Today we’ll be telling you the tale of two cities that Phnom Penh represents. On the one hand is this bustling, modern, Asian city with majestic temples and gorgeous riverside promenades, but on the other is the capital and epicenter of a country that is imbued with a profoundly chilling history.
We’ll start with the first. You can tell this city is changing rapidly and whilst its facade isn’t yet as modern as Bangkok, like most large Asian cities I’m sure it’ll keep developing at speed and soon give Bangkok a run for its money. Chaos zooms through the gritty streets like there’s no tomorrow and, like blood thirsty mosquitos, thousands of tuktuks, scooters and cars make pedestrian life a nightmare. Given the constant traffic we spent most of our time on tuktuks which artfully and often impressively knew how to slalom their way through traffic.
On our first day our drivers took us to do some shopping in the city’s two main markets. The first, Central Market, offered a broad selection of souveneirs and clothes but centered its business around counterfeit watches and cheap jewelry. The second, knicknamed the Russian market, consisted of a maze of stalls and people selling anything from counterfeit branded clothing to electronics to authentic local souvenirs. In no time we polished up our haggling skills and started looking for bargains. Luckily the Savellis had a spare empty suitcase to fill with our buys.
We explored a different range of cuisines in Phnom Penh, some better than others. Sadly the amazing tasting menu we had at lovely restaurant ‘Malis’ was memorable for the wrong reason – it sent us to the toilet. ‘Friends’ was another good lunch spot we enjoyed not only for the food but also for its purpose, as it trains and gives jobs to underprivileged youngsters. And finally ‘FCC’, a riverside bar famous for its sunset views. Over the past few weeks our sunrise and sunset luck has been lacking, but we nonetheless had a gorgeous view over the river’s promenade which we then enjoyed on foot.
As touched upon, this city and two of its museum are sadly famous for more heart wrenching reasons, so get your tissues ready.
Barely 40 years ago the country underwent half a decade of torture under Pol Pot’s communist totalitarian regime. His Kmher Rouge army took over Cambodian cities in the mid ’70s and forced a mass-evacuation of city civilians to the countryside where their so-called new, pure, classless agrarian society could put down roots. Their aim was to erase class differences by bringing back society to an era of farming toil. In order to do so they eradicated their population of anything and anyone who was seen as a threat. Anyone who was affiliated to the previous government was linched, anyone who was educated or appeared to be – for example for wearing glasses or having soft hands – was killed, and anyone who questioned or defied the Angkar (the Kmher Rouge’s organisation) was eliminated. Within 48h of taking power all schools were shut, houses abandoned and cities deserted; families were split and everyone forced to move to the countryside to contribute to the newly imposed system. The Kmher Rouge ripped apart society and inflicted destruction upon all levels of culture; religion was not allowed, education was frowned upon unless serving to fuel the Kmher Rouge’s propaganda, buildings and facilities were destroyed, technology and engineering abandoned. The consequences were devastating for the country as a whole, but even more so for all afflicted families.
It is estimated that between 2 and 3 million Cambodians – i.e. 1 in 4 – died during the regime by hands of their fellow citizens and very own countrymen. During the dictatorship Cambodia’s population suffered through 4 years of highly dehumanising processes which involved starvation, torture and execution. People were stripped of their belongings, forced to work 16+h days in the fields and given decreasing rations of food every day. Everyone was clothed with the same black outfits and given the same haircuts. Working conditions were inhumane and worsened day by day, leading to thousands of deaths caused by starvation and disease.
When people were killed very often so were their families so nobody would be left to seek revenge against the Angkar. Sadly, killing methods were as heart wrenching as the result itself. Bullets were expensive so people were primarily hacked to death with whatever farming tools were available. Babies were often smashed onto trees to break their skulls. People’s throats were even sliced with sugar palm leaves and their sharp ridged edges.
Throughout the country there were over 300 mass graves where organising killings took place. We visited one in Phnom Penh which was a harrowing experience. This site saw the death of about 10,000 humans and is the place where still today fragments of bones and teeth remain and often come to surface during rainy seasons.
Following our tour around the killing fields we visited S21, a museum of what once was a secret prison and torture center for people detained for threatening the Angkar. There were over 200 in the country and all kept in horrific and soul destroying conditions. Hundreds of men and women were captured and brutally detained in tiny cells for months on end, tortured perpetually, and kept alive with mere spoonfuls of rice soup to stop them from dying.
Both museums are very raw and very real, and give an intense, eye-opening introduction to the country’s recent history. This point is probably the saddest, knowing that all these things happened so recently, just under 40 years ago.
It seems unbelievable that one man can cause such devastation; one man who killed for refusing to understand views that were not his own, made all the more poignant for us as we visited these haunting places on the same day Trump was being inaugurated.
And by no means do I draw comparisons between the two, but I leave you with a quote spoken by the German ambassador to Cambodia regarding the horrific events that we’ve just talked about, that seemed particularly thought provoking:
“It reminds us to be wary of people and regimes which ignore and disrespect human dignity. Remember our past as you look to your future.”
Ciao for now x