Phnom Penh – Brutality and Optimism

The Royal Palace lit up to commemorate the recent passing of the King.
The Royal Palace lit up to commemorate the recent passing of the King.

October 2012 – We arrived from Si Phon Don to Phnom Penh at 12:30 in the morning in the driving rain roughly 5 hours later than anticipated after multiple bus delays the least interesting of which involved a flat tire…


and the most interesting of which involved the handcuffing of a Cambodian dude at gunpoint by angry Lao while the Cambodian was working on processing my passport (and that of several other falangs) through Cambodian customs. Regrettably I failed to capture that incident on film but here’s a shot of the border crossing where it mostly went down…


It was serious drama and both entertaining and maddening as it was going down. It dashed all hopes for even a close to timely arrival.

Phnom Penh is one of those cities that doesn’t really have a bus station and thus the private bus companies arrive and depart at their offices which are located on random street corners throughout the city.

A random street corner in Phnom Penh... although not the one at which I was dropped in the rain.
A random street corner in Phnom Penh… although not the one at which I was dropped in the rain.

Arriving at one such street corner in cats and dogs rain after midnight means you grab the closest tuk tuk and hope he understands your attempt to pronounce the name of your intended guesthouse and knows where it is. The driver I linked up with seemed to be familiar with the place I had reserved as he sung it back to me a few times after I shared it with him and his English seemed good if a bit slow.

I realized why shortly thereafter as he nearly nodded off a dozen times en route and utilized the full width of the road in gently rocking his ride from one side to the other on our slow trip through what were thankfully mostly deserted backstreets of a drenched Phnom Penh. He was hammered. He must have had about 5 too many Angkor beers. If there had been more cars on the road, and if he had been driving more than 10 miles per hour, it would have been very sketchy indeed. As it was, it was just good fun particularly because I was sharing the tuk tuk with a Scotsman who deemed the drunkenness and the driving to be fully within the bounds of good behavior.

The following afternoon after enjoying an excellent breakfast at my awesome guesthouse consisting of fresh baguettes (Viva la France!) with butter, strong coffee (Viva la France!) and a banana, pineapple, papaya and dragon fruit salad (Viva la Laos!), I grabbed my first moto taxi (where you ride double with the driver on a small motorbike with a mercifully longer seat which is the cheapest and quickest and funnest and possibly dodgiest way to get around town) and headed across town through the hilariously chaotic traffic to Tuol Sleng, a high school initially built by the French but re-purposed by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70’s as a torture, interrogation and detention center. For the vast majority who were processed through, it was either the end of the line or, for those who survived the interrogation and torture, a nightmarish final stop en route to a brutal death at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.


I should pause here to say that I am probably far more interested in the doings of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot than the average traveller in these parts as my senior thesis in college dealt with the American decision during the Vietnam War (or the American War as its known here) to export the war by dropping bomb after bomb after bomb on the eastern part of this country in an attempt to disrupt Viet Cong supply lines, a decision that directly contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. If you’re not familiar with the Khmer Rouge and their reign of terror during the mid to late 70s which resulted in the death of somewhere around 2-3 million Cambodians, I would highly recommend The Killing Fields. At a minimum check out the Wikipedia entry. It seems to me that it’s important that we are all aware of the extreme savagery and brutality that man is capable of and it’s equally as important to remember how often the countries capable of preventing or containing such tragedies fail to take the necessary steps to do so or, even worse, actually side with the perpetrators.

It was the Vietnamese who eventually rolled in and drove the Khmer Rouge out of town. When they arrived at Tuol Sleng they found the gruesome evidence of a final round of torture and execution carried out not long before their impending arrival. The bloodied and beaten bodies of Tuol Sleng’s final round of victims were found sprawled on the beds or floors of several of the interrogation and torture rooms. Someone photographed what they found and some of those photographs now hang on the walls of the rooms in which they were taken. The bed frames on which several of the victims were found are also still in a few of the rooms which makes for an utterly haunting and somewhat overwhelming visit to those rooms.


