Today’s itinerary was to be a fairly miserable one, but something that anyone who visits Phnomh Penh should experience. Like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum should be visited by everyone.
Our tuk-tuk driver took us to the Killing Fields first where we paid out $2 entry fee and hired a guide for $5. For this place in particular, a guide is worth the extra as there are very few signs up giving information. The chap who accompanied us around the small site was knowledgeable and answered our many questions as well as giving us his well-rehearsed and informative spiel.
Amy pointed out that this site is nowhere near the size of somewhere like Auschwitz, but the Killing Fields were a different type of thing. Simply, they were execution grounds. The one in Choeung Ek is the largest of many discovered across the country after the reign of Pol Pot was thankfully brought to an end. Prisoners were brough here simply to await death. Pure and simple. Up to 300 a day arrived here and the murders were brutal, most involving the use of farm tools to save on ammunition. Nobody was safe – men, women, children. Anyone deemed a “threat” by the regime, or a relative of a threat, or a friend… over 1.2 million people died in these places over a 3-4 year period, 17000 of them at Choeung Ek. Most of these came from the detention centre of Tuol Sleng.
A monument has been erected here containing the skulls and other bones of a large number of the disintered dead. Walking around the area, you can still see bones in the ground, and the clothing of the dead also lies covered in a thin layer of earth. Simply, it’s too expensive for the government to keep digging up some of the bodies and a large number remain buried under a lake at the rear of the area.
From here, we took a break from the misery and stopped at the so-called “Russian Market”, Psar Tuol Tom Pong. This is a large indroor market and great for haggling in. Amy managed to find some presents for her parents and I got a new day-bag. It’s an enjoyable place to visit, but in reality there are about 10 different stores all of which are replicated many times over.
Back in the direction of our guest house lay the Genocide Museum at Tuol Sleng. Again, $2 got us in though we couldn’t find a guide anywhere. A shame as the ones I earwigged on the way round sounded well-informed so if you do see one, cough up the cash.
This place is depressing, disturbing, shocking and distasteful. But it also gives you hope. The people of Cambodia suffered awfully under the Khmer Rouge, yet somehow only a could of decades later are getting on with life with smiles on their faces. The fact that they’re not sweeping this period under the carpet is impressive. I couldn’t blame them if they wanted to.
People in this converted school were beaten, tortured, killed and forced to sign confessions. There were many reasons for ending up here: knowing a foreign language; being a professional; following a religion; having hands that were too soft; being named in one of the forced confessions; being related to anyone else who had been executed.
We spent well over an hour here before our driver returned us to the guest house. Here we dropped off our bags and walked down to the river side for lunch at the California 2 guest house – for a change, we had Mexican. Next stop was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, similar in layout to the palace and temple in Bangkok. Only around half of the grounds are accessible to the public and after going through the Cambodian queueing system (which, like the Vietnamese one, involves waving your money under the cashier’s nose before anyone else does) went to explore them. Entrance is $3 for foreigners, but I noticed the locals were paying far less. It’s also $2 for a photo permit which we didn’t bother with. Don’t tell anyone, but Amy took photos anyway. Bad girl!
The buildings are opulent and well-maintained as you’d expect of a palace. The highlight, though, is the Silver Pagoda (Wat Phra Keo). Constructed in 1892 – the same year as Newcastle United *cough* – and floored with over 5000 1kg silver tiles. Unfortunately, only a small area of the floor is visible and it’s roped off. The rest is covered by carpet. As with so many Buddhist pagodas, there’s a huge amount of “bling” – gold, diamond-encrusted Buddhas, Italian marble, Buddha relics…
As we left, the skies started to darken and we rushed around the corner to one of the city’s two Kantha Bopha hospitals. Amy dribbled some of the red stuff into a bag and, in return, got a much larger package of freebies than I did! Phonm Penh seems more geared up to locals donating, so the food package was more impressive. However, it’s not much use to someone in a guest house with no kitchen! Instead, we’re visiting an orphanage tomorrow so the food will go there.
The rain was lashing down as we walked outside so we decided to splash out on a tuk-tuk back. Worth the money given that we’d have been drenched by the end of the street otherwise.
Tonight would see us on a bit of a bar crawl after dinner at one of the many restaurants in town which fund local charities. This is nice place. Two to three days will be enough for us, I think, but it’s certainly a city worth visiting.