“Phnom Penh”. Whenever I would hear this name in the past, the words that I would immediately conjure in my mind would somehow always be “ancient”, “exotic” and “colorful”. And when we finally visited this city, it didn’t fail to live up to our expectations. Phnom Penh (unlike Siem Reap) is very much a city – its much bigger; more crowded, and distinctly marked in terms of contrasts that coexist – opulence and poverty, modern and traditional, charming yet chaotic.
This city was once considered one of the loveliest cities of Indochina and in some parts you can still see why. It has loads of mixed architecture and history – from the ancient Khmer history, to French architecture, to the remnants of the Khmer Rouge rule and now the present day modernization. This all still coexists and we had a great time exploring this and also the various nooks and corners of this city.
We started our trip here, bright and early, with a visit to the Royal Palace. This is a beautiful complex built-in the Khmer style with sloping wooden roofs, loads of gold work and the symbolic garuda (which is the symbol for the royal family). This huge royal complex houses the Royal Palace, the Throne Hall, the Silver Pagoda, the dance pavilions and the massive gardens. Since the palace is still the residence of the reigning prince, the palace and the dance pavilions are closed for the general public. So we only saw the beautiful throne hall (which is still used for royal coronations and other ceremonies) with beautiful paintings from the Ramayana all over it and a small museum. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Throne Hall and hence there are no pics. 🙂
After seeing the palace, we went on and the saw the highlight of this Palace complex i.e. the Silver Pagoda – the most sacred pagoda for the country and a proud survivor of the Khmer Rouge destruction (of all pagodas). Well for starters the temple building is beautiful and whole enclosure around this temple is gorgeous. It has a small garden, a miniature Angkor Wat temple model, smaller shrines and the entire perimeter walls are covered with beautiful paintings with the stories from the Ramayana.
The Silver Pagoda is aptly named after the silver flooring of the entire pagoda. Though the flooring is covered you can pick the carpet at the corners and you will see blocks and blocks of solid silver in the entire full temple. Then there are Buddhas all around you (literally), there must be at least 1000 Buddha statues here. There are also statues and relics here from other countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka etc. However the main highlight is a statue of Buddha which is studded with nearly 9,500 diamonds and the largest of these is of 25 carats. It is a beautiful and a “sparkling” statue. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the temple too and hence there are no pics just mental images.
We then drove to slightly outskirts of the city to see the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ of Choeung Ek’. During the atrocious Khmer Rouge rule, the prisoners were brought here from prison in trucks, then they were made to dig their own graves (often while blindfolded), after which they were hit on the head (to save precious bullets), killed and buried in these graves. Each grave here is a mass grave where anywhere from 20 – 45 people have been buried together. Since the people digging these graves were already very weak from starvation, these graves are not very deep. Hence you still see loads of bones, teeth, skull, clothes etc protruding from the ground. It is very sad to see these graves and imagine the despair of these people whose lives were cut short for no reason. There is also a memorial here where a lot of bones and skulls of the people who died here have been kept and there is also a small museum that provides an insight on the Khmer rouge’s rule, beliefs and the damage caused.
We also learnt that these Khmer Rouge leaders are now being tried in court for committing these atrocities. During the Khmer Rouge regime, approximately 1.7 million Cambodians (roughly 20% of the population) died between April 1975 and January 1979. Eventually the Cambodian government realized that justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge would be a step toward the redevelopment and healing of the people and asked the United Nations for assistance with prosecuting the Khmer Rouge leaders. After lengthy negotiations, the parties created the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the ECCC) which is truly a one-of-a-kind international court. It is a domestic Cambodian court with Cambodian legal procedure but comprises of both Cambodian and international lawyers and judges who enforce domestic and international laws. Additional information on this is available at http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/khmer_rouge_tribunal_resources_2.pdf.
We then returned to the city to see the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison Museum. Well if we were sad on seeing the killing fields, then we were in absolute despair after we saw this S-21 museum. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power this building used to be a school but was later converted to a prison when Khmer Rouge took over the country. During their rule thousands of men, women and children were interrogated here (pretty much no one survived) and several methods of torture were used to gain information. The classrooms were turned into prison cells (without any windows and only a metal box to use as a toilet). Over the years with increasing number of prisoners the size of cells became smaller and smaller. Many of these cells didn’t have doors and there was barbed wire at all exits. Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of all people executed here and these are now displayed in numerous rooms. When we asked our guide as to the reason for the same, he said it was for families who are still looking for their missing relatives. There are also numerous rooms showing paintings of the various forms and tools of torture employed by the Khmer Rouge. And it’s awful and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to see the whole thing. Also, one piece of advice don’t go here around lunch time. 😦
We then went and saw the National Museum which houses a lot surviving Khmer art, pottery and sculpture. The majority of the exhibits are from the Angkor period from 9th to 15th century, but some date from as early as the 4th century. Apart from the exhibits the building of the museum is also very pretty. We also met numerous arts students who were practicing sketching with these artifacts as models.
Post this we generally walked around the city and explored its beautiful French architecture visible all around.
We then ended our day with a long walk on the riverfront watching the brilliant burst of fireworks (as it was the King’s birthday). On the riverfront we also saw a lot of people doing aerobics and various dance forms in big groups and there was also an open gym next to this. Here there are numerous pubs and eating places that are a good way to start the celebration of the evening. 🙂
In Phnom Penh we again missed a few things to see but that was because we were busy shopping, eating and having fun on a river cruise. But I’ll write separate posts on that in due course. 🙂