Perhaps we are becoming accustomed to these manic cities of South East Asia, but we did not struggle with the hecticness of Phnom Penh that so many had told us about.’ Although the streets continue in the theme of Bangkok, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City with huge amounts of traffic, we were pleased to find that generally the traffic stopped when the light was red – a phenomenon that had been less evident in Vietnam!
The thing that we first noticed and were surprised about was the extent of the western influence in the city.’ There are lots of supermarkets, hundreds of restaurants and a lot of the young people sport fashionable hair styles.’ It is clear that Cambodia is undergoing massive and very rapid change.’ A dutch guy we met in Kep who has been living in Cambodia for 10 years told us that only 3 or 4 years ago, the young in Phnom Penh would have been picked up by the police if they had bleached hair – this is evidently not the case now!
We did not have time to visit the Royal Palace and by all accounts this was a shame.’ Instead we concentrated on the darker aspects that can be explored in Cambodia’s captial city.’ We visited S-21, the high security prison for the Khmer Rouge.’ It had been a high school until it was taken over in 1975 and it is now a rather shocking museum attesting to the crimes that were commited.’ From here, we went to the killing fields, where the prisoners were taken after being tortured at S-21 in order to be executed.’ This is a place of quiet contemplation and reflection, rather than an information gathering activity.’ The two visits combined make for a sobering day that leaves you with more questions about how such events could have happened.’ What was clear to us though is that it is shocking that we in the west seem to know so little about what happened here only 30 years ago.’ However, despite the experience bringing home the reality of the awful things that humanity is cabable of, for seemingly senseless reasons, it also brings home the human capacity for endurance and survival, which can at least leave you feeling some kind of hope.
The other thing that we did of note was go the the famous Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverfront for a drink.’ We were with a group of friends and we spent several very pleasant hours sitting in this colonial building overlooking the river and the fireworks going off for the King’s mother’s birthday and tucking away a few cocktails and tasty gkasses of wine!’ We felt extremely civilised! The riverfront is packed full of very pleasant resturants and bars and is a nice escape from the madness of the city for an evening – though a tad more expensive than the street stalls which continue to churn out nice beef lok lak and fried rice for a couple of dollars.
So having spent some time thinking about and finding out about the recent history and troubles in Cambodia, we decided to head off to discover some of the more resplendent aspects of its more distant past…
‘Til next time
Harriet & Ben