February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
As I said in an earlier post, Cambodia tends to either draw fans or haters, and the majority of that opinion rests on Phnom Penh. PP is the capital of Cambodia and is a bit of an assault (particularly on the nose) when you first arrive, but give it a few hours and you won’t even notice it. In case you haven’t picked it up yet I am on the lover side. PP is great and now is an even greater time to visit. It is the only place in the world where people gather to literally dance in the streets. They aren’t busking, just dancing.
So here are my top Picks for Phnom Penh:
1. Sisowath Quay at Sunset: The plaza in front of the Foreign Correspondents Club comes alive with groups and groups of people at around 5/5:30 ready for their nightly jazzercise lead by the guy with the boom box. And even better, anyone can join! Though I also love the kids who are Gangam stylin’ all the way up the river.
2. Tuol Sleng and Cheong EK: Since you are in the groove with PP after a night of dancing these 2 stops are musts, and probably the most important stops in the city. These 2 sites are very real reminders of the atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge. For future reference probably don’t eat just before you go in. Tuol Sleng – also known as S. 21 (as in security prison 21) was once a high school, a fact that makes the goings on within its walls all the more worse (that blackboard above the cell with bloodstains doesn’t seem quite real). Enemies of the Khmer Rouge and their entire families were bought here for detainment. The term enemies here refers to politicians, academics, dancers, artists, teachers, entertainers and indiscriminate randoms. There were catalogued, photographed and tortured – or killed outright if they were a child. There is no real hiding or glossing over the truth here, it all laid out in front of you – the aforementioned bloodstains, cells, torture equipment, graphic depiction of them being used (which I will not go into), human remains and thousands of photos. The Cambodians hope that if people truly believe if people see exactly how horrible it was it will help to prevent it happening again. To me the photos were the were the worst. In some of the lowers rooms boards have been set up with the catalogue photos of prisoners upon entry. There are people of all ages and sexes and even a handful of foreigners. They all have the same position and a catalogued number pinned to their shirt (or in the case of a poor few to their neck). There are also staff photos, young boys who were forcibly taken and faced with the choice to do or be done. I have visited Tuol Seng twice and both times there was one photo of a girl who looked about my age and so scared, that has stayed with me ever since. Feeling dizzy yet? Have a sit down, grab a water and talk to one of the 2 remaining survivors (of the original 7, of an estimated 17 – 20,000 prisoners in total). Next stop is Cheong Ek. Also know as the killing fields, this is were the prisoners of S. 21 were bought to be executed. It is a bit of Tuk Tuk ride out of town which is nice as you can see how people live a little way out of the city. Cheong Ek has a $5 entry fee whichc includes a audio tour and map which is really great it gives you lots of details, people’s stories and even a symphony. As you walk around the field the story of Cheong Ek comes to light, of how the prisoners came here in truck, were unloaded and killed on the edges of shallow graves using pianful and not always quick methods. As bullets were expensive the guards used a variety of farm tools, shovels and fronds from the Saw Plametto Palm. As you walk around the field you can see the rises and dips of what were the graves and there are places where pieces of bones and clothing are coming up through the dirt beneath your feet. There are particular graves that deserve a particular mention such as the graves for headless soldiers and the baby killing tree – exactly as they sound. In the centre of the site there is a large pagoda that is filled with the skulls of those who died there, where possible they have been grouped in sex and age. Don’t let the gore turn you off, it truly is worth visiting and is in a way very calming or in the least the best reality check you will ever receive.
3. Relax a bit and have a Seeing Hands Massage (next to the FCC and above a giftware shop). $7 and hour – not only great value but you are giving a livelyhood to the blind. ‘Friends’ also gets an honourable mention as does their shop and restaurant – and don’t worry everyone knows Friends no address needed.
4. Back on the site seeing track don’t miss the Royal Palace but make sure shoulders and knees are covered for entry. The palatial grounds are huge and include the stunning Silver Pagoda next door. On this visit (as seen in top photo) the palace was closed for 3 months of mourning as the King Father had recently passed. Luckily I had been before but it was interesting to see everyone pay their respects every night, there was incense and flowers everywhere.
5. While still on the Quay try the restaurants that line it. Food may be a tad cheaper a few blocks back but the food scene here is fantastic – as is their 2 for 1 happy hour cocktails. Amok and Loc Lak are the national dishes and not to be missed.
6. Finally shopping – you cannot go past the Russian Markets; and don’t forget to haggle – even better if you can work a little Khmer into your deals. It does get steamy so maybe take a coconut for sustenance. There are also a lot of local markets through out the city – you can by from them the fruit is amazing, but its more for the spectacle. My favourite is the one in the streets behind Wat Ounalom (coincidentally one of my favourite temples).
A child selling King Father memorial souvenirs out the front of the Royal Palace. No matter how cute they look its best to never buy from the children – if they aren’t making any money their parents will send them back to school where they belong