Our first full day in Phnom Penh. What a city. It’s bustling with people; motorbike outnumber cars on the road. It’s growing quickly. I know that when I return, it’ll be completely different with the fast pace of development. I’m glad I got to see the city now.
Our first stop for the day was quite serious. We decided to start our visit with the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, about 15 minutes from the center of town. I had studied the Khmer Rouge in graduate school and had wanted to bear witness to the past. So we hired a tuktuk driver who drove us to the site. Through twisty roads and past little stores, many selling gasoline from bottles, we made our way to Choeung Ek.
For the next three paragraphs, I’m going to talk about some very upsetting things. If you wish to skip, I’ll bold the section where you can start reading again.
We paid the fee and received a headset that would led us on the tour of the fields. As you walk in, the first thing you see is the Memorial Wat, filled with skulls and femurs of people who were killed and buried there. But it’s the last stop on the tour. The audio guide explained the stages; how people entered the facility, where they were killed and their bodies burned with chemicals to remove them quicker, and then the various burial pits. The process of death. There’s also a small museum that you can wander through to read some of the history. But the thing that struck me the most was the case filled with tools of death. Farming tools. Day to day tools turned into implements of death. I had forgotten that the regime had used these tools to kill because bullets were expensive.The kroma scarves, traditional Cambodian scarves, used to bind people’s hands, blindfold them. There was a tree that the audio guide pointed out was where babies and small children would have their heads bashed against it. The everyday turned grotesque. The banality of evil. As soon over and over again in other genocides and massacres.
The audio guides were really effective at telling the story. One of the most inspired parts was how they had people (or actors) tell the stories of events they experienced or partook in. I’m also a big proponent of giving voice to people to tell their own stories. It made it even more alive and more brutal.
The final stop was the Memorial Wat. It has skulls and femurs of folks that were uncovered in the pits surrounding the area. They had little colored dot stickers on the skulls that let you know how they suspected the person died. You can buy flowers right outside to leave as an offering.
Our next stop was the Russian market. We thought it might be good to do something frivolous after the seriousness and sadness of Choeung Ek. We were told that we had to go to the Russian Market. We got back on our tuktuk and drove there. It’s a covered market, that was a bit like an oven that day. It was more than a tourist market; there were sections for food, auto supplies, clothing. We wandered and shopped, a contrast to the hefty history we had just been to. It was a great place to find intricately made shadow puppets.
But it was hot. We ended up leaving a lot sooner because of the heat. As we got outside of the market, we decided we needed an air conditioning break. The only place we could easily find: a KFC. Yes, a KFC. I’ve never been to one before. (I can’t eat fried chicken). But it was the answer to our prayers. I got an ice cream with jelly and my friend got a soda. We sat there for an hour, enjoying the sitting and the air. It was what we needed at the time. Oy!
After we were sufficiently refreshed, we headed off to the National palace. What an incredible palace. The architecture is astonishing. The area is a giant garden with buildings all over. Reminded me a little of Topkapi with the various courtyards. The throne room building is amazing; you can’t go in but you can look into it through the windows. As we were looking into the throne room, the rains came. We waited it out underneath the roof for about five minutes. When it seemed to clear, we left the safe confines of the roof.
As we wandered next to a substantial tree, the rains came back. So we hid underneath it, which was not the best move since it wasn’t exactly a dry location. After about five minutes, a guard nearby waved us over to an off limits building with a overhanging roof. We ran over through the pouring rain. We took a seat on the steps and watched the world around us. During the storm, we noticed tiny frogs jumping around the courtyard. It was kinda magical. Like the time in the Japanese forest, where we were stuck in the rain with the sounds of taiko drums in the distance. Moments you’ll never forget.
After the rains stopped and held off, we wandered some more. In another courtyard, it was lined with these beautiful murals of scenes from the Ramayana. Very cool. We sat a little bit and fed the stray cats in the area. We also toured the silver pagoda filled with treasures. The floor is lined with silver tiles. There’s a beautiful Baccarat Buddha with over 2000 diamonds in the center of the room. We also found a statue to Napoleon III that was nearby.
Our final stop for the day was the Mekong river front. We wanted to get some dinner and check out the Foreign Correspondents Club. We found a place that had rooftop dining. I had a coconut, which was delicious as always. Again, the food was amazing. Fresh and delicious. We watched the sun go down on the river. In contrast to other city rivers or waterways, it was relatively quiet. But in less than five years, it will be filled with boats and the banks of the river will have giant hotels and business skyscrapers.
We ended the evening at the Foreign Correspondents Club. What a trip. Here was where journalists gathered after a long day reporting. We got seats at the balcony so we could watch the world before us as we sipped our various drinks. There are old pictures and plaques on the walls talking about the not so distant times. What a place!
That’s all for now!