Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and largest city is located on the banks of Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong river. Its fate started as a small monastery on a hill in the year 1272 when it was founded by the Khmer woman Penh, after she found four Buddha statues in a tree trunk on the banks of the Mekong river. The Cambodian word for hill is Phnom and therefore the name “Phnom Penh” translates as “Hill of Penh”. In contrast to Angkor which was mainly influenced by Hinduism, Phnom Penh’s history was dominated by Buddhism.
After the Siamese (today’s Thai) conquered Angkor in 1421 the Khmer aristocracy which were unwilling to submit to the Siamese overlords fled from Angkor and established Phnom Penh as the new Khmer capital in 1424. However the Khmer never succeeded in establishing a new kingdom coming close to the glamour of Angkor. For long periods the Khmer kingdom centered in Phnom Penh wasn’t even a sovereign country but more like a satellite state or even directly ruled by the Vietnamese or the Siamese. For more than 400 years, politics in Phnom Penh was an act of balance between the two powerful neighbors, always trying to avoid Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam to entirely divide Cambodia between them.
In 1864 the Cambodian king Norodom accepted the status of a French protectorate, preempting moves of Siam and Vietnam of annexing Cambodia. During almost 90 years of colonial rule the French reshaped and extended Phnom Penh according to their architectural taste. In the 1920s Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia and over the next four decades Phnom Penh continued to experience development and rapid growth.
In 1975, 20 years after the end of French colonial rule, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh initiating some of the darkest times in Cambodia’s recent history. Within days the city was emptied and its population was forced into provincial labor and death camps. Phnom Penh became a ghost town. In 1979 Vietnamese troops moved into Cambodia and forced back the Khmer Rouge and people began to return to the city. Since the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1991, Phnom Penh experienced an economic boom and has begun catching up with its neighbors in its development.
In Phnom Penh we stayed at the TeaHouse hotel which had a good location, a great atmosphere and incredibly friendly staff. And coming from Australia it was unbelievable, how much value you get for your money 🙂
The TeaHouse lobby:
On our first evening in Phnom Penh we chose the restaurant called “Friends“. This is a training restaurant with the aim of providing young people, many of them former street youth, with the skills they need to become employable or even start their own business. The restaurant also provides high quality service and food, so besides supporting the local youth one additionally gets to enjoy delicious food and motivated service.
We started our dinner with crispy shrimp wontons and a sweet chili-lime dip:
Next we had steer fried red-tree ants with beef filet and holy basil:
Nope, this is not a contaminant in our meal, it’s an ingredient and part of the dish 🙂 Or with Apple’s phrase: “It’s a bug and a feature” of the meal!
Next we had crispy beef salad with roasted peanuts, chili-lime dressing, served with steamed rice:
And as our last dish we had a spicy grilled tomato, garlic and shallot dip with sticky rice (which was served in the bamboo-basket). After all those main-dishes there was absolutely no room left for desserts, which surely would also have been mouthwatering!
Some of the dishes were really spicy and when our lips started to go numb, we soothed them with sips from chilled local Cambodia and Beerlao Lager beer:
Next morning we started the day with a western type breakfast:
And ended the day with chilled cocktails on the hotel patio, listening to all kinds of unrecognizable animal noises coming from all around us. And it wasn’t due to the alcohol we couldn’t identify them 🙂
During the day we visited a cooking class which we will report on in the next post. Cheers!
Phnom Penh’s sights highlight the contradictorily past of Cambodia. The stunning legacy of the Angkorian god like kings is best illustrated by the grandeur of the Royal Palace which stands in strong contrast to the horrors suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime. We started with the pleasant part and visited the Royal Palace:
With its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding it is hidden away behind protective walls. At the entrance we got an interesting postcard with a picture of the Cambodian king and the following quote: “May his majesty be blessed with the four sublime blessings of Lord Buddha: Longevity, Good Health, Great Happiness and Wisdom.”
We wandered around in the gardens.
Explored the excessively decorated pagodas and temples and always kept looking for a place in the shade 🙂
Tini already wearing her Angkor Wat T-shirt:
Inside the Royal Palace compound is the Silver Pagoda. It is named after the fact that its floor is supposedly covered with 5’000 silver tiles.
Pictures from the inside were not allowed and most of the silver plates were covered with a thick red carpet, so no chance to count them and see if there were really 5’000 of them. Due to a Buddha statue made of Baccarat crystal on the inside, the Silver Pagoda is also known as Wat Preah Keo or Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha.
We continued through the palace complex and passed by many more sights:
We also spotted some of these little monkeys jumping around outside one of the temples. They looked fairly cute at first, but turned out to be quite aggressive. After Andy took a picture and stepped backwards one of the monkey jumped forward and grabbed Andy’s leg. We couldn’t really tell why, but this unexpected grabbing gave Andy a good scare. After that we kept a respectful distance to those little temple buggers!
And just to give you another example of these little delinquents: They climbed a tree and when another tourist group got up close to take pictures one of them started peeing from the tree… Luckily Andy got away with a scare!
After we left the Royal Palace we headed down to the riverfront, where the Tonle Sap meets the Mekong. There were booths and market stands along the promenade and one of the remarkable stands was a salesman selling sparrows. We found out that they are not being sold to keep or eat, but to be used as religious offerings. Buddhists believe that paying a small sum to set these birds free earns a person merit or releases a person’s sins.
