Arriving in Phnom Penh late at night we saw the city for what it truly was: a messy, dirty, crowded maze of tiny street lanes with hidden signposts and an attitude towards health and safety that would shock many. Our first thoughts of Phnom Penh were ones of distaste and regret. However as daylight approached, we saw the Khmer Rouge and French influences of architecture reflected on the Royal Palace, the National Museum and the various prestigious monuments dotted near the Mekong River. Getting awkwardly stuck in a rainstorm meant that hiding for shelter by the Royal Palace allowed us to take a closer look at its grandeur.
Our main purpose to stay in this city was to visit the killing fields, the most popular site: Choeung Ek, which is one of the mass graves where millions of victims bodies were buried, or more likely, dumped in the genocide by the tyrants of the Khmer Rouge. Walking around on a beautiful sunny day through the killing fields provides a stark contrast to the horrors and atrocities you listen to on an audio tour, of how the Khmer Rouge savagely destroyed families and people for ‘the good of the regime’, the contrast makes the experience more surreal and sickening. Although deeply depressing and emotional, a visit to the killing fields is a must so you are enlightened by Cambodian’s dark history and the sufferings each member of the country has been through which initiates moral perspective to each tourist whom chooses to visit.
We also visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, commonly known as S-21, a former torture, interrogation and execution centre used by the Khmer Rouge. With the 14 thousand people who came in here, only 7 people survived. As you walk along the empty walls, you feel the unspeakable pain though the atmosphere of the place, as if the lost souls that went through such cruelty, suffering and torture still live in these halls. The silence within S-21 as well as the avid documentation of the unjust handiwork of the Khmer Rouge, means each visitor is shocked to the very core of their being, disgusted by the regimes brutality and enjoyment of capturing their acts. The place leaves you speechless, and acts as a reminder to all what the world as a society, should never let something like this occur again.
This city is strange. It juxtaposes grandeur and lavish beauty of monuments and ornate temples, with horrendously poor and unwell locals constantly begging for money, hoping to look for some support or guidance, reminders of a haunted past within the city. Go here to experience Cambodia’s true history, but this is no holiday.