Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh Travel Blog

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National Museum, Phnom Penh

LOADS of sight-seeing today, unbelievably I took over 200 photos and had seen 4 major sights before midday. Helps to get up at 6.15am even though I'm still playing catch-up from yesterday's early start. Anyone who thinks traveling is about lie-ins and late starts is way off! Early bus pick-ups and hostel check-outs means little sleep, I did NOT want to get up....


Anyway, I got up early cos I wanted to take the Capitol City Tour but didn't know when it left. Sadly it was booked out as I felt like being lazy and being shuttled from place to place, but I set off on foot to the National Museum. This is a stunning building in itself, set around a peaceful and beautiful courtyard.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
I didn't realise photography was prohibited and was told off by a muttering cleaning lady. The stone statues are astonishing as many of them are as old as 4th century! The iconography throughout the centuries is remarkably unchanged though. Buddha in various poses is the common theme; either holding up his hands serenely, or cross-legged beneath a 'naga' (set of snake-heads). The gold headwear was beautiful as were the little pots in shapes of elephants and rabbits.


I then walked across to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda; a massive and architecturally beautiful complex. Some of it is closed as it is still home to the royal family and originally most of the buildings were wooden but they have been reconstructed in concrete, keeping true to the original forms and painted in yellow and white for Buddhism and Brahmanism respectively.

Skulls of the dead, The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh
I had to rent a traditional skirt to enter the complex (dark-red to signify Saturday even though it is wednesday I think) and got a bit confused about my bearings, so this is the order of the buildings I visited, though it's more for my benefit so bear with me: Victoru Gate (before entering), Preah Norodam Sihanouk's Museum, Preah Tineang Tevea Vinichhay, Preah Tineang Prochani, Hor Samritvimean, Preah Reach Damnakchan, Pavilion of Napolean III, Temple of Emerald Buddha (also known as Silver Pagoda, though this totally passed me by the first time round), Mondapa of Satra and Tripitaka, His Majesty King Norodom's Stupa, His Majesty King Norodam's Statue, His Majesty King Ang Duong's Stupa, Royal Gardens, Koeng Preah Bat, Angkor Wat Model, Bell Tower aaaaaaand out past the art gallery, Artifacts for the Royal Procession, Elephant Pot Room and Preah Sihamoni's Exhibition.
The Smile Police, S21 Tuol Sleng Detention Centre, Phnom Penh
PHEW! I'd tell you what they were all for if I knew or cared, but you'll have to go there and get yourself a guide if you're interested. They are beautiful buildings though...


From here I walked back to Capitol as I had booked myself on a tour of the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek at 11am. They are about 25 mins out of town by car and the tour is less expensive than hiring my own driver. The Killing Fields are the site for the murder and mass graves of the prisoners believed to be against the revolution. I have read Tony Haing's 'Surving the Killing Fields' and never expected to see them in real life. The first building is a monument erected to the memory of the victims at the centre of which is a tower of skulls from some of the excavated graves. I didn't really agree with the taking of photos of these human remains, but relented to recording memories of this. Moving further into the site are boards describing the buildings that used to stand there (that were torn down in 1970). The first was the Truck Stop where people were first unloaded, arriving every 3 weeks at first and increasing to every day as the war progressed. The second was Detention Centre which was kept dark so the prisoners couldn't see each other. They might be kept for about 3 months before execution (mostly without trial) or 6-7 months for diplomats. Next the Chemical Storage Room holding chemicals such as DDT which were poured onto the graves to stop the corpses from smelling but also to kill any survivors as they were buried alive, and the Killing Tools Storage Room for the shackles, leg irons, hatchets, knives, hoes, shovels etc. From here it was onto the actual graves that have been excavated and areas that are yet to be excavated. Among these graves were two trees; one tree was worn smooth with the smash of babies against it before being thrown into the nearest mass grave. The second was the site for a loud speaker that blared sounds to disguise the real use of the site from the people living around it.


It was sober, walking around the site, but so difficult to understand on such a beautiful day. I kept trying to hear or feel the spirits that must roam this place, but every time I tried to concentrate all I could hear was the beautiful sounds of birds trilling and chirping, seeing leaves and blossom float from the trees, watching butterflies flutter around the bushes, palms, orchards and frangipani trees. The sound and sight of nature was so powerful and I couldn't help feeling that whoever died here have been regenerated into quite a beautiful place.


