Shadows of Phnom Penh

Heading to Phnom Penh, I was quite excited since I would meet again Jo and Jon – both with whom I’ve spent three months ago more than a week in the Mongolian desert. We went out one night in Phnom Penh for dinner to celebrate Jon’s birthday.

Choeung Ek memorialUnfortunately, Jo showed signs of an impending Dengue fever and I was almost drunk after only two beers of Ankor. So, Jon was drinking alone that much anticipated “Vodka Orange”, the drink which kept us going back in the Gobi desert. Nevertheless, it was nice to meet again after so much time and exchange travel stories and anecdotes.

The city of Phnom Penh is easily discarded by many travellers, who just use it as a hub to catch the bus to other touristic sites within the country. Nevertheless, I’ve spent a good amount of my two days stay sightseeing and actually found myself pretty busy all the times.

One of the visited places is called “The Killing Field”, at Choeung Ek, a short distance from downtown Phnom Penh. This is where the Khmer Rouge killed people not in line with their party book. There are actually a lot of these fields scattered around the country – although the one at Choeung Ek is the most prominent one, featuring a small tower filled with the sculls that have been excavated from the nearby grounds.

Tuol Sleng

Some of the field’s pits – albeit empty – feature shocking displays. Such as an old tree with an info panel stating in English: “Tree against which executioners did beat children”, or “Loudspeakers were attached to this tree playing music to cover the screaming voices”. Given the fact that these atrocities happened only 25 years ago, I found the “Killing Field” an especially depressing visit.

There is a movie with the same name. It tells the journey of a Cambodian who escaped the death camps. The person behind this real story – Dith Pran – died earlier this year.

As if I hadn’t had enough, I went from the “Killing Field” to the Genocide Museum, Tuol Sleng (also known as “S-21”). It is located in the very buildings, where about 17’000 political prisoners were held and tortured under the Pol Pot regime. The dead bodies were discarded to the “Killing Field”. Every prisoner was photographed and the mugshots of terrified men, women and children are especially heartbreaking. I kept on asking myself about how sick a government must be to consider pre-school children as political enemies and throw them in jail.

Many of the young men on the photographs were probably born the same year as I am. Back home, we did revolt for getting “autonomous youth centers (German)” from the government. Sometimes we did clash with the police. While as at the same time, guys the same age were fighting for their life here in Cambodia. I can’t remember that raising the awareness about the Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot were on our ideological agendas back then. But then again, at the very same time that I do write this, a war is going on somewhere (Darfour comes to my mind). In a couple of years, tourists will visit those mass graves there and ask themselves, why nobody did prevent this from happening back in 2008. Apparently, the trial to bring justice to those involved, is still going on. Another disturbing fact, since most of the key persons died of age – without ever having been punished.

Market place in Phnom Penh

After the visit to these historical sites, the daily rain shower did set in. It is wet season here, which means that around 4pm it starts to rain for about an hour or so. Sometimes longer. This implies that I try to finish any sightseeing program by that time, to ensure I won’t get wet. Moreover, I pay the extra price of getting air conditioning in the room, since this keeps moist away from my clothes and the Rucksack. Nevertheless, I got stuck several times in the city, away from my guest house. This is where restaurants make a fortune out of tourists who seek shelter from the wet.

On the other hand, being here in the rainy season ensures that during the dry periods of the day, everything is blooming. The colors of nature are breathtaking and I am laughing silently at the French guy I saw back a couple of weeks in China. He was having charts and meteorological data on his laptop, which would allow him to plan his trip meticulously around “la mousson” (rain season). He also tried very hard to convince two young French not to go their planned route through Southeast Asia, because of the impending wet season. Being a bit less bureaucratic, I would tolerate those who chose to visit this area in the dry season. But the wet season definitely has more character. And hey, guess what time it is right now here? Right, it is late afternoon and the rain allows me to update my blog without remorse.

However, I am still thinking about how to get back to the guest house without getting wet feet…

2 Replies to “Shadows of Phnom Penh”

  1. Another case of “defying common knowledge pays”.
    The most beautiful landscape in sunshine with brutally clear air you would not expect in Asia – and it’s monsoon time…

  2. Another case of “defying common knowledge pays”.
    The most beautiful landscape in sunshine with brutally clear air you would not expect in Asia – and it’s monsoon time…

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