The Big Trip: Day Five - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I had one full day to explore Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I had some idea of what sights to see, so I deliberately scheduled things so that I start the day with the darker stuff, and end on a relatively high note. After all, I didn’t want to go to bed depressed.

I started the day with breakfast at Le Wok (#33 Eo Street 178 Phnom Penh), a charming little French-owned restaurant that served a pretty good breakfast. From there, I hailed a tuk-tuk, which was easy enough considering I was staying very close to the National Museum. After a bit of negotiation, I made my way to my first stop of the day.

My first step was Tuol Sleng. It was just another ordinary Cambodian school complex, until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge utilized it as the concentration camp S-21. Intellectuals and others suspected of opposing Pol Pot’s regime were held here in classrooms converted into tiny individual cells. Thousands of prisoners, including some foreigners, were held here until 1979. In 1980, the site was converted into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

Tuol Sleng

Upon entering the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, one feels an odd sense of reverent calmness, which betrays the horrors that happened within the old school buildings. Inside, artifacts from when the school was in use as a prison are preserved. Steel frames of cots remained inside, complete with illustrations on how the prisoners were held. A large water jar used for torture was on display outside. Assorted other torture implements were on display inside. Outlines on the tiled floor indicated how small each cell actually was. On one entire floor of one of the buildings, photos (mug shots, really) of presumably every person detained at Tuol Sleng were on display. It was a chilling exhibit of the people incarcerated within those walls. It was even more depressing knowing that all of them died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

There was also a video room showing a documentary about Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge regime, and it was a good way to gain some perspective and context on the whole thing. I must confess that I didn’t really know a lot about what happened, so I definitely learned a lot through the video. There was something chilling about the idea that if I had been in Cambodia at that time, I probably would have been one of the first to be captured and killed.

From there, I went to the next logical stop. Almost every prisoner at Tuol Sleng was taken to Choeung Ek, also known as the Killing Fields. Prisoners were taken here to be killed en masse. Greeting me upon entry to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields was a stupa (a Buddhist religious monument) erected as a memorial to those who died in the Killing Fields.

Choeung Ek

Inside the stupa were the skulls of the dead found in Choeung Ek, sorted by gender and age.

skulls at Choeung Ek

Looking at the skulls made you realize that the regime of Pol Pot spared nobody, regardless of age and gender; some foreigners were even among those killed. (A recent news article I read said that the Khmer Rouge killed infants to prevent them from growing up and vowing revenge. Sick.)

Just like in Tuol Sleng, there was an almost reverent silence in Choeung Ek. Walking around the Killing Fields yielded some truly depressing and sickening sights. There were small piles of undecayed clothing worn by victims. There was a box containing bones of those killed in Choeung Ek. One tree was identified as a “magic tree” where a loudspeaker was placed to drown out the sounds of torture and killing. Another tree was where children were beaten to death. And of course, the dug-up mass graves were all over the place.

mass graves at Choeung Ek

It was a depressing and sobering experience, to say the least. It was mind-boggling to see what a human being is capable to doing all in the name of his own beliefs, whether they were self-serving (as was usually the case) or not. Reflecting back on it, I thought that it must have been terrible to be living in Southeast Asia in the 1970s, with the war in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Martial Law in the Philippines, among others.

After visiting the genocide memorials in Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, I headed back to the city center. I had lunch, then booked my bus trip to Siem Reap the next day. After lunch, I decided to explore the far less depressing sights of Phnom Penh. I walked to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, which was still closed for lunch. I lined up, along with some American tourists, as well as some locals who I suppose wanted a glimpse of the palace.

Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

At 2:00pm, the gates were opened, and after paying the entrance fee, everyone entered the grounds of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. This was a stark contrast to the horrors of Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. The place was very beautiful and grand, definitely befitting royalty.

Royal Palace

The first stop, of course, was the Royal Palace itself. It was a massive building in your typical Cambodian architectural style. It was beautiful. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed inside the palace itself, but the interior was definitely as grand as the exterior.

Royal Palace

I explored the grounds of the Royal Palace. There were a lot of different buildings inside. One building that caught my eye was the Napoleon III Pavilion, a completely out-of-place European-style building sitting lonely amidst its Cambodian counterparts. Apparently, in 1876, it was given as a gift by Emperor Napoleon III to King Norodom. Other buildings in the complex include the Chanchhaya Pavilion (which is the first thing one sees outside the complex) and the Phochani Pavilion.