Back at Capitol I caught a moto up to Wat Phnom in the north of town. There were a few beggars around and I gave them money as apparently amputees, war victims, and the disabled are not provided for by the government so this is sometimes their only income. The Wat itself is set 27m on a hilltop; inside the most beautiful bit for me was the interior paintings depicting the life of Buddha. Afterwards I walked around the hillside a bit, and there was an elephant doing rides in the grounds too but I don't agree with that really. Elephants eat tonnes and tonnes a day - where was it's food? How does it feel being tied to a tree instead of roaming around?


I caught a moto back (getting the hang of haggling now - I snort with derision when they tell me $3, offer them 3000 riel (75p) a price and keep walking like I don't care if they don't say yes. They usually follow me and agree.) to the Tuol Sieng Museum where I stopped for lunch in the Boddhi Tree restaurant opposite. This is a beautiful palm-dappled garden restaurant that also is part of an NGO project. I had a fantastic grilled artichoke, river fish and basil salad before heading across to the harrowing museum.


Tuol Sleng was once a school, and it's easy to imagine, but later was the site for S21, a detention, interrogation and torture centre for anti-revolutionarys. Tuol Sleng has a double meaning; one is a poisoned hill, the other is a place on a mound to keep those who bear or supply guilt. Building A was used for interrogation and tortur. Each room has an iron bed with items of torture on, and a black and white photo of some bloody body prostrate across it. Building B was used as the detention centre, the windows were barred and covered with a tangle of barbed wire to stop prisoners commiting suicide; on the ground floor each room was divided by concrete partitions, the first floor the partitions are wood. As I inched myself into one of these wooden cells, holding my breath with mild trepidation, someone turned the corner into my cell and I leapt 6 feet in the air! The second floor has a photo exhibition documenting the lives of some of the cadres and military. Building C was the Documentation and Administration building and now houses a number of photographic displays. One is the photos of every person who was admitted, plus the chair the photos were taken on. Paintings of the torture methods adorn one part, with examples of these devices in displays. 10 skulls picked to show method of death (bludgeoning, stabbing with something sharp and gunshots) though displayed with slats to allow the spirit to travel freely to and from the skull. Also photos and excerpts of narrative from members of the Khymer Rouge (sorry for their crimes, admitting guilt and explaining that they were to be killed if they didn't comply), some of those held in camps or commited to hard labour and photos of them today. Many of their photos have been written over in Cambodian; I didn't know what they said but I imagine it isn't friendly....


I left, handing out donations to the blind and limping war victims outside, and walked back to the guest house, taking in the Independence Monument at sunset, and the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument (important since they have warred together many times, including recently as part of the Vietnamese Civil War, the war Vietnam had with America, and with Cambodia itself during this time and the Khymer Rouge). There were some other beautiful buildings and statues along Samdech Sothearos Boulevard so I snapped them too, even though I have no idea what they are.


Back at the hotel I showered all the road yuck and sticky off me again, and then walked to Amok Restaurant. I was careful not to take any valuables; I only carried what money I needed ($20 American in one pocket with my Visa card and room key, and small change in Riel in the other ready to hand over if need be) and walked near the vendors and amongst the traffic, rather than along the dark boulevards with random people sitting in the dark doing nothing in groups or alone.


The restaurant was beautifully ambient with red lantern lighting, stormlight candle-lit tables and two zither players playing traditional Cambodian mini-harp-style music. We have a zither at home quite randomly; we never knew where it came from, so I was quite fascinated to watch and listen to them. I ordered the fish amok in coconut shell that is another national speciality and is like a coconut curry with kaffir leaves and steamed rice. It was lovely, though pretty tepid even though it arrived quickly. I ate fairly quickly and then caught a motorcycle back to the hotel ready to pack for Siem Reap tomorrow.

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National Museum, Phnom Penh
National Museum, Phnom Penh
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Skulls of the dead, The Killing Fi…
Skulls of the dead, The Killing F…
The Smile Police, S21 Tuol Sleng D…
The Smile Police, S21 Tuol Sleng …
Phnom Penh
photo by: terminalfunk