A Day of Culture in Phnom Penh

(I know that my website has been making it impossible to post comments but this is now fixed)

Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia and sits at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonie Sap Rivers. In the 1920’s it ws regarded as one of the loveliest french colonial cities in Indo China.It is noted for its beautiful and historic architecture although there are now a number of tall and modern glass office buildings poking up along the skyline. Around 2.2 million people now live here.

Out tour yesterday began with a visit to the royal palace. This complex of buildings sits in an area bounded by a 400 x 435 metre wall. The present king, lives there and you might remember the name of the previous king – Sihanouk. The king here only sits on the royal throne once and that is for their coronation. Sihanouk actually sat on it twice – the first time when he ascended the to the throne when his father died. He then abdicated during the civil war in the 1960’s to become President of the country but took up the role of king again after the Khmer Rouge were defeated. 

The palace has a number of buildings – a reception hall, a large temple for prayers (with a solid silver floor) but the most grand of all is the Throne Hall with its Cambodian style tiled roof and ornate gables. This is where the king and his generals and royal officials once carried out their duties.

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Our second visit was to see the National Museum. This was in a very beautiful building that was designed by a French architect. It houses many historical exhibits, the oldest dating back to 800 BC. Many of the treasures from the temples at Siem Reap are here. During the time of the Khmer Rouge, it was inhabited by thousands of bats and took many years to clean up and reopen again. Photography inside the building is prohibited but you are allowed to take photos outside after paying a photo fee. I didn’t see the sign about the fee  until after I had taken this photo but no one checked, so I guess that I saved a few dollars.

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Lunch at the Raffles Hotel provided a break from the heat, a nice meal and a beer. From there, we travelled through Phnom Penh with al of its Asian charm and style. They must have some very smart electricians here with power poles that are entangled in wires as this one is.

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Our afternoon was very different. Away from the glamour of the royal sites and cultural places, we visited the killing fields and genocide museum. The communist Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 to 1979 after becoming victorious in a civil war that was fought here after the end of the Vietnam War. Led by Pol Pot (whose name actually came from the slogan Political Potential) they conducted a very cruel and terror driven regime.

Their first act was to evaluate all 1 million (at the time) residents of Phnom Penh) and force them into the country side as slave labour in the rice fields. This was part of their philosophy of taking Cambodia back to ‘Year Zero’ and implementing a communist and completely self sufficient regime. They actively pursued anyone whom they thought would be a threat – intellectuals, doctors, teachers and even members of their own cadres who they thought weren’t truly faithful to the cause. Almost 2 million people died under their rule. Many were imprisoned and tortured in a terrible way and hen taken to the countryside to be killed. Those who died in the rice fields through exhaustion and starvation were just left to rot where they fell.

The Khmer Rouge were finally displaced in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese finally withdrew after UNTAC forces took over the administration of Cambodia. The military head of UNTAC was the Australian General, John Sanderson, who later became Governor of the state of Western Australia. I once enjoyed his company when we sat next to each other on a flight from Perth.

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Our first afternoon visit in the afternoon was to the killing field at Cheong Ek. This was one of 388 places in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge killed people and buried them in mass graves. They would have previously been held in a detention centre and tortured until they confessed to some sort of crime and then transported by truck to here where they were either clubbed, hacked to death or shot. Over 17,000 people are estimated to have been buried at this place.  The graves have now been largely exhumed and a nice memorial constructed that provides some dignity  to the dead.

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It’s hard to think of all these remains as being of ordinary people – mothers, fathers, children, priests, teachers etc who just lived a normal life in the community. Pol Pot died before he could be tried, but some of his leaders are now jailed for life in Cambodian prisons. I found myself leaving this place with a heavy heart and with much the same feeling of overwhelming sadness as I experienced after my first visit to Anne Franke’s house in Amsterdam.

Our last visit for the day, though brief, was even more moving. This was to the S21 prison where people were imprisoned and tortured until they confessed. It was originally the site of a large high school in Phnom Penh and was taken over by the Khmer Rouge after they forced everyone from the city. There was no place for education within their philosophy and there was no left in the city to attend it. Classrooms were divided into small cells by building rough brick walls and playground equipment was used as a gallows. What made this place more dramatic was that the Khmer Rouge had maintained records and photographs of their victims before, and after torture. These were very graphic and really personalised the horror of it all.

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We were back to the ship by 5:45, just in time to get a few domestic jobs done before dinner – washing, clearing camera cards and looking at a few purchase that we had made somewhere in the middle of the day at the Central Market. My sunglasses had come to grief but I had bought a very nice pair of fake Ray Ban sunglasses for $7. If they last until we reach Saigon, I’ll be very happy. Before dinner we had a cultural dance show that was put on by students from one of the city’s dance and drama schools. The music was a little strange to my ear (played on a wooden xylophone type of instrument and backed with a drum and cymbal), however the dancers were very graceful and moved with a lot of poise.

After dinner, I went ashore back the ANZ Bank ATM that I had  found in the morning to get some more money and then wandered around the night market for an hour or so.

Today is just a quiet cruising day without any excursions as we travel downstream to cross the border into Vietnam.

3 comments

  1. Pamela Saunders · ·

    I understand the overpowering sadness you felt Bruce after the excursions to the killing fields. It is so hard to witness how shocking man can be to man. This is a sorrow that can take us to very dark places for the sheer brutality and lack of any sense of humanity is beyond the comprehension of most of us and yet it happens. Just as well that you had the experience of beauitful palaces and lovely arcitecture earlier.

  2. 'Trina Bruce · ·

    The sadness would equate to those who have visited the Concentration Camps in Europe I would think. At least not all the beauty was destroyed. I wonder if in 40 years time we will say the same of Syria?. Travel safely Bruce

  3. john buchanan · ·

    Hi Bruce, I tried to congratulate you on your blessing but your website defeated me yesterday; should we look forward to you blessing us all when you return? do I need to wear saffron??
    cheers JB