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Cambodia is one of those crazy Asian countries where, as an European, you cannot get enough of the new-effect, same as in Vietnam. Hundreds of motorbikes, 30-40 people in a van, minimum 4 people on a motorbike, crazy traffic, weird things to buy and eat, busy markets, it’s all part of the incredible charm of Phnom Penh.
Every street in the main area of Phnom Penh – by the river, is full of life, restaurants, cafes, girly bars, diverse cuisine – from Khmer (Cambodian) to Indian to Halal to Italian, Thai, Burmese, French, name it, travel agencies offering visa services for Vietnam, crossing the border to Laos, flights and minivan trips to Siem Reap.
After I get a good impression of the capital city I sit down at the second floor of a riverside restaurant, on the corner of the street. From here I can see the river and the traffic on the Sisowath Quay as I eat and check my map, trying to make an itinerary for tomorrow’s sightseeing. Here I meet D., who happened to sit right next to me, actually I sat right next to him. D. is around 40 and the ones who have known me for a while know that it’s exactly the age of people I like to hang out with. One of the advantages of traveling alone is making amazing friendships as it happened in Zanzibar, Beirut, Athens just to name a few of them. Well, I ended up meeting D. every day of my Cambodian trip and of course he’s not someone who has a normal 9-to-5 life with one holiday a year. Actually he quit his job 3 years ago to travel the world. How cool is that?
April 3rd, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I walk the block that separates Street 148 to Wat Ounalom, the most important wat of Phnom Penh and the center of Cambodian Buddhism, established in 1443.
What is a wat? A Buddhist monastery or temple.
On the short way, parallel to the river, I see a cute girl, not more than 7 or 8, at a stand selling books. When I see books, I stop. Let me tell you, she impressed me. First of all, her English was impeccable and she literally sold me the book. She has talent, I did not want that book and I did not want to buy it in the morning and carry it around the whole day. But I did and that’s what a skilled seller does. I don’t know her story or her family’s, the bookstand had a picture with three kids – her and two younger brothers with school backpacks – asking to buy from the stand of the mother to help the kids to go to school. I gave the girl $100 dollars and she said she has change – no problem, she warned me about thieves and told me to take care of the green bag with an elephant keychain. She was doing all the work. The book was cheap – $6 – although the standard price of Lonely Planet is around $30, I did not wonder why. Well, guess what? The covers look exactly the same, but the content is photocopied. After all, it serves the purpose. Her parents were both sleeping at the cool and shadow of the buildings by the street, opposite the river. She woke her mom up and sent her to change the dollars. Then she asked me my plans for the trip, woke up her dad to open the car and took a contact card and said her father could drive me to the airport. I did not call them ever, but I think about the girl every now and then – she’s going to go far, that’s for sure, she’s smart and has a great merchant spirit. I actually think I envy her.
Wat Ounalom is considered to display an eyebrow hair of Buddha. Some guide tries to follow me, but I need my silence and alone time. This place is so quiet, so peaceful, not intrusive. I might have spent almost 3 hours here and it is a very small place. I walk outside and inside that temple a few times. Behind the temple, some orange monk cloths hang on a rope waiting to dry.
Did you ever wonder why the monks wear orange? Well, apparently that was the available color.
I leave the temple from the back exit, where there’s another market, restaurants frying a whole veal turning on a pole, improvised – maybe only in my opinion – hairdressers having everything they need by the street, giving haircuts next to the carwash, which is next to the restaurant, in the dust left behind by motorbikes. Here I find David, a tuk-tuk driver who speaks French only – and Khmer, of course – who asks for $5 to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), but is happy to take $3. The museum is on Street 113 and the entrance fee is $6 including audio guide.
The Museum is a confession of a cruel regime that most former communist countries have had at some point. Non-humanity at its highest level.
A little bit of recent Cambodian history. The Khmer Rouge
Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), ruling Cambodia between April 17th, 1975 and 1979, an era of political execution, forced labor and death – around 2 million people. Because of this the era is called the Cambodian Genocide and there are trials currently undergoing to identify and punish the ones responsible for the years of terror and torture.
CPK’s aim was to erase class differences, a common goal of communist regimes around the world. They marched in Phnom Penh in April 1975 under Pol Pot and Son Sen and ruled the country for the following 4 years, expelling the population from urban center to countryside, killing the ones who refused and later moving the population again to other areas in a huge population migration.
