Phnom Penh, built at the junction of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers, is far and away Cambodia’s biggest city. It is a city with an ever-expanding population, evident by the large amount of construction of high rises throughout the region.
Phnom Penh citizens suffered incredible damage during the Khmer Rouge regime between the years of 1975 – 1979. All two and half million residents were evacuated from the city during the early days of the regime and sent to forced labour camps in the countryside where only incomprehensible pain and death awaited them. It is truly unbelievable that after previous genocides throughout the world that this destruction of a population could still occur, especially considering it was a mere 40 years ago. Although official numbers are unknown, prior to the Khmer Rouge forcing their way into power, around seven and half million were estimated to live in Cambodia and by the regime’s end, only three and half million remained. Unfortunately no one escaped unscathed from Pol Pot and his inhumane ideologies. Phnom Penh allowed us to take a glimpse into its brutal and very sad past.
The killing fields, a little over 14 kilometres from Phnom Penh, is the most well-known area to visit where up to 20,000 Cambodians were executed and buried in mass graves. We tossed up during our week-long stay if we would visit or not and for a number of reasons we decided it was best not too; including the little known fact that a Japanese company now owns the lease of the fields for their own profit. Instead we settled on the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 (Security Prison 21), located within the city itself. This museum is on the site of an old high school which was converted by the Khmer Rouge to a prison of unimaginable horrors.
14,000 Cambodians entered this prison during it’s four years of operation with only 12 known survivors. The cost of entry was $8 US ($10.85 NZD) per adult, which includes an audio tour in any number of languages. Although there is some written information scattered amongst the grounds, the audio tour is a must and includes nearly two hours worth of audio describing everything from the tortures used at the prison to information about the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime and their subsequent trials. S-21 includes four main buildings, all of which housed prisoners and little other in the way of furnishings. In some rooms steel framed beds with shackles have been left where they were found by liberating forces, often with a prisoner lying in his/her final resting place. Floors within the rooms and hallways are still stained red with blood and the barbed wire on the balconies remain in place. These were put up not to stop prisoners escaping, but to stop them jumping to their death to escape the horrible conditions inflicted upon them. Experiencing S-21 40 years after these atrocities was incredibly chilling and heart wrenching, and provides you a small glimpse into the miserable hell that was the home for 14,000 innocent souls. Photography is allowed through the grounds and some of the rooms, however we did not feel comfortable with this; instead taking just a few photos of the external entry gates. Without wanting to glorify S-21 as a tourist attraction it is important to visit to try to really understand what Cambodians suffered through during those four long years.As with most other places we visit we sought out the local markets and managed to visit three of the largest in Phnom Penh; Central Market, Phsar Tuol Tom Poung (most commonly known as the Russian Market) and Orussey Market. The Russian Market and Orussey are like many others found throughout Southeast Asian, in that they are hot, sweaty and very cramped and you often find yourself jostling for space in the small walkways. Central Market however was one of the cleanest and well designed older markets we have been to in the past eight months. Generally this would mean expensive and overpriced wares, however the price levels seemed very similar to the other two markets but with a much better selection. The market is also housed in a huge Art Deco dome style structure, making for an impressive building both inside and out.
We also managed to visit the National Museum of Cambodia, entry costs were $10 US ($13.58 NZD) per adult with children under 10 years free. Guided tours or audio tours are also available at an extra cost but we decided against it on this occasion. Sadly with very little written inside the museum we definitely missed out on a lot of information. The museum is home to many artifacts from the Angkor period, including pieces such as statues of Buddha from the temple ruins we visited around Siem Reap, including Angkor Wat. The museum is quite small in size however does present many different displays from different time periods, including information about past kings and Cambodian beliefs.
We enjoyed our time in Cambodia’s capital, and our 2 bedroom apartment in the Daun Penh area, however we were ready to move on. Especially since we had planned on spending our final two weeks in Cambodia on the coast and at the beach.
Average Daily Spend – $104.23 NZD ($68.27 under budget per day)