Thursday, June 21, 2012

Phnom Penh: A City Fresh From Tragedy ~ Vietnam and Cambodia

o my generation the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh became synonymous with the Vietnam War and the killing fields of The Khmer Rouge. During the war the population of Phnom Penh swelled to over 3 million as refugees flooded in to escape the fighting between their government, The North Vietnamese Army, The National Liberation Front, The South Vietnamese and their allies and the Khmer Rouge. The city fell to The Khmer Rouge in 1975 and systematic torture and killing of its people began. The horrors that followed have left a permanent scar on this beautiful country. Thankfully the Khmer Rouge were eventually driven out of Phnom Penh in 1979 by Cambodia's old enemy Vietnam, leaving the citizens with mixed feelings. The development since has been spurred on by a stable government and foreign investment. By 1998 the population was down to just 850,000 but has since risen to around 2 million.

The city was founded in 1434 but it was the French period of colonial rule that has given it most of its significant buildings. In the period from 1870 to 1920 the French effectively turned a sleepy riverside village into a thriving city with impressive buildings all along the riverfront. Situated on the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers gave it a historically important position as a trading route.

Much of the colonial feel remains to this day though it is all somewhat jaded. The paint has faded and the walls have cracked giving the whole place a worn out and tired feel. But it still remains a great place to visit. My taxi driver dropped me off in the entertainment capital of the city, though no lights were on anywhere as they had to turn them off because, "big rain coming." There are however some good bars and restaurants to be found where an eclectic mix of road weary travellers, Vietnam vets and various other types make for interesting conversation.

The Victory monument can be found at the intersection of the Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, it was built to mark independence from France, but since the Khmer Rouge years it has become a symbol of Cambodia's war dead. Built to resemble the style of Wat or temple in the country, it is affectionately known as the pineapple.

The Royal Palace is well worth a visit and contains The Silver Pagoda and The Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Visit these in the morning before the sun gets high in the sky. As always in Asian temples dress modestly, should you find yourself here without adequate clothing though, Sarongs and Large T shirts can be rented.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) and the killing fields of Choeung Ek are certainly not for the faint hearted. The graphic images, piles of human skulls and the knowledge of what happened make these two venues highly emotional and deeply disturbing. 14,000 poor souls were sent into S-21 prison to be tortured and only 8 came out alive. At the Killing field site which is a 40 minute drive from Phnom Penh there is a glass sided temple where 8,000 human skulls can be seen piled up inside. Nobody knows how many were killed here but estimates put the number at a staggering 1.7 million.

Sisowath Quay or the Riverside is an attractive Boulevard running alongside the Banks of the Mekong and Sonle Tap. The broad open space is an attractive place to walk with its Lawns, palm tress and open pathways. Street side has cafes and bars and is popular with tourists. A word of advice here though, there have been attacks on tourists in the past though these seem to have quietened down somewhat. Be wary of child beggars asking for a dollar a time, they are generally accompanied by pick pockets. As with anywhere in the world, just be cautious and watchful.

Cambodia in general and Phnom Penh in particular will supply the visitor with a host a good memories. The Cambodian people are generally warm and friendly, considering what they have been through in their recent history, its amazing that they trust anyone.

Keith Hancock is a musician and freelance writer from Manchester England, currently living in Bangkok. He has travelled extensively through North America, Europe, Australasia and Asia.

He has written commissioned work for the BBC, writes on a broad range of subjects and currently travels throughout Asia constantly.

His daily blog, Land Of Smiles can be found at
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