But how was this possible? Well, during that time Vietnam War was going on (1955-1975) and the Americans war fighting something called The Secret War – bombing Cambodia. More than 100000 bombs fell in Cambodia from the sky and the people were in a state they were welcoming revolution. Khmer Rouge said that many bombs would come, being able to relocate entire urban populations. Of course, the Vietnam War ended by April 30th same year, 1975, but The Khmer Rouge, who had risen on April 17th of same year had gained control already.
Tuol Sleng had been a high school and was renamed S-21 when the Khmer Rouge took over, becoming one of over 200 secret prisons during that era. So was Cambodia, becoming Democratic Kampuchea – name inspired from the ancient Khmer Kingdom of Kambuja, Sanskrit name.
The Khmer Rouge era was known as the Kampuchea Democratic Era, but as the museum shows, it was very far from democratic.
The guide starts by saying: “When you leave you go back to your normal life”. Hiding from the sun under a Frangipani flower tree, it makes me think. What’s my normal life? Will I ever go back to a normal life? What is normal? Do I even want to be normal? Some unrest woke up in me and actually all I wanted was to be alone and process a new world history lesson. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was declared by the UNESCO valuable to humankind as a proof of inhumanity. How ironic, but what is this worldly life other than pure irony?
Nobody knew about the existence of this and the detainees were brought blindfolded, in trucks. Angkor was always right and there are only 12 confirmed survivors. A place where people enter, but never leave. Angkor has eyes like pineapples, detainees were told to convince them they had been wrong, but actually they would kill anyone. One of the staff declared that it was better to exterminate someone by mistake rather than letting the evil spread.
This is how The Hill of Wild Mango, how it used to be called, a place of Frangipani blossom, coconut palms and jack fruit became a hill of horror, interrogation, false accusation, starvation.
Staff were young boys from the countryside who were told they are the right hand and the soul of the country, but ended up being detainees themselves if they would hesitate in torturing or killing. Women? Mainly cooks or medics, although one was a confirmed interrogator.
One of the buildings – Building A – was for important people. New people, city people, lawyers, teachers, children, high officials. The contemptible. Enemies of the regime. Of course, the building had no air flow and was the place of torture three times a day, ammunition boxes was used for human waste and detainees were shackled to iron beds.
“Once we had the answer we killed them all” – said one of the staff. Nowadays, in international law, information obtained under torture is not acceptable. I’m thinking about my month in Hague, as the International Court of Justice, the special tribunals for Lebanon, Sierra Leone, former Yugoslavia.
The chief of S-21 was Dutch Kang Kec, who took notes on confessions and signed executions. Excellent student, mathematics teacher – remembered as gentle by its students, joined the Communist Party, arrested and imprisoned for 2 years and tortured. Established discipline and handpicked youngsters to train them in the art of torture and obtaining confessions. What caught my attention was – a contrast. Dutch would wear two pens in his shirt pocket – sign of craziness in a time when having a pen in your hand, glasses or soft hands – being an intellectual – meant that you were an enemy of the regime and the country.
As I walk through the rooms, a sparrow is flying inside the white, depressing walls of the former prison, by the pictures of responsible and the victims, a symbol of freedom and hope.
“Would I have had strength to refuse to kill if penalty was my own death?” – again in the garden, on a bench looking at the Frangipani and at two of the survivors. An artist and one who repaired typewriters – essential for confession registration, no? They sit there, in front of you, selling their books.
The museums has archives, which can be visited on appointment.
What caught my attention was the two Banyan Trees. I had heard about them mainly because of the super fancy rooftop bar and restaurant in Bangkok, but never gave it much attention. Well, it is said that Banyan trees give shelter to restless spirits. How beautiful! I listened to it over and over again. Where is my Banyan tree then, restless spirit of mine?
David is outside waiting for me. I get another mango shake and he takes me to the Independence Monument. I ask him to drive in the roundabout around it a few times and then continue to the Royal Palace. He speaks in French and I answer in English, but we get along. The ride is both fun and pleasant, the wind is blowing through my hair and David seems to be smiling, although I can’t see his face. Reception dresses stores, barver stores having Leonardo di Caprio as image, French restaurants, Champs Elysee Hotel – a place I would never go to when in Cambodia, but since most of the tourists are French, of well, tiny restaurants. We are around Sothea Ros Serey Street, holding the name of a singer.
The Independence Monument looks like the central tower of Angkor Wat (in Siem Reap, around 5 hour drive away from Phnom Penh) and was built to celebrate Cambodia’s Independence from France, in 1953.
