So, we made it to Phnom Penh! The reward is a few days in the capital to enjoy the good food, drink and culture that this fantastic, fast-changing city offers. Fortunately for us, we have two friends here, Alex and George, who act as our guides. Thanks so much guys! We secure a guesthouse, Homelands (where a decent double room with hot water and wifi costs $10 a night) just round the corner from their place, and then set about exploring the city.
On our first day we check out Wat Phnom, from which the city take its name, which is small compared to wats we’ve passed on the road, but still worth a visit, and Wat Langka, where we try our hand at playing some traditional Cambodian musical instruments. Considering what happened in this city 40 odd years ago, it’s impressive that these places have survived at all. We also look at the Royal Palace from the outside, and wander the water front.
In the evening we head to Meta House to watch some shorts and one feature length film from Laos’ emerging film scene. The quality is variable but it’s the subjects that are revealing; the changing lifestyle of an old fisherman living on 4,000 Islands, and the impossibility of love between people from different social classes living shoulder to shoulder in Vientiane.
Next day, we visit Tuol Sleng museum. This is a must, even if it’s pretty harrowing. Also known as S-21, it’s the place where many thousands of innocent people were sent to be tortured, ahead of their execution at the nearby Choeung Ek killing fields. The site is an old school, but when the Khmer Rouge took over and education was banned, it became a place of utter misery and pain.
As well as the countless testimonies of people who lived under the KR, there are also some incredible stories from survivors, and a hugely interesting special exhibition about the role of Swedish diplomats and observers who visited the country during its reign of terror, and gave their support to the regime. Somehow, the wool was pulled over their eyes as to what was really going on. Overall, the message is simple: never forget, and never let this happen again. Yet we know it has happened again since; in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia, and more recently in Syria and Nigeria.
It’s a sobering place to visit, but this shouldn’t put you off. On our way out, we briefly meet Chum Mey, one of just a handful of survivors, who saw his wife being shot dead and lost his four children too. He now spends his days at the museum, selling his book and telling his horrific story to anyone who will listen (if you saw the BBC series Mekong, it’s the same guy who Sue Perkins meets in the moving Cambodia episode).
We follow this the next day with a visit to Choeung Ek killing fields. Despite watching the incredible 1984 film The Killing Fields the night before at Flicks 2 cinema, nothing can really prepare you for it. Although there are few structures left relating to the terrible atrocities that took place here, the evidence is all around you – and under your feet. Incredibly, as you walk around the site you occasionally come across fragments of clothing and even human bones in the ground beneath your feet.
Even more disturbing is the tree against which babies heads were smashed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. It’s now adorned by peace bracelets. The memorial stupa, containing over 8,000 skulls of victims, is as poignant as it is disturbing. If it sounds like a macabre place, that’s because it is, but this shouldn’t stop you visiting, paying your respects, and learning more about this dark chapter in recent history. While it’s true that Cambodia is now moving on from its terrible recent past, we should never forget what happened here, and actively guard against it ever happening again.
Overall, Phnom Penh is a vibrant place to spend some time, especially after you’ve been out in the sticks for as long as we have! Big, sometimes smelly, always lively, and with a sense that it is going places. Eat Pad Thai with the locals at the night market and you’ll surely agree.