It is a new year, with new possibilities and obviously the potential of many new destinations. 🙂 If you are a person who cannot stand the cold like me, then January to March is the ideal time for you to think about ticking off those South-East Asian destinations. One of them that I highly recommend is Cambodia. Now, while many people have the Angkor temples on their bucket list, not as many stop over at Phnom Penh, the capital of this small, soulful Asian country. But that is a mistake, because Phnom Penh packs a punch, both historically, as well as culturally. So, give Cambodia another couple of days, and definitely visit Phnom Penh.
I am not going to lie to you. Cambodia’s bustling streets and markets full of kind-faced people hide a dark and tragic history. While everyone knows about Hitler and the Holocaust, and almost everyone knows about the genocide in Russia during Stalin’s regime, relatively few people know that the fight between communism and capitalism was also fought in the streets of Cambodia. Pol Pot, Cambodia’s leader of the communist party and the Khmer Rouge, presided over a totalitarian dictatorship. His policy was to force people to abandon their homes and work in collective farms, kill people who asked questions, mostly the intellectuals and … well, just kill people for sport.
During his rule, 1 to 3 million Cambodians died gruesome, horrific deaths. And why am I recommending that you spend your holiday looking at things that are guaranteed to reduce you to tears? Because, it is my belief that murderers are not born, they are made. And by educating ourselves and our children about the lessons of the past, we just might be able to prevent history from repeating itself. At least, we can try.
So, during your two days in Phnom Penh, I recommend that you spend one day visiting the victims of the Khmer Rouge empire and just get it out of your way on the first day. On the second day, you can explore other aspects of Phnom Penh, like its Buddhist heritage and its Royal culture.
Tuol Sleng Genocide museum or S-21 prison
Have a light breakfast and leave around 8.30 AM from your hotel room. Take a tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, or what is commonly called the S-21 prison. Audio guides are available; Definitely get one. It will absolutely enrich your experience. This is not necessarily a good thing, because you will almost be able to envision the atrocities enacted here, but then again, turning the other way is what gets us in these situations in the first place, so we will be brave for the next few hours.
This museum was once a prison that held nearly 17,000 people between 1975 and 1978, most of whom were later taken to the killing fields of Choeung Ek. You will see room after room of photographs of prisoners, most of whom were killed later. The audio guide will tell you the personal stories of some of the prisoners, just about breaking your heart. Spend 2 hours here, taking in the stories, and listen to how the Khmer Rouge revolution slowly took over this peaceful country, devastating it. The Cambodia you see today is what has been rebuilt in the past 35-40 years, showing you how resilient these peaceful people are. A visit to Tuol Sleng is the perfect, albeit macabre, prelude to visiting the killing fields of Choueng Ek, but we have another stop to make before that.
Going from S-21 straight to the killing fields would be nearly impossible, so make a short stop at the Russian market. This is THE market to visit in Cambodia if you are only visiting one. Full of souvenirs like handicrafts, silks, jewelry, betel nut boxes and miniature Buddhas, it is a shopper’s paradise. You can also buy clothing- brands like Banana Republic and Calvin Klein cost half or a third of what they would at home. Of course, no one knows what is authentic and what isn’t, and the locals will sell you hard, so prepare to be skeptical and to bargain hard. Many items are factory seconds, so they are not all fake.
This place is a real bazaar, so an excellent location to sample local life and take some photographs. If you are hungry, the Russian market also has several food stalls. However, I would actually recommend the Sesame Noodle Bar. It is a short walk from the market and a great place for noodles and Gyoza. Oh, and why is it called the Russian Market, you ask? Simply because several Russians shopped here in the 80s. 🙂
As the name indicates, this is just a huge field currently consisting of mass grave-sites (about 20,000), hanging tress, trees against which infants were dashed and more than a million bodies. You will absolutely feel the chills down your spine as the audio guide narrates how loud communist music used to play here, to mask the sounds of people being murdered. Many times, people were not shot, but beaten to death with the butt of the rifle, because they did not want to waste bullets. Man, woman or child, the de-sensitized Khmer rouge soldiers killed them mercilessly, because it was a kill or be killed kind of time.
This killing field and its history are eerily similar to the stories of atrocity in Nazi concentration camps. Why, oh why do we descend to the basest forms of ourselves sometimes? We said, “Never again”, in Germany. We said, “Never again”, in Russia. We said, “Never again”, in China. We said, “Never again”, in Cambodia. Now, as we continue to say “Never again”, these atrocities are being perpetrated in some part of the world. Because the rest of us think it’s none of our business. Because we choose to look away. That is the lesson.
A good way to end this undeniably depressing day is to visit Sisowath Quay. The quay is a 3 km stretch of restaurants, street vendors, cyclists, shops and cafes. Just walk along the quay, enjoying the flow of life around you. Reflect on what you saw during the day, and then just look around you to see how resilient humans are, life is! Get dinner in one of the innumerable restaurants along the quay.
Cambodia National Museum
Start your day at about 9 AM with a visit to the Cambodia National Museum. The collection is is extensive, with over 14,000 items dating from pre-historic times to the times of the Khmer empire and after. It is easy to get lost in this museum and spend the entire day there, but that would not be worth it. If you already visited Siem Reap and the surrounding temples, you will see in this museum what was excavated or preserved from those temples. Use the audio guide to see key pieces from temples you visited that catch your interest. 2 hours is a reasonable amount of time to get acquainted with the best pieces this museum has to offer.
Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Right across from the National Museum is the Royal Palace, which serves as the residence of the king of Cambodia. This palace was built in the 1860s, and is an excellent example of Khmer architecture of the times, with subtle French influences. When you visit the Royal Palace, remember to dress conservatively. Cover your knees and your shoulders, or you will not be allowed inside (men and women).
Wikipedia has an interesting guide that will help you visit the Royal Palace. Use this guide to visit the Throne Hall, where the king and royal officials carried out their duties, the Moonlight Pavilion, which was and is a stage for Khmer classical dance, the silver pagoda, which is a compound containing the royal temple with several gold and silver Buddha statues as well as the famed Emerald Buddha, the Khemarin palace and the beautiful gardens than can be a cool respite on a hot Cambodian day.
After visiting the Royal palace, you can pick up lunch at the Kabbas restaurant, a famous local eatery nearby. Once done with lunch, at about 3 PM, head to Wat Ounalam, which is about a stone’s throw from the Royal Palace.
This is the most important Wat in Phnom Penh, and the centre of Cambodian Buddhism. It was constructed in 1443, and the main complex has a stupa that is believed to contain an eyebrow hair of Buddha.
Wat Ounalam is a big complex with about 44 structures. Take the time to wander around and soak in the peacefulness that seems to permeate the very stones of this beautiful Wat.
Once you visit Wat Ounalam, if you are in the mood for it, visit Central market. Pick up some last minute souvenirs. Or perhaps you want to visit more Buddhist sites, in which case Wat Phnom might be a good idea. But however you spend the next few hours, once the sun sets, do not forget to visit the Independence monument.
This monument was built to memorialize Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. Smack in the center of the city, this lotus shaped stupa with a ceremonial fire inside that is often lit during important national days speaks loudly of the loftiness of the human spirit. The ability to be subjected to abject horrors and then to rise from them, seemingly unscathed, still smiling, still kind, defines the Khmer spirit, committed to stone in this beautiful memorial. At night, when it is all lit up, it is a sight to behold. Let this be the last thing you see in Phnom Penh. So that, what you remember later might not be just the horrors, but also the beauty.2