Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia. When Jeff and I were planning our S.E. Asia trip, our focus was on Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. But I insisted on spending a couple of days in the capital city out of sheer curiosity. I knew so little about Cambodia and its history that I wanted to take advantage of being in the region and learn as much as we could. It was a very quick flight from Siem Reap, and we were extremely grateful to get a room quickly in our hotel because Jeff and I were both in the beginning stages of getting “traveler’s tummy.”
A quick transport note: From the airport to most places in town via tuk tuk, the cost was $7. But to save our lungs from the carbon monoxide, we booked a taxi for $15. Since we weren’t feeling optimal at this time, we thought the extra dollars were well worth it.
We knew that staying in a Khmer-style home in Siem Reap would be a unique and traditional experience to Cambodia, and we did appreciate all it gave us between the geckos, neighborhood walks, and Buddhist chants in the wind, but we decided to stay in a proper hotel in the capital to indulge in our holiday. We booked a room at The Pavilion near the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and waterfront, but, unfortunately, we didn’t see either of those points of interest.
What we did do was immediately put our bags down, and before the heat got to us, we walked the half mile to the National Museum of Cambodia. The building was extraordinary in traditional Khmer temple style, so it immediately caught the eye. It only cost $5 to enter, and what you’re surrounded with are thousands of Khmer artifacts dating back to the temples of Angkor Wat. One room alone held dozens of Buddha statues, but unfortunately, photos were not permitted.
We walked around the compound and looked at stones and fragments that we had just seen in Siem Reap, so it did become a bit repetitive; however, what I found fascinating was the corner dedicated to Cambodian soldiers during WWI. During the war, Cambodians were lumped in with the other Asians fighting, so they lost a lot of their individuality even though they were recruited due to their ties to the French.
Taken from the website: “In this exhibition, maritime underwater heritage is key. All Cambodians who participated in the Great War were transported to Europe by boat, and naval combat was a major element during the conflict. Unfortunately, many soldiers died in shipwrecks and the remnants of these important battles are found underneath the surface.”
The midday heat was starting to get to us when we finished with the museum, so we made our way back to the hotel. We would have stopped by the Royal Palace, but the hours were sporadic with an extended closure during the middle of the day, so we opted out of waiting nearby.
A quick note: I would highly suggest making a plan well in advance for your days in Phnom Penh because several points of interest have odd hours.
On the way to the hotel, we stopped by a little cafe called Momo. Two phrases caught my eye: “bubble tea” and “mochi ice cream.” Craving something sweet and cold, we walked in and I asked for mochi ice cream. “I’m sorry, we’re out.” I was a bit flustered, but then I ordered bubble tea instead. “We’re out of the bubbles.” I scratched my head and mentally pointed to the cafe’s sign saying this was all they carried, but instead, I settled for a bubble-less tea.
We rested in the hotel during the hottest part of the day, so by nightfall, we fought our growing tummy pains and headed to dinner at Romdeng, a sister restaurant to the Tree Alliance chain we enjoyed in Siem Reap. We weren’t mentally prepared to have tarantulas as an appetizer as offered, but we did indulge in some Red Tree Ant Soup and Muslim Beef and Peanut Curry Soup before collapsing back in the hotel trying to overcome our “Phnom Pains.”
But the next morning, we were worse, not better, so we decided to stay in the hotel and focus on healing before jumping on another plane to another country.
For a link on Traveler’s Tummy from the CDC, click here. But don’t worry, the story will get more interesting in the coming posts when I detail my experience in a Japanese hospital.
Besides checking out the capital city of Cambodia, I wanted to see Phnom Penh because it was where a lot of the memorials and sites for the Khmer Rouge invasion took place in the 1970s. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge became the ruling party in Cambodia as a result of the Cambodian-Vietnam War. The infamous Pol Pot solidified his place in history by conducting a brutal genocide of his people through 1979.
