December 29, 2014
It’s winter vacation! We flew out of Seoul on Saturday (27th) and had a brief layover in Shanghai. Once we arrived in Phnom Penh we realized we really should have gotten the e-visa instead. First there was a crowd of people in one room because we all had to fill out quarantine papers stating where we’d been in the last 21 days and if we felt ill. Then once we made it through that mess we were greeted with a long line to submit our visa applications. Thankfully that didn’t take too long. But then we had to wait for them to call our names and give our passports back with the visa inside. So that took a little while but wasn’t too bad all in all. The worst part of the evening was actually standing in the immigration line. It moved incredibly slowly. By the time we finally made it out of the airport we had been on the ground for an hour and a half!! We were exhausted when we got to the hotel around 1am and unfortunately didn’t go out.
Luckily that is only a fleeting impression of the country at this point. We had a fantastic first day and we saw most of Phnom Penh’s sites. We are staying at a lovely hotel, Anise Hotel. It’s in a great location with a beautiful terrace where we had our breakfast both mornings. The staff is wonderful and they are going to help us arrange some other details of our trip later in the week. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again!
Our first stop in the morning was the Royal Palace Complex and the Silver Pagoda. The Royal Palace is home to the current monarch, King Sihamoni, so we could only visit the Throne Hall and a few of the buildings surrounding it. The buildings are stunning, especially the Throne Hall, or Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichhay. They have traditional Khmer roofs with ornate gilding and tiling. As usual, the photos just don’t do the place justice. It’s difficult to really capture the scale and grandeur of these buildings.
Also located in the palace complex is the Silver Pagoda, so named for the silver tiles on the floor. Each tile weighs 1kg and there are over 5,000 tiles! However, most of the tiles were covered with carpets to protect them. The official name is Wat Preah Keo, Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha. The current pagoda was rebuilt in 1962. The original pagoda was made of wood during the rule of King Norodom in 1892. (Bangkok also has a Wat Phra Keo from which King Norodom drew his inspiration.) Although the Pagoda was left untouched during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (only to show the outside world that it cared about Cambodia’s heritage) many of its contents were lost during the chaos of the Vietnamese invasion. There were no photographs allowed inside the hall so in order to see the brilliance inside, you’ll have to visit yourself!
After we left the Royal Palace we walked down the street a little ways toward the Mekong and caught a tuk tuk. Our driver, Mr. Day, was younger than many of the drivers we’d seen and a genuinely happy guy. We later learned that he had been born outside the city and moved to Phnom Penh to go to college. He only finished two years before he got married and needed to support his wife. After working as a bartender at a casino for a while and not advancing, he decided to start his own business as a tuk tuk driver. He spoke English pretty well (better than most of our students!) and told us that he had only been learning it for a year! He likes to practice with his passengers any chance he gets. Mr. Day ended up taking us around the entire day for $25 (we gave him a $5 tip too which is considered quite generous). He took us over to Choeung Ek, Tuol Sleng, the Russian Market, and a Khmer restaurant. We even ran into him later, on our way back to the hotel, and he gave us a ride for free! When I tried to pay him, he refused my money. We got his phone number so that we can use him when we are back in Phnom Penh on Saturday.
Our first stop with Mr. Day was Choeung Ek. It is the most well-known of over 300 killing fields the Khmer Rouge used to murder its own people. Roughly 17,000 people were brought from S-21 (a prison in Phnom Penh) and executed at Choeung Ek. Only about 9,000 of the remains were exhumed in 1980 leaving many more still buried in mass graves. Bones and clothing still come up to the surface as rain shifts the soil. The people were brought in trucks every 2-3 weeks at first and then people arrived daily. Some of the people were housed in buildings before being killed, while others were killed immediately. In order to save their bullets, which were in short supply and expensive, the Khmer Rouge usually beat their victims to death with whatever they could find – including women and children, some only infants. Although none of the buildings stand today, the admission price included an excellent audio tour which painted a very somber picture of the killing fields as they were. In 1988, the Memorial Stupa was erected in honor of the thousands of people who lost their lives at Choeung Ek. Inside the stupa are over 8,000 skulls of the victims. They are arranged by sex and age and are classified according to how they were killed. It’s a chilling sight and I could barely bring myself to take one photo.
