On Tuesday morning we flew to Phnom Penh – the capital of Cambodia. Since it’s the capital, there are lots of huge government buildings everywhere. It’s a large busy city & not especially attractive.
Our new guide is a woman of about 50. All of our other guides to date have been young men in their 20’s & 30’s. I’ll be telling you more about her shortly. After our short 45 minute plane ride, we were dropped off at our hotel. It’s a Raffles hotel & we were expecting it to be perfect. This particular hotel has been here since the 1920’s; yes, it’s been renovated, but just isn’t up to the standard we’ve come to expect on this trip.
Our first stop (after the hotel) was the Royal Palace grounds. It is the official residence of King Sihamoni & as such you are not allowed inside the Palace. But you can peer inside (no photos allowed). There are other buildings in the complex though that you can visit. The buildings are all beautiful with classic Khymer roofs & ornate gilding.
Also on the grounds is the Siver Pagoda named for the 5000 silver tiles (each weighing 2 lbs.) that cover the floor.
From there we went to the National Museum which contains a huge collection of Khymer sculpture & artifacts recovered from the Angkor temples we saw in Siem Reap. It was fun to see an artifact in a museum & know that you’ve actually seen the temple where it came from. I’m thinking that archealogy might be a really cool profession in my next life!!!
At this point the heat had become oppressive ( & we had to have our knees & shoulders covered for visiting the Royal Palce grounds). So we got back in our cyclos & went to the hotel for a nap.
Dinner that evening was at an elegant French restaurant. It was like a high end NY restaurant in terms of ambience, the food & the prices. It was unlike any other restaurant we have encountered on this trip to date. The food & service were both excellent. Even the wine (a St. Emilion Grand Cru) was wonderful.
On the next morning we visited the lovely Wat Ounalam which is the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism.
At this point the day turned quite somber. First we went to the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison – the Khymer Rouge prison & torture chamber which is now a Genocide Museum. More than 10,000 victims of genocide were murdered here. It was the largest center of detention & torture in Cambodia. At the height of its activity,100 victims were killed every day.
Like the Nazis, the Khymer Rouge were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed thru this prison was photographed, sometimes before & after torture. The long corridors of the prison contain haunting photos of the victims which were not easy to look at.
But what was most haunting & disturbing was our guide & her story. She was about 8 years old in 1975 when Pol Pot & his regime started rounding up the population. In a straight forward voice, she told us of her experiences; of losing her father; of walking barefoot for 200 kilometers; of going to bed without any food; etc. It was heart breaking. Miraculously, she, her siblings & her mother all survived. As preparation for this trip, both Marty & I read a history book about the 4 countries we would be visiting. I also read a memoir of a woman who was about the same age as our tour guide; she eventually wound up in the US. The book is called “First They Shot My Father”. (Davi: thanks for the book.) The memoir is remarkably similar to our guide’s story & was difficult to read, but nothing compared to hearing it from a survivor. What a story & she must tell it to tourists all the time. I guess it’s like Holocaust survivors telling their stories to the young so no one forgets.
This is the outside of the prison.
This was the size of a typical cell. The box on the bottom was the toilet.
In the yard of the prison they have erected a memorial that includes the names of all those who were murdered. It reminded me of Yad Vashem.
Following their forced confessions of alleged crimes, the condemned & their families were sent to the “killing fields” of Choeng Ek where they were executed and the bodies were dumped in mass graves; also reminiscent of the Nazis. That was our next stop; it’s about 45 minutes from Phnom Penh; the Khymer Rouge didn’t want the locals to smell what was going on. Prisoners were often bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. It is hard to imagine the brutality that unfolded here while wandering thru the peaceful shady former orchard, but the memorial stupa soon brings it home, displaying more than 8,000 skulls of victims as well as their ragged clothes. To say that the morning was quite disturbing is an understatement.
At this point, the tone of our day changed completely; thank goodness. We went to the Central Market with its imposing 1930’s Art Deco architecture painted in French colonial ochre. Marty (who didn’t want to go shopping) bought himself 2 pairs of shorts (for $7 each) & 2 t-shirts ($7 for both together). Here’s a photo inside the market. I didn’t get one of the outside; sorry.
We then returned to our hotel for the afternoon. Not only did we have lunch by the pool, but I even had a foot massage at the pool. Not too decadent 😆. It was a good way to escape from the morning’s horror stories.
We had dinner at a restaurant owned by the same people who own the wonderful French restaurant we went to the night before. It featured traditional Khymer cuisine amid elegant architecture & elaborate gardens. We had another 6 course tasting menu so we could sample lots of different foods. In fact, one of the courses came on a long rectangular plate with 4 different dishes on it. It was all delicious and again (likethe one in Siem Reap) only $31. This time we had a terrific Haut Medoc wine with it. It was a lovely way to end our stay in Cambodia.
We are now 3/4 of the way thru our trip – again in terms of days & countries. Next stop: Bankok, Thailand. See you there.