Cambodia is a beautiful country and Phnom Penh a truly welcoming and attractive city. But Cambodia's recent history is dark and to understand the Khmers better, a visit to the genocide museum and the killing fields is a must.
Having seen the shocking exhibition, you will be even more surprised by the friendliness of the Cambodians today.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
In 1975,Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot's security force and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) It soon became the largest such centre of detention and torture in the country.
The building now serves as a museum, a memorial and a testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge regime. Much has been left in the state it was when the Khmer Rouge abandoned it in January 1979. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge was meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after being tortured.
The museum displays include room after room in which such photographs of men, women and children cover the walls from floor to ceiling; virtually all the people pictured were later killed.
There are a many butterflies inhabiting this area. Some people claim that these are the souls of the dead, as butterflies are known as symbols of rebirth. In the book of visitor’s impressions one guest wrote "there seems to be a butterfly for every victim.”
Altogether, a visit to Tuol Sleng is a profoundly depressing experience. There is something about the sheer ordinariness of the place that make it even more horrific; the suburban setting, the plain school buildings, the grassy playing area where several children kick around a ball, rusted beds, instruments of torture and wall after wall of harrowing black-and-white portraits conjure up images of humanity at its worst.
Choeung Ek, the killing fields
During the Khmer Rouge reign, between 1 and 2.5 million Cambodians perished, some killed outright, others dying from disease, malnutrition and mistreatment. Many of the dead ended up in killing fields that can be found across the country.
Between 1975 and 1978, about 17,000 men, women, children and infants, detained and tortured at S-21 prison, were transported to the extermination to death to avoid wasting precious bullets. The remains of 8985 people, many of whom were bound and blindfolded, were exhumed in 1980 from mass graves in this one-time long an orchard; 43 of the 129 communal graves here have been left untouched.
Fragment of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered around the disinterred pits. Over 8000 skulls, arranged by sex, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memoral Stupa, which was erected in 1988.
S-21 Genocide Museum
Corner of St 113 & St 350
Entrance fee: $2.00
Open everyday 8.30-11.00am & 1.30-5pm
See also: Photographs from S-21
Choeung Ek Killing Fields 15 km southwest from central Phnom Penh. The site is 8.5 km from the bridge near Street 271 Entrance fee: $2.00
Attraction #1: the People
Cambodia is a land of treasures. There are temples still buried in the jungle, hill tribes settled in remote areas, colorful pagodas, strings of pristine islands anchored in the waters of the Gulf of Siam, and Cham villages.
But as said before on this website: the biggest attraction of Phnom Penh (and Cambodia as a whole) are the Khmer themselves. Don't rush to the obvious attractions and forget about the locals. Take your time to get to know Cambodians, and you're in for a real treat!
Sure, some tourist touts can be a drag (especially the moto taxi drivers, 'motodops', and the tuktuk drivers continuously begging to have you for a ride). Please, don't be put off by such hassles. Remember, they are only trying to make a living. And by the way, there are some real characters among those motodups and tuktuk drivers, try to find one!
The people of Cambodia are a gentle people who smile a lot. Their lives are hard because they are poor and the climate is enervating. Still, every foreigner ('barang', literally French but used for all foreigners) receives a welcoming smile. With the country now stabilised, Phnom Penh is steadily being restored to former glories. Despite ongoing high unemployment, the streets are lively during daylight hours, and there is an unmistakable optimism in the air.
Livability surveys (e.g. by The Economist) regularly put Phnom Penh in the bottom 10 of "Livable Cities". Well, I say this: these survey guys are sitting overseas just collecting data, but have never actually been here, let alone live. This is for them: