This Christmas we visited Cambodia. We started our journey in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Wandering around the city, it’s hard to believe only a few decades ago the city was almost completely deserted. A busy, open city sitting at the intersection of three rivers, on the banks of the Mekong, one of the world’s great waterways. Along the waterfront sits a row of bustling bars and restaurants, lines of Tuk Tuks parked out the front, ready for the tourists and backpackers that throng their every night. Old French colonial mansions, starting new lives as restaurants, hotels and nightclubs, next to street markets, vegetables, fish and chicken piled high on mats under tarpaulins. Sunny yellow walls, buildings that tell stories of a past, and buildings that hint of the future.
Up on a leafy hill, the highest point of the city, sits Wat Phnom, the city’s name sake. Beneath the temple people meet and socialise on the hill. Here the city buzzes. A constant stream of cars, Tuk Tuks and motorbikes circle the traffic island the temple has become. Along the streets, women sell food from glass boxes on wheels, or attached to adapted motorbikes. Noodles, cooked up with bean sprouts and chicken, fresh, crusty baguettes, deep fried chicken stacked high.
The main focus of the city is the Royal Palace. The towers and roof tops rising above the protective wall with their elephant motif railings painted a milky blue. They are visible from the waterfront, showing the city off to all who pass along the Mekong. Towering gold roof tops, the many snake heads of the nagas lining the staircases, and a pavilion built for moonlight dancing.
With all these beautiful sights, it’s can be easy to forget the horror of Cambodia’s recent history. Visiting S-21, once a school, turned prison, now genocide museum, brings it all back very sharply, too sharply, into focus. The barbed wire stretched across the outdoor walk ways of the school buildings, the tranquil courtyard of frangipani trees, the once gym equipment, turned into appalling torture devices. The downstairs floors are left as they were found, a single rusty bed frame sits in the centre of each room. Above, a black and white picture, at first glance unrecognisable, shows the wasted remains of each room’s final victim. The upper rooms in one block contains pictures of the Khmer Rouge’s victims. Faces, faces, faces. Young, old, men, women, children, babies. Thousands of eyes, staring out in black and white.
A short Tuk Tuk ride down a dry, dusty, bumpy road takes you to Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre; the Killing Fields. This, one of the 300 killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime, is where victims were taken nightly to be killed and thrown into mass graves.
The centre feels like a memorial garden, it’s peaceful, reflective. Despite this, the deep grass covered pits in the ground reveal the appalling past. Scraps of fabric show through the top soil, clothing of the victims, risen by the rain. Bones and teeth are still collected each month as they come to the surface. Bamboo fences lining the biggest mass graves are covered with brightly coloured woven bracelets and bangles. Pieces of wool, plaited cotton, twisted hemp. The colours lie on top of each other, more than can be counted. Offerings left by visitors, travellers, those wanting to do something, anything.
The worst sight for me, a tree. Standing at the side of a grave, the bark covered with more and more bracelets, hanging from every possible surface. This tree, the killing tree, found still covered in blood and hair. This was where the babies died. Their heads smashed against the tree in front of their mothers, whose bodies were to follow theirs into the grave.
Phnom Penh is a city that remembers it’s past, but it’s not a city defined by it. It’s a city that shows rapid change, buildings are changing, people are changing, life here is changing. A welcoming city of friendly people, beautiful temples and wonderful food.
From Phnom Penh, we flew North to Siem Reap to the temples of Angkor, somewhere i’d been desperate to see for years. I’ll be back soon with photos from the second part of our trip.