Arriving at Phnom Penh bus station, a tuk-tuk drove us to the hostel. We made a deal with the driver to pick us up again next morning. The whole next day was dedicated to exploring the Cambodian capital. Cambodia it’s a country that, by my perception, has not yet been discovered by hordes of tourists (with the exception of Siem Reap). Phnom Penh is a vibrant, bustling capital, city of chaos, poverty and still a city of hope for the masses of Cambodians arriving to the city on daily basis. During the Vietnam war many called Phnom Penh a “Peace island”.
Today Phnom Penh is a city where you can meet horrible past and hopeful present of Cambodia. It used to be known as a Pearl of Asia, but has lost the glow due to the war. The city is now on a good path to restore a good reputation. We explored a temple Wat Phnom – symbol and protector of the city. Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple, that was built in 1373 and stands 27 meters above the ground. It is the central point of Phnom Penh.
We also visited Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison S-21 by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Cambodia was marked by the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and nearly thirty years of civil war. Khmer Rouge took over the country on the pretext that the US plan to bomb Phnom Penh, but Rouge regime saw equality as an agrarian country, where all the people are farmers. All the citizens were moved to the countryside. During the reign of Pol Pot, the rooms of this high school were converted into prison cells. Almost twenty thousand innocent victims, intellectuals, practically everyone except uneducated peasants were imprisoned and tortured. Only seven of them survived. Today in a museum you can see the horrors of Pol Pot regime. Visitors can see where prisoners were tortured, in what cramped spaces (each cell was 0,8 x 2 meters big) they lived. Many of prisoners couldn’t stand being tortured so they rather committed suicide. Lots of them jumped off the balcony on the third floor. To prevent quick deaths without tortured guards covered windows and terraces with barbed wire. The most shocking and disturbing is an exhibition of photographs of prisoners and torture. All imprisoned here were documented and photographed. It was hard to watch the photographs.
Most of the prisoners were taken to the killing fields where they were cruelly killed. The prisoners were transported from the prison to the truck during the night, they thought they were being released, but instead they were brutally killed. After killing the prisoners, they buried them in the pits in the area of two hectares where it used to be a Chinese cemetery. Today, in memory of all the lost souls, there is a monument, in which you can see excavated human bones and skulls. In the monument there are around eight thousand bones, but in the surrounding area there are pits from which they have already dug up almost nine thousand skeletons. The regime officially ended in 1998 with the death of its leader Pol Pot, although it was already overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese. During the Khmer Rouge regime more than two million people were killed.
The next day we took a tour of the Royal Palace. It is a complex of buildings which serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. On that day people also celebrated King’s birthday and the preparations of the celebration have been taking place since the morning. Streets were decorated with colorful ribbons, the roads were being cleaned, sidewalks colored. We visited a complex of the Royal palace with the Silver pagoda. Even though it is unbearable hot, we must have covered our hands upon entering this Buddhist temple. Luckily I’ve came prepared and brought a scarf with me. During the tour of the complex we were losing ourselves in many buildings, each more fascinating than previous. Though the most charming is the Silver pagoda. The whole complex is beautifully decorated with flowers for the celebration. In the evening, we rushed in the tuk-tuk to the center by the river, where we wanted to observe the fireworks. Due to the traffic jam, we can only see the end of it, the celebration lasted long into the night.
On our last day we wandered the streets by foot and visited the Museum of National History, which keeps Khmer art. When we stopped before the Buddhist temple, small children came running to us, most of them were probably orphans. For cases like this, I was carrying candies, lollipops and biscuits in my bag. Children took it with such a gratitude in the eyes, you rarely see. On the hidden small market, a girl with her younger brother stopped me. Because we were standing right next to the ice cream stand and they were both looking at it with a sadness in the eyes, I’ve bought them each an ice-cream for only. For us dollar or two is not much …There are a lot of orphans in Cambodia, also a lot of orphanages, which are becoming increasingly popular with tourists. You go there with desire to help children, but unfortunately the money goes to the pockets of owners of the orphanages. We also saw some posters that discourage tourists from visiting orphanages.
After only a few days in Cambodia, I’ve noticed that Khmer people are modest, poor, sincere, mysterious, tired, but despite everything, the hard work, bloody past, you can notice joy, happiness and hope in their eyes. Phnom Penh, like other Asian cities, is due to tourism in the midst of rapid change. Over the past few years, number of restaurants and hotels have grown considerably. I recommend you to go and see a real original before it will all change in a few years.