Phnom Penh – A tragic past, hopefully a brighter future..

Finally, after six hours, our boat arrived at Sisowath Quay in the centre of Phnom Penh. Wading through the hordes of tuk tuk touts on the quayside we made our way up to the street where we found a really nice guy standing by his tuk tuk. Not at all pushy and he spoke excellent English! We agreed a price and he drove the four of us to The Teahouse Asian Resort, our home for the next two days. Not a bad place to stay but it would have been a whole lot better if they hadn’t been in the middle of demolition works and the whole restaurant area was covered in a thick layer of dust – right in the middle of high season, great planning!

Phnom Penh has long been one of our favourite Asian capital cities. Smaller and less manic than Bangkok, Hanoi or Saigon, it is an easy city to love and being relatively small, many places of interest are easily walkable. As with most of Asia, it has changed a lot since our last visit but mostly for the better. The poverty, so evident in past visits seems largely to have disappeared, although I suspect that the beggars who were so evident before have simply been moved on to different areas by the police.  As we will discover during our time in Cambodia, the improving fortunes of the country are not been felt by most of the population many of whom remain in poverty whilst the powerful, who seem to care little for the welfare of the average Cambodian people, get ever more wealthy.

Getting Around

The tuk-tuk driver that brought us from the dock was such a nice guy that we hired him to take us around the main sights the next day. We agreed a price of $25,  slightly above the going rate but having recently watched a BBC programme about a London cabbie who worked as a tuk tuk driver for a few weeks in Phnonm Penh, I came to understand the economics of being a tuk tuk driver and didn’t feel comfortable bargaining for any less.

Tuk tuks in Cambodia are larger than those in Thailand and can easily fit four people and are a great alternative to a taxi for getting around the city and its environs. Quicker than a taxi and easier to get in and out of when visiting lots of places, the ride includes a nice breeze to keep you cool in between. The main drawback is that you are exposed to the traffic fumes in the city and the dust outside in the country. Carolyn and Leigh combatted these issues like locals, with these rather fetching fashion accessories:

Phnom Penh

Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields

It is a chilling, yet strangely peaceful place and no less moving for having seen it before. The central shrine contains thousands of the skulls and bones excavated from the site and is a stark and moving reminder of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge era. Nowhere I have been demonstrates more powerfully the old adage that “evil succeeds when good men do nothing”.

I can recall from my youth in the 1970s watching John Pilger, the award winning Australian journalist, reporting on the atrocities. He always seemed outrages and questioned why the West stood by and did nothing. It is still remains a mystery to me or, as the cynic in me suggests, just maybe, it is as simple as the fact that Cambodia had no oil and were not strategically important.

Eventually the Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the Khmer Rouge reign of terror but not before millions had been slaughtered. Despite evoking memories of the past genocide, it is a strangely peaceful place and each time we have visited two things have been very noticeable: how quiet and respectful all the visitors are and, how there is always the sound of birdsong throughout the area.

Tuol Sleng, aka S-21 Prison

Originally a school, the Khmer Rouge turned this into arguably the most infamous prison, interrogation and torture centre. Pretty much left as it was discovered after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, it is one of the most chilling places I have ever visited. The cells are still there as are the implements of torture used by the interrogators many accompanied by graphic descriptions of how they were used. For me, the most horrific sight of all was the sign instructing prisoners how to behave when being tortured – see below.

Instruction for inmates - the most horrifying sign I have ever seen..
Instruction for inmates – the most horrifying sign I have ever seen..

14,000 people from the very young to the very old, passed through this prison.  Only 7 people survived their stay at the prison; the rest ended up being sent to their deaths at the Killing Fields.   Chum Mey is one of the only two survivors alive today, now well into his seventies still waits around the visitors centre every day, happy ( if indeed that is the right word!) to tell his story to anyone who wants to listen.

“I come every day to tell the world the truth about the Tuol Sleng prison… so that none of these crimes are ever repeated anywhere in the world.”

Time for a break , we treat our driver to lunch at restaurant down on Sisowath Quay. A whole array of fantastic Cambodian food on offer and I tell him he can choose whatever he wants. “Can I have a hamburger? I have never tried one before”. The cost of his burger in a tourist restaurant was around one quarter of his daily rate which really brought home the inequalities in life. He enjoyed his burger immensely but I did wonder whether he would have preferred the extra cash to take home to his family?

Over lunch we chat and he opens up about his life in the days of the Khmer Rouge. Brothers, parents aunts and uncles were all slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. In modern day Cambodia, the life of the poorer people is still very hard. The biggest complaint of many ordinary Cambodians is that corruption is rife amongst the police, army and of course politicians. All seem to enjoy virtually absolute, and apparently, uncontrolled power. As He told us of times, even today, that soldiers and police on a drunken binge in the poorer neighbourhoods would think nothing of shooting people just for fun, as part of a good night out. After all they have been through, the people of this wonderful country deserve a hell of a lot more from their “elected” government and public officials.

The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda

After lunch we head off to visit two of the premier tourist sights in Phnom Penh. The first being the Royal Palace. We buy our tickets and head off to the entrance. Leigh and Carolyn go first and are immediately turned away by the guards for being “improperly dressed” – something about showing too much flesh! Apparently, the sight of a bare shoulder offends the sensibilities of some Cambodian officials! Alan and I, on the other hand, are the very models of decorum and are granted entrance with no problems. We take our leave of the girls at the gates and wander around the palace and pagoda by ourselves.

The Royal Palace was apparently modelled on the Grand Palace in Bangkok. It is a lot smaller, but much less crowded and I think I actually prefer it to the Grand Palace. It is certainly a LOT easier and more relaxing to wander around without the crowds. Everything seems very well preserved and well organised. A very pleasant place to while away an hour or two. The Silver Pagoda was a little disappointing, not the Pagoda itself which is impressive, but its famous floor of 5000 solid silver tiles. In reality, most are covered by carpet and those that are visible are somewhat tarnished. A bit of a let down really.

Carolyn and Leigh went back to meet up with our guide and no doubt wandered the streets of Phnom Penh further inflaming the desires of the male population of Phnom Penh! Carolyn discovered that she had left her silk scarf back at the restaurant so they returned to see if it was still there – an hour or so later, not much hope I would have thought. Not so!  One of the street kids who had been hanging the restaurant playing with his friends (and making no attempt to beg from the customers)  saw them and immediately pointed them to a scooter parked nearby. The little boy had found the scarf and handed it to the waitress who had put it under the seat of her scooter (for “safekeeping”). Carolyn asked the waitress for the scarf who somewhat reluctantly, returned it. much  to the chagrin of the waitress who had “lost” what I suspect she thought was “her” scarf, Carolyn rewarded the street kid with $1 who was both surprised and absolutely delighted.

Such honesty from the youngest and the poorest of the poor – maybe Cambodia does have a bright future after all…

2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh – A tragic past, hopefully a brighter future..

  1. Sorry to hear that corruption hasn’t improved since I was there last. Most of the Cambodians seemed so poor I would feed the street kids (who weren’t actually begging).

    Agree about the silver Pagoda, but I enjoyed the murals.

    1. I know exactly what you mean regarding feeding the street kids. My heart agrees but my VSO training suggests there are better ways to help. Friends Restaurant in PP is an excellent example of what can be done for these kids

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