Not entirely sure how to feel about this place – like the rest of the country, it is still struggling to get up on its feet, many people are barely making it by every day as we see the many ramshackle homes standing by the roadside, you can tell the people are much more desperate here than in other parts of South East Asia, even the children go about finding their dinner by begging form strangers around the market. But it is good to see that the Cambodia it is growing ever so steadily; lots of things under construction, new roads being paved, tourists flowing in.
However the scars of devastation the Pol Pot regime left behind still remain. If you are unfamiliar with Cambodia’s history, Pol Pot was a socialist revolutionary who led the Khmer Rouge into a radical and brutal campaign that wiped out 1 quarter of the entire population. There were many massacres and tortures to stamp down any opposition, political opponents, teachers, doctors, lawyers and such were particularly targeted – all the people from the cities were evacuated and forced to live off the land and millions starved to death.
One of the most significant memorials for this tragedy are the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, where a massive Stupa houses thousands of human skulls recovered from the mass graves. The audio tour tells the story of how prisoners came to be here and in what manner they were executed, truly terrible circumstances. Although the grounds look quite peaceful now, the shallow pits in the ground are a stark reminder of the bloody history that happened not so long ago – pieces of cloth and bone fragments still sometimes surface after rains.
Another important site I visited with my two Danish dorm mates Sigurd and Maya, was the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum (also known as S-21). S-21 was a secret prison that was transformed from a high school, it was used to torture all sorts of people until they ‘confessed’ to their crimes. The old classrooms show some of the devices of torture, others show the tiny prison cells made of shoddily made brick walls. But perhaps the most gut wrenching sight was the thousands of faces of all the victims, their photographs lined up in a collage in one of the halls. No one left this place alive – they were all sent to the killing fields to be executed for their ‘crimes’.
I’d like to end on a lighter note, Phnom Penh as a tourist attraction is a pretty small world – you see the same faces walking up and down Sisowath Quay, and the same people visiting these sites. I met two girls from Sweden, Linn and Felicia, on the bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and I never expected to see them again. But then I bumped into them again just walking around looking for dinner, and then again the next day! Ended up chatting for quite a while, and I learned just about enough to make me want to visit Sweden; if not for the amazing sights in Lappland but for the many castles inhabited by the ever popular Swedish Royal Family (didn’t even know they had one). Turns out Felicia who lives right near the King’s castle sometimes sees him (the king) shopping at the local supermarket, or going for a morning run – you know, normal people stuff. But still fucking cool.