We arrived in Phnom Penh on a speedboat on the Mekong River on a blisteringly hot April afternoon. We spent our first evening walking around town, going for dinner and preparing for a program filled couple of days.
Out of all of the countries of South-East Asia, I think Cambodia was the one I was most looking forward to. I couldn’t wait to get to Phnom Penh and I had so much anticipation building up, I couldn’t wait to explore its culture and its people.
By recommendation, Adam and I both read a book by Loung Ung called ‘First They Killed My Father’ to prepare a bit for our trip here. We read this book while taking the slowboat down the Mekong in Laos. When you are on a boat for 8 hours straight for 2 days, you need a good book ready and I felt this was a great book to immerse ourselves in while there weren’t many distractions around. I believe Angelina Jolie is currently researching a film adaptation of this book.
In the West not many people are aware of Cambodia’s tragic recent history. This country suffered under the most unimaginable evil regime that is just so so hard to get my head around… And not only did it happen in living memory, but it is scary how recently something like this could have happened in the world. The Khmer Rouge gained control of the country in 1975 and for the next 4 years carried out a systematic genocide of the Cambodian people. A quarter of the population, an estimated 2-3 million people died by 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown.
This is an incredibly upsetting and horrific subject. I am not even going to attempt within the frames of this blog to go into any deep description or analysis of what happened in Cambodia 40 years ago, because I just would not have the words. If you would like to learn more about Cambodia and its recent history I can highly recommend you to read Luang Ung’s book as an introduction. And then maybe read Haing S Ngor’s book ‘Survival in the Killing Fields’. And then visit Cambodia and marvel at its beauty, at its people and reflect on their tragedy. But please do not go to Cambodia, before learning about their history first.
We arrived in Phnom Penh over the Cambodian New Year holiday. While there were loads of things going on in Siem Reap and other parts of Cambodia, it seemed to us that the capital city Phnom Penh just closed up for the holiday. There was nothing really open and the place looked a little bit like a ghost town. We were a bit gutted that we were in the right country at the right time, but we still missed the big celebrations!! 🙁
We had a full couple of days in Phnom Penh regardless. Our first full day we spent visiting the Cheung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also known as the S21 prison. Our guidebook and a lot of Tripadvisor reviews said that we should try and avoid visiting these two sites on the same day as that would be way too depressing. We thought otherwise. Depressing or not, these things happened, we were not afraid of experiencing both sites, which are effectively museums to the memories of that time awful time in Cambodia. Both sites seek to teach people about the horrors of the past so they will not be repeated. Having read a book about it we also felt we came prepared.
One tip I would give though if you are in Phnom Penh – if possible you should visit the prison first and then The Killing Fields just to keep to the chronological order of things. We had to visit The Killing Fields first as we arranged a tuk-tuk ride through our hotel for early in the morning. From Phnom Penh centre it takes about 45 minutes to an hour on a tuk-tuk to get there and the ride costs about $20. You need about an hour and a half to two hours to walk around the site and see the documentary film shown in the screening room. The tuk-tuk driver in the meantime waits outside, but he will wait for as long as you need as you are effectively buying his time.
Walking around the killing fields is a sobering experience. The audio guide is a must, it is excellent. Read more about the Killing Fields here and below are some of my photos of our time there:
After our trip to the Killing Fields we returned to our hotel for a little downtime. We were visiting the city in April – the hottest month in South East Asia, and Cambodia being undoubtedly the hottest country in SE Asia, you cannot survive a day without a couple of hours of respite from the sun and the heat.
Mid-afternoon we hailed another tuk-tuk and headed to S21 prison on the outskirts of the city. The prison used to be a high school but was turned into a prison / torture centre where prisoners were held before they were sent to the Killing Fields. Again, I am not going to attempt putting into words what you will learn about or see there, but Wikipedia has a good collection of information on the museum.
I didn’t take any photos in there as there were signs kindly asking visitors not to do so out of respect for the place and what it represented (however there were still many tourists taking photos).
We learnt a lot on this day and what I loved most about was the Cambodian government’s effort to educate the public – its own people and those visiting from elsewhere: The museums’ mission:
- Educate Americans, Cambodian Americans and other nationalities about the factual history of the Khmer Rouge atrocities and help prevent future crimes against humanity.
- Provide students, scholars, journalists and the public access to information, photographs, artifacts and documents relating to the holocaust.
- Honor and remember the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge holocaust.
- Help preserve the art and literature of Cambodia – nearly extinguished by Khmer Rouge policies through exhibits, performances and lectures.
- Serve as a fund-raising channel to humanitarian, cultural and educational projects benefiting Cambodians, Cambodian Americans and the community at large.
(From the website of The Killing Fields Museum, http://www.killingfieldsmuseum.com/about-us.html)