I Used to Not Know How to Spell Phnom Penh

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Early last fall, when I was planning my itinerary for the SE Asia trip, there was an extra day to spare.  With 5 days already in Bali and Singapore (and the phenomenal 57th story infinity pool) awaiting, the options became extending Siem Reap by one day, jumping from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, or stopping in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.  As you may be aware due to my post about the Killing Fields, the choice was “PP” simply to avoid crossing another border (much as I wanted to “hit” Vietnam for the first time!).

It was a good choice.  The sites related to the Pol Pot genocide of the 1970s were important to see.  But it was also interesting to see this capital which seems to be booming (I suppose “booming” can be a relative term…) out its past as capital of a Communist regime.  I wish I had gotten to see the “before” Phnom Penh so I could better grasp how far it has come.

Needless to say, the modern building boom is probably good for the economy but some of it is just more of the same glass buildings one sees everywhere.  I seemed to have stayed in a good area (right by the Independence Monument) as main streets and side streets around the hotel felt much better than in other developing countries.  The park by the Independence Monument and the park towards the Royal Palace were very pleasant spaces near the Mekong River.  Lots of families walking the area and hanging out!

Though only 24 hours intown, I feel I did a good bit for such a limited visit – including a massage at the hotel I stayed (La Rose Hotel & Spa).  Phnom Penh was pleasant and relaxed, and it was a good stop as the trip began to wrap up.  And now I can spell Phnom Penh!

Here some of the scenes from Phnom Penh.

Around Cambodia’s Royal Palace

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Botumvatey Pagoda

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Dragon keeping an eye out on things…

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Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument

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Around the Royal Palace

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Caught cross-walking! (Thanks Phil!)

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The Royal Palace entrance facing the Mekong

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I mean, check that Palace OUT!

Independence Monument Park

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The Independence Monument

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The Independence Monument at night

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Gotta have a photo…

By the Mekong

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Looking down the Mekong from the Royal Palace Park

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Fishermen on the Mekong River

And real life happening in the smaller streets of Phnom Penh…

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Street scene

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Curiously looking at the tourists walking by

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Beautiful colonial style architecture

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When it is too hot inside, bring the sowing machine outside!

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This kid’s parents smiled when I asked if I could take their son’s pic – my favorite!

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

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Travel is supposed to be an experience to be enjoyed:  leaving our day-to-day behind, seeing new places, trying new foods, exploring, relaxing, etc.  However, travel sometimes is an opportunity that we get to understand other places, other peoples, and perhaps the past.  There are places like Auschwitz that one can visit to gain some of this understanding but it does come with a price:  what one sees defies comprehension when one is confronted with the places where brutality happened.

When Cambodia made it into the itinerary for my trip to Southeast Asia last fall, I realized one of the things to learn more about was the terrible regime of Pol Pot, a brutal Communist dictator who ruled the country for a few years in the 1970s.  I knew just a little of the history and I knew there was a movie from 1980s about it (The Killing Fields; I had no seen it).   Visiting Cambodia was of interest mainly because of Angkor Wat but when we realized we had a day to spare, we added Phnom Penh.  This stop would provide the opportunity to learn about Pol Pot’s crimes by visiting a couple of key places:  the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (one of the hundreds of killing fields around the country) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former prison and torture center).  (It is no fun to write a post like this but it is important to share what I saw and learned for those who may not get to see these places in person…)

The trip up to that point had been rest and relaxation coupled with exploring amazing sites (like all the temple complexes in Siem Reap).  We planned our visit to these terrible sites for the afternoon of our arrival in Phnom Penh.  Those visits would affect the tone of our trip but it was important to us to see these places firsthand.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Our first visit was to the Genocidal Center which served as one of the many killing fields spread throughout the country.  The story of Pol Pot and the madness that ensued after he took power is best and more fully told in other sites or books; I will not even attempt to explain it here.  People were trucked into places like this to be exterminated either because they were supporters of the prior regime, because they were educated (vs. peasants), or because the regime and its minions just felt like eliminating them.

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Entrance to Choeung Ek

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Excavated ditches dot the grounds (photo courtesy of Phil I.)

The center has done a good job of signage explaining the different aspects of how the center was run.  The center also has audioguides available for those who do not have a guide to take them around.  I recommend one or the other to properly grasp the place (we used the audioguides which allowed for self-pacing).

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Typical stand explaining the site

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Close-up of one of the signs explaining the center’s operation

It is a difficult place to be at.  There are reminders everywhere what happened there especially signs that warn of the bones and pieces of clothes that can still surface, especially after it rains…  The signs provide a stark reminder of what happened there.

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Pieces of clothing that surface have been placed in this box

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Mass grave

Bones retrieved from mass graves or that surface are placed in a tower built for the purpose of providing the remains of the many victims a respectful place to reside for decades to come – a poignant and very visible reminder of the many lives cut short by a madman and his zealots…

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The tower housing bones found

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

After visiting Choeung Ek, we headed to the Genocide Museum, the former prison used to torture those persecuted by Pol Pot’s regime.  It had been a school in former days and it got converted into hell-on-earth for those unfortunate souls who were taken there…Tuol Sleng, genocide, prison, torture, Cambodia, Khmer Rouge, Phnm Penh, Pol Pot, Samsung Galaxy S7

Tuol Sleng, genocide, prison, torture, Cambodia, Khmer Rouge, Phnm Penh, Pol Pot, Samsung Galaxy S7

Former school building (one of several)

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Hallway

Prisoners were tortured in former classrooms and any opening to the outside from those rooms was covered to keep the noise in the room and not heard outside since the former school was in the middle of an urban area.  The museum displays the many devices used to torture the victims.

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Outdoor torture spot

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Typical torture room

Photos of many victims are displayed.  It was painful to look at them but I made myself scan the boards full of the photos – it was the least I could do to honor the victims who suffered so greatly there.  The approach of the dictatorship was to execute entire families to avoid any “roots” of those families being left behind.  So, there were pictures of children among all the adult pictures…

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Some of the many photos on display to remember the victims

The site is somber, as can be imagined and the grey skies that day added to that feeling.

May the souls of the victims of this brutal Communist dictatorship (aren’t they all brutal?…) rest in peace.

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Memorial

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