Cambodia is wedged between Thailand to the west, Laos to the north east and Vietnam to the east and we began our week here with 3 nights in Phnom Penh, the capital city.
After a whirlwind 2 weeks touring Vietnam we decided to take things a bit easier in Phnom Penh so this is a relatively short post! We spent our time wandering around the city centre and visited some of the impressive temples inside the Royal Palace which was almost next to our hotel. (And we did some swimming in the hotel’s roof top pool which had the fantastic city views shown in the top picture).
Some tourist guides describe Phnom Penh as ‘vibrant’ and ‘bustling’ however we found it to be much more laid back than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and it didn’t have the constant buzz of vast numbers of mopeds! There are some wide roads resembling French boulevards which came from over 90 years of Cambodia being a French protectorate. During the 1920’s Phnom Penh was considered one of South East Asia’s most beautiful cities.
Tragically Phnom Penh was completely destroyed by civil war in the 1960’s and the communist Khmer Rouge ruling in the 1970’s. In more recent times China and South Korea have invested in modern development however you don’t have to go too far out of the centre to see ramshackle and run down buildings in the hot and dusty streets.
One morning we hired a tuk tuk and visited Choeung Ek which is about 15 km from the centre of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek is the site of one of around 300 killing fields within Cambodia and contains several mass graves. This site was opened to educate people and inform them of the horrific killings during Communist leader Pol Pot’s regime between 1975-79. The site also serves as a memorial to those who lost their lives.
During this time the Khmer Rouge government embarked on a genocide of its own people which resulted in around 25% of the population of Cambodia being murdered.
Visitors are given an audio machine and headphones which you play as you walk around the grounds. This gives a graphic account of the fates of innocent citizens who were sent there to be killed. Their crimes were for being educated, skilled or even for being Buddhist monks. A large memorial stupa stands in the middle of the site which contains the skulls of thousands of people.
This is perhaps the most appalling, harrowing visit we’ve made so far on this trip. This is the only time neither of us took any photographs as it just didn’t feel appropriate. We found the visit utterly shocking and still cannot get our heads around the idea of Cambodians killing their own people.
This all happened during the 1970’s too. While we both vaguely remember seeing news reports on the TV at the time it is only when you visit such a site and hear the horrific stories of survivors that you begin to understand it. We cannot comprehend what life must have been like for the warm and friendly people of Cambodia, people of similar ages to ourselves who must have such incredibly dark memories of their childhoods.