Phnom Penh is a small city and all the attractions are very close to each other. The Royal Palace is a good place to spend your afternoon in an April afternoon if you can stand the 35 degrees + temperatures that I love. The Palace is closed between 12 and 2PM and the entrance fee is $6, so organize your schedule accordingly. Also, be mindful of what you wear – no tank tops, shorts etc.
The Palace had many compounds and maybe it’s not a bad idea to take a guide – available at the entrance – who will explain every single detail of decoration and what it means, but I was still in lonely mood and I walked around, looking selfishly at only what I wanted to look at. And other tourists are looking at me. I might seem a little odd and a little pretty – alone, with camera, phone, selfie stick (all gone by following day), long flowery skirt, Frangipani huge green hair clam ($1, from an old woman carrying a tray-like basket by the Mekong) in my hair not longer than my shoulders level, inhaling and exhaling some kind of special freedom and a dose of mystery.
Again, there are no many tourists if I compare it to the invasion I’ve seen at the Royal Palace in Bangkok, where the ticket is three times the price of this. Indeed, it’s low season in Cambodia – making me love it – and Phnom Penh is not Bangkok…yet!
As you may easily guess, The Royal Palace is the residence of the King of Cambodia and has been so since 1860, excepting the Khmer Rouge years. As you can see, they tried to destroy pretty much everything valuable, artistic, intellectual, spiritual that Cambodia had.
I will not emphasize much on the edifices themselves, but on the symbols. Symbolism has been a great passion of mine for long. Well, let’s get started, but please have patience and understanding as this (Hinduism, Buddhism symbols) is quite new to me and I’m learning as I go, see and read more about it in Cambodia and different cultures of the world that I get the chance to visit.
As you enter the Palace’s gardens a huge Couroupita guianensis or Cannonball Tree attracts the eyes of all visitors. The tree is tall and impressive flowers grow from its trunk, but there are some buds and fruits, too. The flowers are called Shivalinga flowers (Hindi). For Hindus this is a sacred tree because the petals of the flower resemble the hood of the Naga, a sacred snake, mostly a cobra because it was Buddha’s protector.
Garuda is a creature looking like a human bird, the vehicle of Vishnu.
The whole ensemble is full of symbols, from the colors of the Palace’s roof to the seven head snakes rising at the stairs of some buildings. The Silver Pagoda or Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha is in the same complex and used to be covered by 5000 tiles of 1kg of silver each, one of the few places kept by the Khmer Rouge, as a symbol of Cambodian civilization.
What is Khmer? Khmer is the Cambodian language and also the people of Cambodia.
I sat by the shade of some trees, by a huge Buddha reading from the Lonley Planey book about Cambodia, while listening to the Bamboo xylophone (Roneat aek) play somewhere not far. I leave the complex looking at the pictures of the life of the King.
All of a sudden I decide I have time to see the National Museum the same day – if I rush. And I do. By now in the nearby park the preparations for the upcoming Khmer New Year (13-16 April) have started – they’re building a stage with the King as a central figure, small merchants gather already. It’s almost sun set and the sun reflects in the peaceful waters of the Mekong. I walk past some American coffee shops, where I would never leave even one dollar when traveling and rush to the museum – two blocks away from my hotel.
The National Museum of Cambodia (Street 13, $5) is another peaceful place, especially before closing time, catching the serendipity of the interior gardens. Probably I was too tired by this time, but I was attracted more to the museum itself than its displays. Moreover, it is a history and archeology museum, not very interactive and a bit boring. A stone museum. What I loved about it is that it’s an opened museum, no walls towards the interior gardens. Makes you feel and think outside the box. Similar to the National Museum in Indonesia, which I visited in January. It should be a trait of the area museums, anyway I love it. Lotus flowers and frogs live together in the four basins of the garden, frangipani flowers look over them and monks spread their calm, hugged by the tall square structure of the museum.
A couple takes pictures. Outside the museum a man in his 60s draws on the porch of the building. Huge green bushes are completed by elephant heads and horns, two monks sit by each other on a bench, an orchid flows down a tree trunk in purple, yellow and white and I catch the perfect picture with the monks and the orchids.
It’s late afternoon and the city life seems to take one more strong breath before going to sleep for the day. Agitation and traffic. I go back to the hotel through the market, I buy the green dress I was telling you about, try to bargain, but I realize there’s no point.