From there, it was time to explore the Silver Pagoda and its surrounding buildings. The Silver Pagoda itself was quite large, and inside, it was amazing to see the silver tiles on the floor. Most were covered in carpet, though, to protect the tiles from the elements (and, I would imagine, thieves). Inside the silver palace were various to the Cambodian royal family, as well as a wide assortment of Buddha figures. Just like the Royal Palace, photography was not allowed inside the Silver Pagoda.

Silver Pagoda

Also in the complex were various stupas containing ashes of the previous Cambodian kings. There was a statue of King Norodom by the French artist Eude. There was also a model of Angkor Wat within the complex. The interior walls of the place were covered with murals of the Cambodian retelling of the Ramayana story.

statue of King Norodom

There were other exhibits within the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda complex, including a display of traditional Cambodian costumes, as well as a miniature recreation of the coronation of one of its kings.

From the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, it was a quick walk to the National Museum. Housed in another Khmer-style building, the museum contained relics and artifacts from Cambodia’s past, including those found at the various Angkor temples, as well as similar temples and buildings throughout Cambodia. It was a good introduction to the wonders that I would be seeing in Siem Reap in the next few days. The place was also under renovation.

National Museum

I continued my afternoon walk around Phnom Penh and passed by Wat Ounalom. It is apparently the center of Cambodian Buddhism, and it was bustling with life when I passed through it. I didn’t go inside; I just snapped pictures of the buildings it contained.

Wat Ounalom

From there, I walked to Wat Phnom. It was a longer, more exhausting walk than I thought it would be, and I was starting to regret not taking a tuk-tuk until I actually arrived. Wat Phnom was surrounded by tuk-tuks waiting for weary tourists, various peddlers selling an assortment of street goods, and some locals hanging around. I later read in a local newspaper that the place was also frequented by prostitutes and sex workers at night. Upon arriving at Wat Phnom, I was greeted by a large, working garden clock.

I then climbed up the steps to the temple. Towards the top, a lady spoke to me in Khmer. I must have given her a confused look, because she then started to speak to me in English and told me, “I thought you were Cambodian.” If I spoke or understood some Khmer, I probably would have avoided paying the entrance fee (which my Lonely Planet book assures is only for foreigners). Anyway, it was nice seeing a “working” temple, especially one on top of a hill (albeit an artifical one), with a bit of a view of the city and the smell of the incense filling the air.

Wat Phnom

Even if I was still exhausted from walking to (and climbing to the top of) Wat Phnom, I didn’t want to patronize the dollar-hungry tuk-tuk drivers ready to prey on clueless tourists (which was the impression that I got, anyway). So, I decided to walk to the Phnom Penh Central Market, or Psah Thmei. Being a fan of interesting architecture, I was excited to see the art deco building. I also wanted to take the time to maybe take a look at possible souvenirs to take back home. So it was a huge disappointment to find that Psah Thmei was undergoing renovation when I went there.

Psah Thmei

Although the building remained visible, a good portion of it was covered in green netting. One couldn’t take a close look at it because all of the market’s tenants were relocated to the area right outside the market. It was hard to find anything of note within the market, so I wasn’t able to do any shopping at all. I did manage to snap some pictures of the market, but it felt like such a huge letdown given my anticipation. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return to Phnom Penh someday and see the market in its renovated, reconstructed glory.

From the market, I walked back to my guesthouse to rest my weary legs (and other weary body parts). I then decided to explore the area around me again, and I ended up looking at some Cambodian silk products at Up to You, a store that sells fair trade handicrafts and silk works. I spent a good amount of time looking through the items on sale, and eventually got a couple of silk wallets for my mom and aunt, and a silk elephant for myself. (Up to You is located at Nº. 3, Sothearos (St. 3), near Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh.)

I had dinner at one of those must-see places in Phnom Penh: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, or FCC. The FCC is along Sisowath Quay, and where I was seated, I had a pretty good view of the Quay at night. There was a ferry sailing on the river, and the roads weren’t as busy as I expected.

The FCC was a good place to hang out, and the food wasn’t bad, either. It seemed like a nice place to relax and hang out with other fellow travelers with a beer in hand.

FCC Phnom Penh

Unfortunately, after all the walking I did in the afternoon, I just wasn’t in the mood. So I went back to the guesthouse (stopping by the nearby bookstore to browse) and went to sleep, anticipating the long bus trip to Siem Reap the next day.

You can view all of these photos and more on Flickr.

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