After we left Choeung Ek, Mr. Day took us to Tuol Sleng Museum which was S-21 Prison. The former high school was transformed into a prison in 1975. S-21 was the largest torture prison in Cambodia. Most of the people held at S-21 were either taken to Choeung Ek or were tortured to death. Only 7 prisoners were alive when the Vietnamese Army liberated Phnom Penh in 1979. They had used their skills – like painting or photography – to stay alive. 14 other prisoners were tortured to death as the Vietnamese closed in on the city. Their decomposing bodies were left in the rooms where they died. As the Khmer Rouge continued its reign of terror, it often killed its own. Many of the torturers and executioners at S-21 were later tortured and killed by their replacements.
Both Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng were incredibly depressing to visit. Much like our visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, it was tough to visit a place where so many innocent people were killed with such brutal methods. In many ways Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek were more difficult to swallow. Many of the people were detained and murdered simply because they were educated. They were doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and mechanics. Many more were murdered because they were related to those people. Other people were murdered because they lived in the city and had soft hands. It’s worse because they were Cambodians killing Cambodians. And it’s atrocious because they couldn’t even kill people with mercy. They tortured people in the most barbaric ways. Even when they were taken to the killing fields they couldn’t just be shot, but were instead bludgeoned with tools or had their throats slit with the spiked-bark of a palm tree. People were sent from the cities to work on farms in the country. They were starved and worked to death. The rice they were forced to grow wasn’t used to feed them but was sent to China to pay for more weapons. It’s hard to understand. But it’s important that we honor the victims by visiting these sites and learning about what happened. Thankfully organizations like the Documentation Center of Cambodia are making sure the crimes of the Khmer Rouge are not forgotten. And the people of Cambodia have emerged as some of the friendliest, happiest people we’ve met on our travels.
Thankfully, after two solemn visits in a row, we visited the Russian Market for some retail therapy. The Market was given its moniker by foreigners because Russian expats shopped there in the 80s. It’s a good, narrow, dirty market. It’s dimly lit and the walkways are wide enough for one person. It was much dingier than the Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. However, I found the sellers to be less aggressive. Generally they politely called out for you to buy something but no one tried to grab me like they did in HCMC. I know that you’re supposed to haggle but I’m a terrible haggler. I don’t like it. So while I was good at resisting add-ons, I didn’t really try to barter. We bought a few things and might possibly return before we leave.
Mr. Day dropped us off at a Khmer restaurant after we finished shopping. We were famished, sweaty, and tired. We each ordered Angkor beers and food – I had stir-fried chicken and mango and Zach had an amok curry with pork. They were both delicious!
We went back to our hotel to shower and change. Then we had drinks on our hotel’s terrace before grabbing a tuk tuk over to a restaurant Zach wanted to try out. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a table so we went over to the Raffles Hotel instead to have a drink at their Elephant Bar. Our only motivation for doing so was because one of our favorite authors, Somerset Maugham, stayed at the hotel and drank at the bar when he was in Phnom Penh in the 1920s. Thankfully, their happy hour lasts until 9 so we were able to each order a nice cocktail. After our drinks we decided to go back and have dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. Again, we ordered Khmer dishes and they were excellent! We started with some delicious shrimp rolls, then Zach had the Beef Lok Lak, and I had the Fish Amok. When I was stuffed and couldn’t finish mine the waiter asked me why I didn’t finish! I was so embarrassed! Hopefully he believed that I really did enjoy the food and just couldn’t eat all of it…
This morning we got up early to begin our journey to Siem Reap. We are currently (2:00pm) over half way there. We’ll be there for the next two days and then we’re off to Kampot!
Final images of Phnom Penh: