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Phnom Penh Promenade

In 1991, Cambodia reopened its doors to tourism for the first time in years.   But after almost a decade, the tourism industry still finds itself developing at a rather cautious pace.  Cambodia today, remains shaky both politically and economically.  With over a million unexploded land mines and sporadic unrest, it’s not surprising that it’s not everyone’s first choice in holiday destinations.   

Although the notorious Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge no longer exist, armed gangs still roam certain regions of the country; making traveling dangerous and inadvisable.  Presently, the  only real safe travel destinations within the country are Phnom Penh, Siam Reap and the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.  

Sweetcorn vendors at Siem Reap

The majority of visitors to Cambodia tend to fly straight into Siam Reap in order to experience the mystical beauty of Angkor Wat.  Without a doubt, it is the jewel of Cambodia’s tourism industry and should not be missed.  It has been deemed by historians as one of the  greatest  architectural wonders of the world.

The temples of Angkor were built from  879 to 1191 AD, when the Khmer empire was at the height of its power.  In 1431, the Thais  invaded and  drove the Khmers out of Angkor.   Angkor Wat became virtually deserted for centuries, and was thought to be nothing more than a myth.  However, in 1860, French explorer Henri Mouhot, rediscovered  the  ruins.   Angkor Wat remains  an area of untouched beauty.  Today over 100 temples still exist, covering an area of 400 sq. km.  Most of these temples are still in very good condition.  

The sheer size and intricacies of these magnificent ruins are something you will never forget.   However, visiting only  Angkor Wat is not enough.  To truly see and understand Cambodia’s past, a visit to Phnom Penh is a must.   In 1863, the French took over Phnom Penh, and converted it into one of the most beautiful cities in Indochina;   a city where the contrast between beauty, and brutality are overwhelming.   

Its beauty is not hard to find within its palaces, temples and museums.   The Grand Palace, (Royal Palace) in Phnom Penh was built in 1866 by the French and is located in the heart of the city.   Its architecture resembles in many ways the Royal Palace in Bangkok, except it is much less extravagant.   Within the Palace is the Coronation Hall, as well as an open-air theatre in which the Royal Dance Troupe performs.  The King’s private residence is also located within the palace compound, however, it is closed to the public.    

Plenty of smiles on offer

Also located within the Royal Palace is the Silver Pagoda, (which is also known as Wat Preah Kaeo).  It is made up of 5,000 individual silver tiles.  Much of the Khmer artwork that was housed within the pagoda was destroyed during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. However, some interesting pieces  still remain,  including a 90 kg. solid gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds and a 17th century Buddha made of crystal.  There are numerous other gold Buddha’s as well as beautifully carved Khmer masks on display.

Within the same vicinity of the Grand Palace, is the National Museum which displays many of Angkor Wat’s original carvings.  Many of the carvings at Angkor Wat were destroyed or stolen, but fortunately some have been returned to where they belong and can now be viewed by the public.   The museum also has displays of pottery and bronzes dating from the pre-Angkor periods, as well as more recent works. 

Although there is beauty to be seen in Phnom Penh, the obvious links to its cruel past remain ever present.   Visits to Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, and to the Killing Fields, presents a visual history of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.   It has been estimated that they were responsible for the death of between one and three million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. 

The Tuol Sleng Museum is located about ten minutes from downtown Phnom Penh.  It is unlike any museum you will ever see.  Although it gives an accurate testament to Cambodia’s past, it is incredibly horrifying.  The building that now houses the museum, was originally Tuol Svay Prey High School; but in 1975, Pol Pot’s security forces converted it into Cambodia’s largest detention centre.  It became know as Security Prison 21 (S-21).  

It is almost impossible to comprehend what went on here.  From outside its barbed wire fence, it looks like any other high school in Cambodia.  The grounds are full of palm trees, and the sounds of laughing children are everywhere.  The school’s volleyball court is still used by neighbourhood teenagers, and yet this is where 20,000 men, women, and children were interrogated and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. 

Dried fish snack

Many died while being interrogated, and as testimony to this,  there are fourteen  graves set within the courtyard.  The graves are those of the last people killed at S-21. Ironically their deaths occurred on the very day the Vietnamese liberated the city in 1979. 

The present Cambodian government has left the prison just as they found it in 1979.   Classrooms were converted into torture centres.  Desks were replaced by  metal beds with leg shackles, and prisoners were beaten to death with shovels.  Even today, the bloodstains still remain on the floors and walls of each classroom; while pictures of prisoners dying cruelly at the hands of the Khmer Rouge adorn the walls.   

The rules of S-21 are still on display today, “You are strictly prohibited to contest me.  If you disobey any point of my regulations, you will get ten lashes or five electric discharges”.  If it hadn’t been for the meticulous records kept by the Khmer Rouge, it would have been hard to believe that such atrocities had taken place here. 

