We were a little apprehensive about visiting Phnom Penh, having heard very mixed reviews from others. We arrived not really knowing what to expect, but as usual were pleasantly surprised (this seems to be a theme of our travelling!)
We managed to survive the bumpy and pretty scary road trip there – although the bus tyres were not so lucky with a blowout en-route.
We had heard Phnom Penh is a very bustly, busy city and while it most definitely feels like a capitol, we didn’t find it anywhere near as hectic as we were led to believe. Once we had run the gauntlet of tuk-tuk drivers touting for custom outside the hotel we were left to just wander and explore, which was probably our favourite thing to do while there.
During our wandering we saw the Independence memorial, the Royal Palace (although we didn’t go in) and visited the Central Market. You may notice from the photos that there are not many people, a sign of a not so hectic city or were we the only fools braving the heat on foot?
We were a bit overwhelmed with the horrific recent history of the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979) and couldn’t face visiting all of the famous tourist sites relating to this (The Killing Fields etc). We did however think it was important to get an at least basic understanding of the history so we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was quite an emotional afternoon to see the actual prison itself, which the Khmer Rouge had converted from a high school to the country’s largest detention and torture centre when they came to power.
I try and avoid the ‘war tourism’ when visiting countries – often finding it sensationalist and disrespectful, but although it left us both in a somber mood, I was pleased that we went. The exhibitions and personal accounts of the period – from the points of view of prisoners, normal working people, Khmer Rouge recruits and prison guards were all very interesting.
The Khmer Rouge period resulted in the estimated death of 25% of the population and we were left thinking that the effects of such a brutal regime must resonate hugely within families to this day and for future generations. Another stat we read during the museum visit stated that 70% of the current Cambodian population was born after 1979. It is amazing how kind and cheerful most of the (notably young) population of Cambodia seem.
After our time in Phnom Penh we are heading south west and out of the city, to Sihanoukville on the coast.