Phnom Penh, The Wild West of Cambodia

Tom and I are glad to have arrived back in Cambodia, one of our favorite places from our previous travels. When we first visited in 2003, we missed the capital city, Phnom Penh. At the time we wanted to focus on the country’s ancient splendor rather than its modern tragedy. Safety was a concern as well. Since the Khmer Rouge routed and plundered the city in 1974, Phnom Penh has suffered from an image of lawlessness that has been hard to shake. For a long time the word on the street outside Cambodia was that everybody in Phnom Penh carried guns and those who didn’t had knives. Travelers brave enough to make the trip were advised not to go outside after dark and to expect trouble. When we laid out our itinerary this spring, it was definitely one of those “you’re taking our grandchildren where?” cities.

The truth is that Phnom Penh has come a long way in recent years. While in the past it may have been the wild west of Southeast Asia, today it is a humming, productive, tourist friendly city. The guns are still out there–the unfortunate legacy of decades of brutal conflict–but it is a rarity that a tourist ever finds himself staring down the end of one. In fact, I’d worry more for my safety on the streets of Atlanta than I would in Phnom Penh. The people seem to understand that foreigners bring in much needed dollars, Cambodia’s unofficial currency, and doing anything to deter them from coming would be self-defeating.

Despite our rosy view of the city, we only gave it one full day on our itinerary. We were eager to get back to Siem Reap, where our former guide, Ponheary Ly, was waiting to teach the kids all about Khmer civilization and architecture. Given that we only had eight business hours to cover the city’s major sites, I hired a driver via the internet from Saigon. The morning after our arrival, Ben Wee showed up at our hotel with a lovely, air-conditioned van and a friendly driver who spoke a modicum of English. He helped us set the route for the day and accompanied us for an hour or so before taking off to tend to other customers.

We weren’t sure how we were going to handle the tough stuff. The genocide of 2-3 million Cambodians at the hands of Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge is hardly something that can be ignored. We’ve shared the country’s history with the kids and thought at least a few of us would visit Tuol Sleng, the high school used by the Khmer Rouge to hold and torture political prisoners, i.e., any one suspected of being educated, questioning the regime, having inappropriate thoughts or looking at a soldier the wrong way. We’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, both thoughtful, restrained memorials to the victims of manmade atrocities, but we weren’t sure what to expect to from Tuol Sleng, Cambodia’s own version of a genocide museum. I had thought we might save it for later in the day, but Ben slapped a big #1 next to it on my list and we were off.

We needn’t have worried too much. Beyond some carefully placed photographs of torture victims, there was little in plain view that might upset younger visitors. The little kids blazed by the walls of prison mug shots showing healthy inmates–men, women, and children–upon their arrival at S-21(the prison’s official title) and raced outside to gather flowers and shop for soda at the concession stand. The rest of us took turns to ponder the displays, but in the end, more than any photo or rusted implement of torture, it was the place that was most powerful. In this ordinary school building, in this ordinary neighborhood, ordinary people committed unspeakable crimes against their friends, neighbors, and countrymen–all because one maniacal dictator preyed first on their ignorance and later on their fear. Museums like Tuol Sleng are important because they force us to admit what has happened and to commit to preventing it from happening again. This is especially important for the Cambodians, since most of them are too young to have experienced the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge. Ponheary told me that her nieces and nephews simply don’t believe her when she tells them what she witnessed: soldiers bayonetting babies because they cried, burning and boiling starving children because they tried to sneak extra food, and forcing her to dig her own grave in the forest before knocking her unconscious and shoveling dirt onto what they thought was her lifeless body. If they will not believe their own family, then maybe there is a chance they will believe the museum.

Some of the poor victims at Tuol Sleng prision

Ben had included a visit to the infamous Killing Fields in our itinerary, but we decided we had had enough of the tough stuff and headed off to Wat Pho, the city’s most famous Buddhist temple, instead. Though we had promised Kieran a ride on an elephant, we thought the $15 price tag for a lap around the base a bit steep. (Don’t worry, he’ll get his ride in Thailand.) We made a small donation, bought postcards from a landmine victim, and were on our way. Next stop was a travel agency to buy our bus tickets to Siem Reap and a camera shop to buy a new memory card reader. (It’s so wonderful to have a driver when you have a list of errands to complete.)

The day ended on a much higher note than it began with visits to the National Museum and the Royal Palace. The museum was an oasis of cool and calm. Jasmine buds from Buddhist offerings scented the air, quiet saffron-clad monks wandered the grounds, and delicate Khmer sculpture and carving filled the display cases. Kieran and Asher fed the fish in the courtyard fountain and lit incense at the Buddhist altars.

Monks in the cambodian national museumThe pond at the national museum

The Palace was even better–a smaller, more elegant rendition of Bangkok’s royal residence. Here we conversed with monks, who are always friendly and curious about foreigner’s origins, and ran into a group of our Mekong Delta tripmates. We snapped a few pyramid pictures, fortunately before the little ones doused themselves in the sprinklers, and marveled at the beautiful spires and carefully ordered courtyards. We didn’t want to leave but had no choice as the sun began to set and the closing hour arrived.

A nice pyramid picture in the palaceIMG_4141.JPGPalace in Cambodia

Our final stop of the day was one every good American family requires–the supermarket. We stocked up on snacks for the next morning’s bus ride, sampled some Cambodian fast food, and savored the temporary proximity to many of our forgotten creature comforts. We’ve grown addicted to the unpredictability of life on the road, but it’s fun to remind ourselves that one day we’ll return to a place where prices are fixed, credit cards are accepted, and shelves are stocked with cold cereal. Lucky for us (and for those of you at home whom we annoy), that day is still over seven months and 12+ countries away!

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