Phnom Penh – the little big city

Phnom Penh does not have the best opinion among travelers. While journeying in Cambodia, we hear it’s “not worth it”, “ugly” and “there’s nothing there”. The city, because we need a Vietnamese visa, is on our itinerary anyway. It turns out to be a real surprise. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard so many complaints. Maybe because we’ve spent almost two weeks in the countryside and small towns. Phnom Penh turns out to be a charming city and a nice change from standard Asian metropolises with their skyscrapers and smog. We don’t know exactly what a city must have to be “worth it” but we find enough attractions to spend here six days.

The heat is more bearable now, so we have more energy and we’re able to walk the city wide and long. Despite the heavy traffic, it feels a bit provincial here. When the street noise seems too much, we can quickly enter a side alley and be transported to another world, strolling under watchful but benevolent eyes of the locals. The assault on our senses is not as bad as in other cities, apart from the wet markets, where the smells are still a first  round knock-out. At the O’Russey Market we’re not able to last past the first 15 minutes. We immensely enjoy early mornings, when we’re able to join the crowd of Khmers who just go about their business or enjoy a meal at morning stalls which will be gone before it even gets warm.

The terrace of the hostel restaurant is on the fifth floor and it gives us an opportunity to watch the human traffic and undisturbed everyday life. It’s really fun to voyeur like that and we can do it (and do it) for hours. The scenes take place not only at the street level. Every inch of space is precious here, so we can watch people cooking, bathing or just relaxing, on their balconies.

phnom penh architecture

burnt phnom penh balcony x fresh prouce seller

lady with laundry basket

phnom penh corner x old lady wearing krama

man relaxing on balcony

street seller with a bike x phnom penh balcony close up

phnom penh shady street view x white monk

While on the road in Cambodia we did a bit of homework – we’ve read about the history of the country as well as the fact-based novel “The Gate” by Francois Bizot and watched “The Killing Fields”, so now were traveling with knowledge of what had been going on, not so long ago, on the streets of Phnom Penh and everywhere in Cambodia. Both the book and the movie are great, be sure to read and watch them, even if you’re not interested in visiting Cambodia.

Bizot, a young French ethnologist living and working in Cambodia, gets caught by the Khmer Rouge and is captured and put in a prisoner camp in Anlong Veng. During his three-month-long imprisonment, he establishes a close relation with his interrogator, Comrade Douch, who would argue for Bizot’s release and later become one of Khmer Rouge leaders. The author, probably the only Westerner who survived the Khmer Rouge prisons, tells an exceptional story because he was able to see Cambodian reality from various perspectives. First, he was enamoured with the fertile land, where he lived with his Khmer wife and daughter while researching buddhism. Next, while in prison, much earlier than the rest of the Western world, he saw the true nature of what the Khmer Rouge were doing. He spent endless hours talking and arguing with a man responsible for the torture and death of thousands of people. Bizot was in the French embassy when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Thanks to his knowledge of languages, he became an intermediary between the embassy and the regime. He watched the beautiful land he entered in the ’60s totally disintegrate by the time, as one of the last foreigners, he left in 1975. Finally, after many years, he returns to Cambodia to see the people and places from his past.

After the holidays we visit the Tuol Sleng museum, a high-school converted by the Khmer Rouge into infamous prison S-21. Douch, Bizot’s interrogator, was later the prison chief. The unfurnished classrooms are lined with thousands of photographs of prisoners of whom only a few survived. When we leave the compound, we are completely heart-broken and we wander aimlessly around the town for a good hour before coming to. The most frightening aspect here is the intermingling of good and evil. How to understand how a man who has a human side and argues for Bizot’s release can at the same time torture and murder other people, in the name of good of that people’s country. Why not only a stranger can be the enemy but the neighbor and his family as well. Simple explanations do not work here. Looking at the elderly, we wonder what they might be thinking. We hope the smiling faces prove it’s worth the struggle to live in the present.

tuol sleng prison

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