Phnom Penh

25 Aug

Lately it seems to me that every place I travel to is slightly more exotic/less structured than the places I’ve been before. When I went to Guatemala two years ago, and saw the chicken buses and the bank guards with guns, it seemed crazy to me. Then I got to Thailand, saw the motorbikes, the traffic, the red light districts, and thought, “This is nuts”. Well, Cambodia upped the ante, particularly its capital, Phnom Penh, particularly with regard to the traffic. The traffic there is simply insane. There are fewer cars than Bangkok, more motorbikes, many more tuk tuks, and no discernible rules or regulations.  A few of the major intersections have traffic lights, but the majority do not. What this means is that one can find a four lane road meeting a six lane road without any hint as to who travels when. The prevailing tactic seems to be slow down (somewhat), honk your horn loudly, then plow across. I also saw several people blatantly driving the wrong direction up a one way street. I don’t have stats on the number of traffic accidents that take place daily, but we only saw one in three days, so perhaps this somehow works for the Cambodians. As a pedestrian, I found the traffic overwhelming. Imagine trying to cross the street in that! I have been told that the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is even more psychotic, so my trend of visiting increasingly crazy places will continue nicely (Vietnam is our next adventure).

Other than the chaos of the traffic, Phnom Penh was a nice city. We spent two and a half days there, visited a handful of sights, and generally wandered around. On our first day, we saw the Royal Palace, and the Silver Pagoda. The Royal Palace was modeled after the Grand Palace in Bangkok, so although it was nice, I didn’t find it that exciting. Ditto the Silver Pagoda. My faithful book, 1,000 Places To See Before You Die, lists the Silver Pagoda as one of the two things one must see in Cambodia (Ankgor Wat being the other) but after visiting Chiang Mai and the many temples there, the Silver Pagoda was uneventful. Lovely, shiny with bling, but uneventful.

On the second day of our stay, we visited Choeung Ek aka the Killing Fields, and the Tuol Sleng Museum. After an extremely dusty tuk tuk ride into the ‘burbs of Phnom Penh, you reach the end of a narrow road and find yourself in an old longan orchard that served as an extermination camp during the Khmer Rouge. Some 17,000 people were brutally killed and dumped in mass graves there, and yet the site and the surrounding scenery are so unremarkable that I found it hard to wrap my mind around the atrocities that took place. The killing fields are peaceful, with a large pool, and shady palm trees. Other than the memorial plaques and stupa that have been erected, the only clue as to the fields’ former use would be the bones that occasionally still wash up out of the mass graves during the rainy season. The utter normal-ness of the site made the horrible things that took place there even more disturbing.

I found the same to be true of the Tuol Sleng Museum. Tuol Sleng was a high school that became S-21 Prison during the Khmer Rouge, and is now a museum and memorial to the genocide. Political prisoners were held and tortured at S-21 before being sent to Choeung Ek. The prison is in Phnom Penh itself, and the surrounding streets are filled with homes and restaurants. The educational beginnings of the complex are obvious. The buildings look like school buildings, plus barbed wire. It is clear where the playground once was. The Khmer Rouge had a weird obsession with documentation, the result of which is that the museum now houses thousands of black and white photos of the victims of the genocide. Bulletin boards, covered on both sides with photos, fill several rooms of the museum. All in all, we had an educational but unsettling morning visiting these sites, and yet I am glad we did.

And now, a few photos (if you’re not too depressed after reading my post):


2 Responses to “Phnom Penh”

  1. Elaine McCormick September 26, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    I don’t think this place will make it to my top 10 list of places to see; but I’m glad the two of you were able to do so. Love, Mom


  1. Mandalay | The Jacksons Take Thailand - November 9, 2014

    […] and Manhattan has approximately 27,000 people in the same size space. Mandalay reminded me a bit of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. This makes sense since they are both large cities in the midst of poor, […]

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