Pol Pot’s mission was so enforce his own brand of “social engineering,” which is to say reform agriculture, institute self-sufficiency, and weed out those he thought weak or inferior. This caused widespread famine, torture, and destruction of the land and economy. People were executed for wearing glasses because it made them look intelligent.
Also, all of the teachers were executed and books burned, so today, many people are illiterate. It was astounding to see in front of us the lasting effects of this event in history. The smallest reminder is at many restaurants where the menus show pictures rather than words. When we spoke to Mr. Narong in Siem Reap, he intimated that he didn’t know how to read until he was 17 years old.
On our final day in Phnom Penh, Jeff and I mustered up enough energy to take a ride to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
The Killing Fields was roughly a forty minute tuk tuk ride out of town. It is so far out because the government did not want the rest of the population to know what was going on in the several acres of open land. When we arrived, the first thing we saw was the tall stupa holding around 5,000 human skulls. It was brutal to see the sheer amount of bones recovered from the land and to see the various damage done to them upon execution. And this display is only a tiny fraction of the people who were murdered.
Set up like an outdoor museum, you are given an audio guide and path to follow through the Killing Fields. Along the way, you see the remnants of buildings that were used for torture, shelter, and disposal of bodies. You can still see pieces of clothing raising from the dirt as rain and erosion bring it up to the surface. The curators stress to not deviate from the path to not disturb the thousands of dead still not found underground.
It was truly brutal and unimaginable what occurred on that land, but the audio guide was one of the better ones we had heard with personal stories and small details that make the events all the more unnerving.
Once you complete the circle path around the mass grave site, there is a small museum toward the front with prison clothes on display as well as many more facts and images to show just how disturbing the whole massacre was. I was, personally, shocked with the uncensored images on display for anyone to see, but then again, I appreciated the unsanitized way of showing what actually happened. In our high school history books, I know Pol Pot’s name is mentioned, but it is so glossed over with the Vietnam War that the name is the extent of what I knew about Cambodia. After walking through this museum, it was impossible to not have it affect you, and we drove back toward the town in silence.
In the center of town is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was a torture prison in use during the late 1970s. Started as Chao Ponhea Yat High School, it was transformed into the Security Prison 21 (S-21) as one of the 150 execution centers in the country where around 20,000 people were killed.
If you squint, you can still make out the school layout of classrooms, but metal beds and pictures are mounted in the converted classrooms to make it impossible to see the walls as anything but a prison. Each room is open to the public to enter and feel. Some rooms have displays for the museum while others are just empty. In the last building, you can still see how the barracks were set up to have people sleep, stand, and suffer. Each person was given no more than a phone booth size room to reside in while they waited for death.
It wasn’t until 1979 that the prison was discovered by an invading Vietnamese army. It was hard to miss, as history states, because of the smell coming from the barb-wired walls. A mere year later, it was opened as a historical museum. Out of the 17-20,000 prisoners, there are only 7 known survivors saved because they were deemed “useful.” As we walked out of the prison, we saw one elderly gentleman sitting in the shade with a sign that said, “Talk to Me About My Experience.” I was too stunned to see him in the flesh to say anything, but I now wish I had spoken to him for a few minutes just to hear his voice and hold his hand.
As we waited for our taxi to take us to the airport that afternoon, we were overhearing an older couple in the hotel lobby complain that their resort room was too small for their needs. I looked around the hotel and reflected on our previous days in Cambodia. On the grounds of Angkor Wat, there were children dripping with sweat begging for a mere dollar for a magnet, and there were still many people still illiterate and recovering from events that happened just forty years ago. I left Cambodia conflicted, and I will admit that I still am unsettled by my time in the country with what I saw and experienced.
Cambodia is an absolutely gorgeous country with ancient temples and massive jungles, but it has suffered for centuries, and not enough people know about it. This small snapshot in our travels really opened my eyes, and I hope yours as well.
Our trip eastward is far from over! Follow us as we hop on a plane and head to a vastly different world: Japan.