But perhaps even more haunting are the hundreds of individual black and white photos of former prisoners on display in several rooms. The Khmer Rouge photographed many of the prisoners upon arrival for record keeping purposes and some of those photographs have since been recovered. It is an intense experience to look into the eyes of the men, women and children in those photographs knowing full well that many of them suffered an array of cruel tortures and died in the very complex in which you are standing.


And those who didn’t die at Tuol Sleng almost certainly did 15 kilometers away at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek which I visited the following day.

It’s another very intense scene… although for me, Tuol Sleng presented the more palpable feel of death as between the two. Perhaps its because the death and suffering is more individualized at Tuol Sleng given the presence of the photographs of the victims. Almost every prisoner who survived the torture and interrogation at Tuol Sleng was eventually carted off in the middle of the night to Choeung Ek to be stabbed or beaten to death (Pol Pot forbid shooting prisoners as he deemed bullets to be far too precious of a commodity) and dumped into mass graves. Several of the graves have been excavated. But others remain untouched. Skeletal remains and clothing recovered from the excavated graves (and some that have been brought to the service from unexcavated graves by heavy rainfall) are on display at Choeung Ek. In addition, the skulls of hundreds of victims comprise a grisly tower in the middle of a memorial stupa at the site. It is quite horrifying but in no way does it seem gratuitous or unnecessarily graphic when you consider just how hellish things were under the Khmer Rouge.

And nothing better exemplifies the extremes of such hellishness than the Killing Tree…


Nothing stirred up stronger emotions for me than that tree and I’m sure it’s the same for many visitors. I’m at a loss for anything appropriate to write about it, so I think I’ll just allow the tree to speak for itself.

It’s hard to conceive of how a country can recover from such tragedy but it seems that Cambodians are doing a remarkably good job of it as the people I met seemed happy and optimistic and Phnom Penh certainly has a positive vibe about it. It seems to come alive at night in particular. There is a happening scene down on the riverfront with dudes kicking around the soccer ball and RATTAN BALL?, kids playing netless badminton, older kids cruising the main drag on their motorbikes and middle aged women sweating their way through what would appear to be free nightly outdoor sessions of Cambodian aerobics. There is plenty of tasty street food about town, a couple of great markets, and a solid bar and cafe scene.

The flame grilled squid cart is coming! Hooray!
The flame grilled squid cart is coming! Hooray!

Many of the bars and cafes in the Riverfront area have great wicker chairs parked under awnings near the sidewalk and those chairs are perfect for drinking iced coffees (best I’ve had on this trip so far although I’m sure Vietnam will have something to say about that come December) and/or icy Angkor beers and watching Phnom Penh do its thing. I rode out a spectacular rain storm in one such chair one evening the likes of which reminded me of summer in Tampa. It’s a cool city which is all the more remarkable given its hellish not too distant past, and it is truly a testament to the fact that Cambodians are a resilient bunch.

One such resilient Cambodian who sells the best iced coffee I've had on the trip thus far. Be forewarned, Vietnam.
One such resilient Cambodian who sells the best iced coffee I’ve had on the trip thus far. Be forewarned, Vietnam.

It is still a very poor country (as one would expect given its recent history) and one can only hope that such resiliency translates to better economic conditions in the future. It seems that there is a good amount of construction and development going on in town which I suppose may or may not be good for the Cambodians as much of it is funded by Chinese and Korean companies, at least if I’m to believe Barry from Middlesborough, an expat working in construction whom I met at happy hour one evening at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Phnom Penh. I actually went there hoping to hear some old school expat journalists and war photographers talk shop but had no such luck. I did however get some interesting perspectives on life in Phnom Penh from Barry. More importantly, I got some good info on Burma, where Barry lived for 7 years in the 80s and 90s and where I’ll be spending some time in January.

Construction that may or may not be of any benefit to Cambodians.
Construction that may or may not be of any benefit to Cambodians.

It was a good run in Phnom Penh. I only wish I had taken more pictures although I think it’s one of those cities that can be difficult to photograph well. I do not anticipate having that problem for my next stop which will be Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat and a host of other ancient temples and, hopefully, fertile grounds for playing out a few Indiana Jones fantasies that I’ve been harboring since my youth.


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