The Khmer Rouge photographed every prisoner before being tortured.  Such pictures cover the walls of a half dozen rooms inside the museum.  Many had no idea of what was about to happen to them. As for others, the fear in their eyes was obvious.  All these people were later killed.  

The rest of the classrooms were used as prison cells.  VIP prisoners were chained to the floors in tiny cinder block cells, not even large enough to lie down in.  The less important prisoners, usually those with any form of education, were kept in mass detention behind wire mesh on the second and third floors.  In the last room in the museum is a map of Cambodia made up of hundreds of human skulls from the victims of S-21.  Across from it, stands a bust of the smiling face of Pol Pot. 

Located 15 km outside of central Phnom Penh, is the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.  The one-time orchard was converted by the Khmer Rouge into an extermination camp.  Between 1975 and 1978 the prisoners of S-21 were forced to march to Choeung Ek where they were executed upon arrival.  In order to avoid wasting bullets, the prisoners were simply beaten to death and then thrown into mass graves. 

In 1980, the remains of 8,985 bodies were discovered in mass graves in Choeung Ek.  Forty-three of the one hundred and twenty-nine graves have been left untouched.  In 1988, a Memorial Stupa was erected to honour those who died here at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  Inside the Stupa,  behind glass are the remains of over 8,000 human skulls. It is a very sobering reminder of what happened on this land, less than twenty-five years ago.  

Yet to look around at the luscious green fields, to listen to the birds chirping, and to see the people smiling, is all too surreal.  However, therein lies the secret of Cambodia’s  resilience. They don’t forget their past, but they also don’t allow it to consume and destroy them. 

The damage inflicted by the Pol Pot regime will be felt by generations to come.  The country’s literacy rate is incredibly low, largely as a result of the number of teachers that had been killed.  The destructions caused by landmines has given Cambodia the highest per-capita rate of amputees in the world, while poverty and disease gives it one of the highest infant mortality rates. 

Every single Cambodian has been affected by their violent past and all have a sad story to tell.  One night while eating dinner in a restaurant, the owner told us of how his parents had been taken away when he was just a child,   and how they had never been seen again.  I asked him how he deals with the anger of what happened to him.   To my surprise he smiled and said, “I feel no anger.  To carry the anger from the past will only ruin my future.”  This may very well be a philosophy that is followed by all the people of Cambodia.  Although their history is dark and sad the people of Cambodia refuse to live in darkness. Instead, they are trying to move beyond their past in hopes of a brighter future.

[Note from the Editor. Should mention here that Cambodia Unlimited is an excellent company operating small group, offbeat tours of Cambodia. Personally recommended by me]

GETTING THERE: Bangkok Airways provides a direct link with Siem Reap via Bangkok twice a day.  The flying time is one hour.  From Singapore, you can fly direct to Siem Reap via Koh Samui and Bangkok.  Direct flights link Phnom Penh to most major Southeast Asian cities.  Overland entry points are possible from Thailand and Vietnam.


WHERE TO STAY:  Goldiana Hotel, Phnom Penh, is located in the center of the city at No. 10-12, Road 282, Sangkat Bengkengkang 1, Khan Chamkarmon, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, (Tel. (855-23) 218490  or e-mail [email protected]).  It has 157 guest rooms with shower, mini bar, colour television and in-house movies.  Superior rooms start at US$ 40. 
Sofitel Cambodiana Hotel, Phnom Penh,  is located near the Grand Palace (Tel. (855-23) 426288).  Currently the Sofitel Cambodiana is the top hotel in Phnom Penh.  Its facilities include restaurants, bars, swimming pool, health center and tennis courts.  Singles start at US$170 doubles at US$ 200 and executive suites are priced at US$400.    
The Cathay Hotel, Phnom Penh, is located just north of the corner of 19th St. and 110th St., (Tel.  (855-23) 427178).  This is a very popular budget hotel, where air-con rooms go for US$ 20 and even cheaper if you don’t mind staying up on the 4th floor. 
Angkor Village Resort, Siem-Reap, Cambodia, (Tel. (855) 63963563)              [email protected].  The hotel was designed by a French architect,  who seems to have used Jim Thompson’s house in Bangkok as a model.  The hotel is aesthetically beautiful, and its facilities include a swimming pool, restaurant and dance theatre.  Rooms start at US$ 50 per night.    
CURRENCY:  There is really no need to change your money into the local currency (the riel), as the US dollar is used everywhere.    

VISAS:  Tourist visas  are given upon arrival into Cambodia.  Your visa will be valid for up to 30 days.  Visitors entering Cambodia by land  must arrange their visa and specify their entry and exit point through the Cambodian Embassy or consultant.

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