I was told by several people in Vietnam that Phnom Penh is a small city and not much happens. I disagree! It is a small city as cities go to be sure, but it is also full of surprises! There is a hum to it that promises rapid expansion when the economy gets back on track. It is sleepy cafes along the river road and traffic jams elsewhere during rush hour. A vibrant night life surrounded by the “hidden homeless” in one of the poorest countries on earth. It is inhabited by a gentle, friendly people who are still grappling with the horrors inflicted by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Everyone you talk to had at least one family member who was murdered in the holocaust of Cambodia. It is estimated that one-fourth of the population perished in the senseless bloodbath of Anka in the late ’70’s.
Nowhere is this more evident than the prison of Toul Sleng. This was the “holding pen” for those considered too dangerous because, for example, they were educated or were religious. The Khmer Rouge wanted Cambodia to revert to a Stone Age simplicity where everything and everyone was more pure. You are shocked to look at the “prison” which was actually a converted high school. There are three big buildings that are four-storeys high. The one on the left consists of rooms left just as they were found when the Vietnamese took control. It is so powerful in its simplicity. Row after row of rooms with the trappings of confinement and torture– a bed, chains, photos of just how it looked that day. It is a gruesome place and not for the squeamish. The middle building is where the torture took place. There are boards filled with pictures taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims just before they were carted off to the “killing fields” outside the city to be bludgeoned to death to save money on bullets and then buried in mass graves. Men, women, children, young and old. As difficult as it is, you are compelled to look at each photo. The faces almost speak to you— their looks of horror, defiance, acceptance, resignation, fear– they are looking straight out at you and will not allow you to break your gaze easily, but all seem to be asking why. And you do too…. The real story of this place is in those photos— and that is why I found myself taking pictures of so many of them that seemed to reach out and ask, or demand, to know why. It is almost too much. You are blown away by its simplicity of presentation. It all speaks for itself, eloquently in its silence.
It rained pretty much the entire day on the bus trip to Phnom Penh from Saigon. There was still plenty to see along the way, however. The remarkable farm life complete with ox carts and buffaloes reminded me of Thailand 30 years ago. We passed through unnamed towns with their markets and shops bustling with morning shoppers. Occasionally, you focus on someone. There was a sort of recognition and mutual smile. It was good to get out of Saigon and be on the road again.
The bus arrived about 6pm and we were greeted at the Central Market by a hoard of taxi,tuk-tuk, rickshaw and moto drivers ready to take us to our destinations. The cacophony vaguely reminded me of a busy trading day on Wall Street– everyone waving their hands with frantic, wide-eyed faces to get your attention. The bus attendants set up a make-shift barrier to separate the passengers and their luggage from the desperate, pressing drivers. I got my bag and settled on a tuk-tuk driver who agreed to go for one dollar– as opposed to the four he initially requested! (It pays to do your research!) My hotel is located on the river. The room does not have a river view, but the poor breakfast is more than compensated for with the panorama of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap from the fifth floor roof-top restaurant.
As I always do, I walked the entire next day all over the city to get a feel for it that you can’t get traveling in any sort of a vehicle. My first direction was north past the wonderful old French colonial buildings towards Wat Phnom, the temple on the hill. It is not a difficult climb to the top. I then made my way along Norodom Blvd past the new US Embassy and a number of very tony restaurants and hotels and eventually landed at the Psar Thmei, Central Market. As markets go, however, I didn’t find this one too impressive so it was a quick trip through. After lunch walked all the way to the Independence Plaza, a broad boulevard with an Ankor-inspired monument to Cambodian pride and freedom. It was then time to eventually make my way back to the hotel and a good long shower. I ended up at a Khmer-Thai restaurant on the quai and spent the next two hours enjoying dinner and talking to the numerous hawkers and passersby who think nothing of approaching you for a little conversation! But there are those intermittent quiet times to just sit there and savor the food and the wonderful sunset view of the river.