Now we won’t judge this custom, but if nobody would buy the sparrows, no sparrows would be caught and consequently no sparrows would have to be set free. Question here is: Are sins also forgiven for freed sparrows which were purposely captured to be freed again? Does this also work if the same person first catches and then releases the sparrow again? 😉
After a day full of pagodas, kings, silver and sparrows we headed for dinner at a Cambodian restaurant. We had Sum Tam (Papaya Salad), stir fried chicken with cashew nuts, fried baby pok choi, morning glory, water grass and Chinese broccoli:
Sitting on the cushioned floor and having dinner we remembered the “monkey attack” at the temple and had a few more good laughs 🙂
The next day we decided to face Cambodia’s horrible and depressing history under the Khmer Rouge regime. They ruled the country from 1975 to 1979 under their leader Pol Pot and implemented an unbelievably radical and brutal restructuring of their own society. Their ultimate goal was to transform Cambodia into a giant peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative and an entirely self-sufficient state.
Within days after the communist Khmer Rouge regime took over the country the entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves without pay and almost no food. Intellectuals were systematically traced and wiped out. Having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. Hundreds of thousands of people were taken out in shackles to dig their own mass graves. Often the Khmer Rouge soldiers would bury them alive. A Khmer Rouge extermination prison directive ordered: “Bullets are not to be wasted”. These mass graves are referred to as Killing Fields.
We first visited the Choeung Ek Genocidial Center, also known as the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which is the most visited of over 300 Killing Fields throughout Cambodia. Most of the 17’000 detainees held at the S-21 prison, the Tuol Sleng detention center were executed there. We followed an audio tour at the Killing Fields, which gave an horrifying insight into Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and their terror regime. Estimates of the total number of deaths including disease and starvation range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a population of roughly 8 million.
After confessing under torture whatever the Khmer Rouge accused them of, the prisoners were brought from the S-21 prison to the Killing Fields, where they were beaten to death or buried half dead, to avoid wasting bullets. But they didn’t stop there. The relatives, siblings, children and even infants of adult victims were killed as well. This was done by bashing their heads against the trunks of trees while holding them at their feet. The reason was “to stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parents’ deaths”. Wandering through this now peaceful and shady orchard it is hard to imagine the brutality that unfolded at this place.
One of the most shocking realizations was, that these were Cambodians bringing such terrible pain and grief upon other Cambodians. All in the name of their Cambodian leader Saloth Sar who called himself Pol Pot (probably short for the French phrase: Politique Potentielle). Internationally, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge gained the recognition of 63 countries as the true government of Cambodia.
Only in 1979 after the Cambodian–Vietnamese War, Pol Pot fled to the jungles of southwest Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge government collapsed. From 1979 to 1997, Pol Pot and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power, with nominal United Nations recognition as the rightful government of Cambodia. Pol Pot died in 1998 while under house arrest. Despite government requests to inspect the body, it was cremated a few days later, giving rise to suspicions that he either committed suicide to avoid being turned over to an international tribunal, or was poisoned.
In the memorial stupa more than 8’000 skulls of the victims and their ragged clothing-remains are preserved and displayed, to never let the people forget the atrocities.
With all those horrible reports and pictures in mind, we left the Killing Fields and headed to the Tuol Sleng Museum, where the prisoners were held captive. Unbelievable that all of this inexpressible terror happened only 35 years ago. Every Cambodian over 40 years must have experienced these times and have some kind of recollection of it. This makes it even more impressive to see how friendly, happy and optimistic the Khmer people are today!
Back in Phnom Penh we visited the Genocide Museum Tuol Sleng, the former Security Prison 21. Once these buildings had been the Tuol Svay Prey High School before they were taken over in 1975 by Khmer Rouge. They transformed the classrooms into torture chambers, designed for detention, interrogation and deportation to the Killing Fields after confessions were received and documented.
After the Khmer Rouge had been chased off by the Vietnamese in 1979 the new government collected the evidence remaining at S-21. Among these were photographs, films, prisoner confession archives, torture tools and shackles. These evidence of the criminal regime are now at display for Cambodian and international visitors.
The barbed wires were installed to prevent the desperate and suffering victims from committing suicide by jumping off the higher floors.
In some of the buildings the big classrooms were turned into small cells, measuring only 0.8 x 2 square meters for caging individual prisoners.
The Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism and each prisoner was photographed. When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh, there were only seven prisoners alive in S-21. All of whom had used their skills, such as painting or photography to stay alive.
This had been a very depressing day. Before coming to Cambodia we had heard only very little about Pol Pot’s regime and the atrocities it had inflicted. Still we were glad we had chosen to visit and learn more about Cambodia’s terrible history under the Khmer Rouge.
One thought that kept coming back and was especially terrifying, was seeing of what horrible deeds humans are capable of. Already Plautus had stated 200 BC: “Homo homini lupus est”, or “man is a wolf to [his fellow] man”. In this Latin phrase he describes his observation that only man is capable of causing such horrors to his own kind. And history shows that this seems to keep repeating.This entry was posted in Asia, WorldMap