their victims on capture- males and females, from babies to the elderly, meticulously documented before being wiped out. Walking among them is an experience that really can’t be recounted.
The killing fields of Choueng Ek, 15km outside of the city, was the execution and final resting place for the majority of innocents brought to S21. This place, too, is incredibly movingly presented, with an audio tour guiding visitors around the small but potent site. Walking around what are now sun-drenched orchards and a peaceful lake, you pass the area where truckloads of prisoners were in darkness deposited, the former recording office where the doomed were meticulously listed, the sheds where killing implements were kept, and of course the mass graves themselves. Fragments of bone and teeth, washed up by each rainy season, are still visible on the ground today, and though the majority of graves have been exhumed, some still remain below. The onsite museum displays rags of clothes recovered from the graves, as well as wrist ties buried with the murdered, varying in size for children to adults- and indeed the prisoner profiles are indiscriminate. Men, women, children, civilians and soldiers, Pol Pot wanted families decimated to preclude any future seeking of revenge, and seeking to save costs on bullets, the methods of execution were brutally manual, as evidenced on some of the remains. The centrepiece of the killing site now is a memorial pagoda, laced with traditional symbolism, and containing thousands of the bones exhumed in the 1980s- a peaceful resting place of sorts, though such an ending is impossible to reconcile with the ongoing injustice of the corrupted genocide trials.
On the lighter side of Phnom Penh, I followed the well-trodden path around the official cultural treasures of the nation- namely the National Museum, the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda temple. Though much cultural history was wiped out in years of civil war and dictatorship, what is left today, mostly relating to the glory days of the Angkorian empire, is hallowed and well preserved in the National Museum, which made for a pretty educational (if overwhelming) visit. Traditional displays of stelae and sculpture were well mixed with virtual projections of daily life in the old kingdom, though without an in depth understanding of Buddhism, Brahmanism and the pantheon of Hindu gods, the basis of Angkorian society can be a little hard to grasp- looks like I’ve got plenty of studying still left to do…. The Royal Palace and its Silver Pagoda (so named because its floor is tiled with solid silver blocks) were a somewhat less enlightening, but visually spectacular visit- decadent halls housing a royal artefacts and elaborate shrines, used mostly today for ceremony. One of the highlights of the place was wandering through the bustle of local activity by the riverside outside the palace walls- families picnicking, food carts at full output, and children chasing the thousands of gathered pigeons on the lawns. One thing that is remarkable about this city is the proliferation of locals spending their leisure time together and outdoors- wholesome, indeed…
Engaging in local life as a visitor is really not hard in Phnom Penh, and with many speaking decent English, I had a great time getting to know the locals. Wandering around the Russian and Central Markets, I found bartering here to be a fully jovial sport, while any food stall you stop at along the city’s streets will also serve you with some warm smalltalk if you’re willing. After chatting life philosophy with a local money changer, and being randomly invited to join some locals lounging in the park, it stuck me that here, unlike many parts of touristed Asia, there’s some genuine interest in visitors beyond their immediate dollar value, which is jolly nice to see, really.
Overall I lived pretty well in these first few Cambodian days- though the roads are in some areas obscenely undriveable (the potholes on the highway have to be tuktukked to believed), and the place in general feels a whole lot less developed than neighbouring Thailand, you want for nothing out here, it seems. I certainly ate well (though partly this was due to travelling with a French pastry chef) and I had some real culinary adventures beyond anything I experienced across the border. Western style food seems more readily available here (a bit of a throwback to French colonialism, no doubt) and there are some fantastic bakeries and cafes (if visiting, check out The Shop, which is 5*), but the local fuel if you seek it is often a more fun gamble- spicy, sometimes weirdly pickled, and not always as vegetarian as it says. In one particular Chinese restaurant, I got way more protein than I bargained for from the wholly vegetarian menu, while a friend ordering stir fry at a Khmer joint came away utterly traumatised by chilli. It’s amok curry that wins the day, but there are a myriad of miscellaneous concoctions that have to be sampled as a Cambodian rite of passage. It’s easy to drink well here, too, with draft beer setting you back a mere 50 cents a time, and though the nightlife in BKK1 was a muted affair, I passed a few very wholesome evenings comparing the merits of the main local labels. It’s a little strange, as a visitor, to balance the good life with any awareness of Cambodia’s troubled past and present, though Phnom Penh certainly warmly welcomes you to enjoy its virtues and catch its optimism about the future- as a destination, it’s one to watch, and one I’d not hesitate to hurry back to.