On our drive from the airport to the hotel we quickly realized that Phnom Penh is a very different city from Siem Reap. First of all it’s bigger, about double the size, but less touristy, no tour buses lining the streets like in Siem Reap. It’s dirty, it’s loud, the poverty more in-your-face, the traffic at best is organized chaos.
It’s gritty…a city with an edge to it.
It’s gritty…a city with an edge to it.
But there’s something compelling about it too…we were eager to learn and explore.
Our first afternoon was spent touring by traditional transportation method, the cyclo. It afforded us a gentler pace, albeit a little scarier, way to soak up the scenes and discover this city outside the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. It turned out to be quite enjoyable.
Our guide was a local architecture student (arranged by AboutAsia). Weaving through Phnom Penh's colourful city streets bustling with activity and wizzing motos, he showed us some of the hidden gems of this multifaceted capital. The fusion of past and present and it’s juxtaposition of old and new, a city of contrasts; French colonial, Chinese style, and Khmer. All crammed together.
Ritzy hotels stand side by side with abandoned derelict buildings and elegant temples.
Tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and North American style fast food outlets that the average Cambodian could never afford to eat at.
You can see that it’s a city still recovering from decades of colonial rule, from civil strife, and most recently from the genocide perpetrated during the Khmer Rouge regime. Glass and steel towers rise beside shanty town shacks. The infrastructure is in shambles while the economy is rapidly trying to play catch up. In addition corruption is rampant, so we were told, which makes getting ahead even harder.
One of the sites that the guide took us to interested us in particular. It is their main library. Only it's not a true library at least not in our (western) definition of the word. They have so few books that they do not lend any out. Students have to come in and read the book they require for class at one of the few tables and then only for a short while, because someone else needs to read that book too. Too sad.
This is the inscription on the wall in the portico. Translated to English it means, "Force binds for a while but ideas bind forever". Very fitting for this country and in particular a library.
The following day Cambodia’s tragic past was presented to us in living colour at the Killing Fields (chillingly depicted in the movie) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. Our guide that day was a local gentleman whose father had been a victim of those horrors. His emotional pain still obvious, but he told us that showing us and talking about it was therapeutic for him. I vaguely remember learning about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in high-school, but was reminded again how people (men, women, and children) often for no particular reason were rounded up and systematically executed. It was impressed on us that artists, intellectuals, academics were especially target.
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum hasn’t been changed much since it served as a torture prison and we were able to walk around the whole site. The prison cells still had the original beds, chains and even blood stains on the floors and ceilings. The instruments of torture were still present along with signs and pictures showing how they were used. Seeing pictures of the victims made it all too real.
Both sights are heartbreaking and hard to take in, as the brutality of the regime is portrayed in very graphic detail. But I think it is important to have this somber eye opening experience… Lest we forget.
This same guide also showed us some of the beauty that Phnom Penh has to offer. In the form of the Royal Palace with its beautiful Silver Pagoda (no pictures allowed) and the adjacent National Museum which house the world's foremost collection of Khmer art. The grounds were a peaceful retreat, filled with flowers, topiary and art. Our guide noted that our interest in art and flowers meant that we were peaceful people. Cool.
As always we had time to explore on our own. We walked the dusty streets both during the day and at night....constantly being asked if we needed a tuk tuk. We people watched, or they watched us since we're the ones that stand out. We ate street food, browsed the markets and relaxed at our oasis of a hotel.