I?ve heard that Phnom Penh is a rough place. Cambodia has been through so much, so recently, that I was surprised to see any kind of prosperity or Westernization. It turned out that the Cambodian people go on with their day, remembering the past but looking forward to a bright future filled with tourists? dollars.
Although Cambodia?s much poorer than Vietnam the people seem happier–always laughing and playing. Kids run around the street with no clothes on (and this is the capital!) and moto drivers laugh and agree to bargaining instead of getting angry. By complete coincidence I arrived in Phnom Penh just in time for the 3-day Water Festival in which there are boat races, rides, food stalls and a general feeling of celebration. A lot of travelers seemed to escaping from the festival but I found it completely fascinating, especially because I love cities. For three nights the sky lit up with huge firework displays and I couldn?t help but think about what a waste it was for such a poor country to be spending it?s money this way.
Aside from a few Buddhist pagodas, the Royal Palace, the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum there wasn?t much to see in Phnom Penh. I happened to be at the Palace on a Buddhist holiday and saw the king emerge from the residential wing and wave to the masses from behind the high gates. I?m not sure how anyone could tell which one he was, there were a number of little men wearing white shirts, until he started waving.
Cambodia is probably most well-known by Westerners for the Khmer Rouge and the mass killings orchestrated by Pol Pot. The Killing Fields are about a half hour outside of town surrounded by rice fields and little villages. A shrine containing the skulls found in the mass graves has been erected but the site is mostly a large number of holes in the ground where some of the mass graves were unearthed. The most disturbing thing I saw on the site was cloth sticking out of the ground where the soil is being worn away by tourists walking around. It?s not easy to look down and see part of a blindfold sticking out of the soil in front of you. After that I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum which is housed in the former ?security prison 21?–the largest detention and torture facility in the country. Housed in a former school, the prison was converted into small wood or brick cells with larger rooms being used for the torture of officials. Inside is a display of the mug shots of the people who passed through S-21 and were later taken to the Killing Fields. A disproportionately large number of them were children, even girls. One striking photo was of a woman holding her baby during her mug shot. It is truly sick to know that this happened in the late 1970?s, the guards even appropriated the playground equipment for torture devices. I would like to learn more about the entire Pol Pot regime and it?s recognition worldwide. I can?t believe this happened for years with no help from the outside world. What will stop it from happening again?