Phnom Penh – Population 1.5 million
The Cambodian capital is a special place. Synonymous with the suffering of the Khmer Rouge genocide, but also rich in royal history with a stunning palace complex and fine temples.
Phnom Penh sits astride the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers, both waterways providing the lifeblood of the city.
I visited in 2015 to celebrate my 50th birthday and from the moment Mrs Wilbur and I jammed our luggage onto a rickety old tuktuk for our journey from airport to hotel, we fell in love with the place.
Phnom Penh Royal Palace
The kings of Cambodia have occupied the palace site since it was built in the 1860s, aside that is from the apocalyptic Khmer Rouge period of the mid-late 1970s.
A stunning complex of golden temples, Buddhist statues and manicured gardens, the attraction is massively more relaxed and just as lovely as the Grand Palace in Bangkok, as these crowd-free photos will attest.
The Khmer Rouge
In the same way that no visit to the wonderful city of Kraków should be unaccompanied by a sombre, thought-provoking side trip to Auschwitz, you cannot come to Cambodia and not take in the Killing Fields of ChOeung Ek or the Tuol Sleng Detention Centre.
Only then can you truly understand the country you are in, as its relatively modern history touches every citizen of this proud nation in the same way that the Holocaust is forever cemented in the conscious of the Jewish people.
Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge’s iron grip on the country from 1975-1979, a period when an estimated 3 million of the 8 million population lost their lives to starvation, disease and the genocide. Pot, like so many despots educated in the West, had a vision of turning Cambodia into the perfect Communist state.
To do this, he repatriated all city dwellers into the countryside to work laborious long days in collective farms. Gruesomely he also dictated that every educated person and their families should be executed, lest they rise up and threaten his regime.
Tuol Sleng, one of dozens like them around the country, is the former high school that was horrifically converted into a prison and torture chamber where educated citizens were sent to extract false confessions of crimes against the State. Of the men, women and children that entered the horrendous place, only a handful survived, liberated by the Vietnamese army at the end of Pot’s barmy reign of terror.
Walking around the site in total silence, looking at the torture rooms (former classrooms containing one rusty iron bed and some shackles) and viewing the cells that were no bigger than your wardrobe, you could not help but feel depressed. That this happened so recently and continues to happen around the world, is even more depressing. That Pol Pot avoided prosecution and was able to die surrounded by his extended family in 1998 is just staggering.
I will not describe the goings on at Tuol Sleng, there is plenty of description for those that are interested on the web, but here are a few pictures to paint the story.
Once the false confessions were gained, the confessor and their extended families were taken by truck to Choeung Ek, again one of dozens of so called Killing Fields dotted around the country. That it poured with rain whilst we were there was entirely fitting.
After making that final journey, the innocents had less than a day to live. The end would have been seen by most as a mercy. Even then the Khmer Rouge did it the macabre way, bullets were not to be wasted when a blunt instrument would do the job just as well. Remember, these were Cambodians killing Cambodians. Just mind-numbing.
Phnom Penh Market
Most great Asian capitals have a bustling, colourful market and Phnom Penh is no different.
I love losing myself in them and just wandering being led by my senses.
I have visited the original hotel in Singapore and of course consumed one of their iconic slings.
There is a cousin hotel in Phnom Penh – colonial style, privileged and ostentatious like its relative. Whatever your views of Sir Stamford Raffles and the colonial period, a visit to the Elephant Bar at the hotel for a cocktail is still a fun experience.
So there are just a few highlights and a couple of harrowing but must see experiences in Phnom Penh.
Just my top two to come. All will be revealed soon at Wilbur’s Travels.