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Paul & Tracey's Travels
18th Feb 2014 - Vietnam,Laos & Cambodia
Phnom Penh and the killing fields

Today we had a glimpse of the capital Phnom Penh, and a harrowing insight into Cambodia' recent history under Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh is the capital and largest city of Cambodia. Located on the banks of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong River, Phnom Penh has been the national capital since French colonization of Cambodia, and has grown to become the nation's center of economic and industrial activities, as well as the center of security, politics, cultural heritage, and diplomacy of Cambodia. 

Once known as the "Pearl of Asia," it was considered one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina in the 1920s. Founded in 1434, the city is noted for its beautiful and historical architecture and attractions. There are a number of surviving French colonial buildings scattered along the grand boulevards.

Phnom Penh metropolitan area is home to about 2.2 million of Cambodia's population of over 14.8 million, up from about 1.9 million in 2008. The city is the wealthiest and most populous city in Cambodia and is the country's political hub.

At 8am we took a short cyclo trip around the streets near our hotel. A cyclo is a three wheeled bicycle driven from the rear, with a seat at the front. It is a neat way to weave in and out of the traffic in this busy city, although it can be a bit concerning as you head out in several lanes of traffic, some of which is coming towards you, and all of which is a lot bigger and faster than you !

First we travelled down the wide road running along the banks of the Tonie Sap River, then we turned in to see the French Colonial building that is the central post office. Then we weaved through some of the bustling inner city streets to stop at the amazing Royal Palace.

Cambodia is still a kingdom, and the King was in residence today. The public have only been able to visit some of the buildings in the last few years, and the huge white and gold buildings look amazing against the blue sky. In the grounds are several stupas, and there is a large area of plants and flowers you can wander through. A lot of the buildings look very similar to the temples we have seen on our travels. 

Back to the cyclos, it was nice to be moving again and to feel a bit of breeze, as the temperature was already in the mid 30Cs again with the usual high humidity you get in Cambodia. Recently some of the upland areas near the Thai border have experienced very unusually low temperatures of 10C which locals are just not used to, and many farmers have died, as they live in wooden huts without electricity, and do not have access to blankets or decent coats.

We took the cyclo to the National Museum which is an amazing red coloured temple like building. This houses hundreds of statues of Buddha, Vishnu and other religions practiced in Canbodia. In the centre is an open courtyard where we rested for a while - a party of Thai monks were wandering around the museum, and they looked striking in the red robes as they came into the courtyard with the lush green foliage against the background of the red building.

As we have travelled around, it is always amazing to see the wonderful buildings that have been built as places of worship or for important members of the community, but at times this is in start contrast to the buildings the members of the population live in. In Phnom Penh like other Asian towns and cities has that contrast - on one street you have the Royal Palace or some of the French Colonial buildings, and then literally around the corner you have people sitting in the dirt on the side of the road selling things. 85% of the country are farmers  and 90% of the rural population do not have electricity. Some villages have a generator, but this is only on for a few hours of the day in the evening. Lots of people will cook using wood or charcoal.

We took a bus across the city to a restaurant where we had a buffet meal with an amazing choice of food - all you can eat for $9. Then it was back in the bus to drive a few KM out of the city. There is building work going on  all around the city. Buildings are not supposed to be built over a certain height, but a couple of very tall hotels built with foreign investment have gone up recently.

Our hotel is near the US and UK embassies, and just around the corner is Freedom square. As we drove past, there were locals playing various sports or sitting around talking, however last month there were demonstrations here against low wages, and 5 people were killed, with many injured. If you cannot afford to pay, then you cannot receive medical treatment here.

After an hour of driving through suburbs and villages south of Phnom Penh we reached Choeng Ek which is one of the 3000 plus "killing fields" that existed during the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, during which several million Cambodians were killed.

This particular location used to be a Chinese cemetery, but was turned in a military camp where people were systematically tortured and killed. It is thought there were approximately 200,000 victims at this site alone, and because of the location near the capital, a lot of those would have been important figures in society.

The population were driven out of the cities to work as farmers or labourers. The work was so hard that many died. Educated people were sent to prisons and camps. Those who could not work or were against thee regime were also sent to here. Families were split up.

At the site we visited there is a stupa that contains 8985 skulls of men women and children that were found in mass graves there. Of course most are unidentified. Perhaps even more horrific, is that this is not all the bodies - as you walk around you can see bones in the ground that are rising to the surface as the wind, rain and peoples feet disturb the ground. Many of the bodies would have been destroyed rather than buried. 

At the end of the regime in 1979' there were over 1 million orphaned children, and the remaining population was over 75% female. There were no schools or teachers, so if children wanted to learn they needed to find and educated person in the area who could help teach them. Following this Cambodia was ruled for 10 years by Vietnam.

We then returned to the city on the bus to visit Toul Sleng. This was an inner city school which under the Khmer Rouge was turned into a prison, interrogation and torture centre. Again, men, women and children were killed here, and there are only two living survivors. One, a man of 82 was spared because he knew how to mend a typewriter, so was kept alive to do odd jobs. His wife was killed there. He spends his days now talking or visitors to the site. He was there today. 

We returned to the hotel very briefly, to change and shower before heading out again for an evening meal on the River, which is a few hundred yards from our hotel. The Tonie Sap and Mekong rivers run through the city and join together, and are quite wide and busy at this point. We joined a small open boat about 100 feet by 15 feet for a meal and a short cruise on the Tonie Sap and up the Mekong, and then back again.

As we joined the boat at 6pm the sun was just setting, and the city lights were coming on along the banks. There were a lot of working boats on the River, some big sea going vessels, other small fishing/rowing boats who continued to work in the dark with small lights hung up.

We felt pretty exhausted after today, so it was good to be back at the hotel by 8.30pm. Tomorrow, we will see a bit more of Phnom Penh.

Next: Final day in Phnom Penh and journey home
Previous: Road trip through Central Cambodia

Diary Photos

Monks at National Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cyclos await, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Post Office, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cyclo eye view of the road along Tonie Sap River, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The meeting of Tonie Sap and Mekong Rivers, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tracey at the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Paul and Tracey at Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Unusual flowering tree, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tracey in a cyclo, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tracey at National Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Paul at National Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Monks at the National Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Choeng Ek Killing Fields memorial, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Choeng Ek Killing Fields memorial, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Choeng Ek Killing Fields memorial, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Choeng Ek Killing Fields memorial, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

City street, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Toul Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Toul Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Toul Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Toul Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tracey boarding the boat for an evening cruise, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Fishing at dusk, Tonie Dap River, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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