Goodbye Vietnam, hello Cambodia. First stop: Phnom Penh. It’s Cambodia’s capital city of 2.2 million people and is set on the banks of the Mekong River. Its nickname was “Pearl of Asia.” Wikipedia is careful to note that that nickname was only applicable prior to the 1960s.
We spent several days wandering around Phnom Penh. Haven’t we typed that sentence a hundred times already? ”We spent several days wandering around ___.” Well, we did. Here are some photos from our self-guided non-tours.
In many places throughout the city, we saw shrines and joss sticks burning to former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October. Between 1941 to 2004, he was king, sovereign prince (twice each), president and prime minister, all to varying degrees of power and influence throughout Cambodia’s bid for independence from France, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and including two years as a pawn head of state during the Khmer Rouge era. This guy had seen some things.
One night, we were visiting a wat near the Royal Palace and noticed that the road was blocked off and a huge crowd had gathered. Many people were taking photos of this building, which we later learned was the crematorium specifically constructed for the King Father’s upcoming funeral (set for three months after his death).
We walked further, to the square in front of the palace, and found an enormous crowd seated there. News articles we read later said claimed that 20,000 monks were in attendance at this ceremony, which commemorated the 100th day after the King Father’s death.
The ceremony was in Khmer, so we were not able to understand what was happening, but it was very moving to be in that place at sunset along with many thousands of Cambodians who were paying their respects to their much-loved king.
Few visitors to Phnom Penh leave without having visited the former high school now called Tuol Sleng Prison, which turned into a center of interrogation and torture by the Khmer Rouge. It is now a museum, although most of the rooms and cells remain bare, a stark and solemn monument that contrasts unnervingly with the cheerful yellow and white tile floors.
We originally intended to visit the Killing Fields outside of the capital, but we learned that the grounds are now owned and operated by a private, for-profit company. After a solemn afternoon spent staring at mugshots and into the eyes of the victims of Tuol Sleng (which included very young children), we felt that visiting the actual execution and mass burial site would contribute more to vulgar opportunism than to our own education and respect for the dead.
We left the shaded grounds of school-turned-prison-turned-museum and walked back out into the bright, hot sun.
[If you don't know much about what happened in Cambodia that caused the death of 1.7 to 3 million people (depending on who's counting) less than four decades ago, you can read A Brief History of the Khmer Rouge (Time Magazine), or if you like your information packaged as entertainment, you can watch Sam Waterston star in 1984 movie The Killing Fields.]