Three nights hasn’t been enough time to really get a feel for Phnom Penh. On our first full day in the city we visited the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, a necessary stop for all tourists. Like many New Zealanders, I didn’t know much at all about the Khmer Rouge and the devastating atrocities that took place in Cambodia in 1975-78. Very, very briefly, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, came to power in 1975, aiming to radically transform Cambodia into a classless society structured around an agrarian economy. Entire cities and towns were emptied, with residents forced to march to the countryside and work long hours in the fields. Many elderly and sick people died as a result of this harsh treatment. Intellectuals (even simply those who spoke another language) were imprisoned and put to death, as where those who resisted the new authoritarian rule. All in all, an estimated 1.5 million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, held and interrogated in prisons like the infamous S-21 before being brutally hacked to death (to save ammunition) and buried in mass graves.
The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek is one of over 300 mass grave sites across Cambodia. The site has been fully excavated and turned into a memorial. It was very surreal walking through the area – it’s very peaceful and green, but deep depressions all around the site mark where the graves were. A large memorial stupa was built a few years ago to house the remains of those who died there. Coming face to face with mounds of skulls is an experience I won’t ever forget.
After the Killing Fields, we visited the site of the S-21 prison, which has been preserved as a genocide museum. The original cells, some as small as 08 x 2 metres, are still there – roughly constructed of bricks and mortar. The ground floors of the prison blocks display information, including row upon row of prisoner mug shots. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records, and photographed all men, women and children who were imprisoned and put to death. For me, these photographs hit home much more strongly than the skulls. The expressions on people’s faces were heartbreaking – terror, confusion, the odd awkward smile (you’re supposed to smile for the camera, aren’t you?), defiance, anger, but most often, a quiet/blank/sorrow, like the woman below:
The remainder of our time in Phnom Penh was spent walking the city streets, which was challenging in the sweltering heat. The heat seems to intensify the smells, and sometimes, Phnom Penh does not smell nice. There is a lot of rubbish here, a lot of dust, choking traffic fumes, and frequent whiffs of sewerage. But there are also some pristine areas, with modern air-conditioned shopping centres etc, etc, etc; streets that make you feel like you could be anywhere. I want to know where I am, so I’ll take the rubbish any day, even if I do walk carefully around it and sometimes refrain from breathing…! Everywhere we’ve been in Cambodia, it seems that pavements aren’t really for walking – they’re for living (socialising, preparing food, eating, snoozing, drying laundry), for making a living (selling goods, food, constructing goods), and for parking motorbikes and scooters. Life is very much lived out in the open, spilling onto the streets, so walking is more a matter of zig-zagging around multiple obstacles.
The traffic is another fascination here. The streets are so busy and there doesn’t appear to be any real road rules – even the rule of driving in the right hand lane doesn’t at all guarantee that you won’t meet someone coming the other way. At intersections, it’s a matter of first in first served, and as soon as there is a gap, people just go for it. Amazingly, this chaos works pretty well – everyone drives fairly sedately and frequently toots their horn to let other road users know they are coming up behind them. Even heavy traffic at quite major intersections seems to just blend and weave together. Drivers in Cambodia could teach us a thing or two in NZ…with all our road code rules, the most complicated thing we have to figure out for ourselves is how to ‘merge like a zip’.
Some of you might have noticed the lack of food photographs lately. For well over a week now we’ve had little appetite and have been making do with only two meals a day – breakfast, then a small early dinner around 4-5pm (which I especially need to force myself to eat). For someone who is usually hungry most of the time, and if not hungry then just plain greedy, this is quite out of character. Hopefully this changes soon as I came here to eat.
So that was Cambodia, and it was great. We would definitely come back again to see places we didn’t get to this time around. And…thanks to Cambodia, I can say:
- Fresh durian fruit [tick]
- Deep fried crickets [tick]
- Squat toilet [tick, tick, tick, tick, and tick]