Southeast Asia is obviously not the wealthiest part of the world. After spending time in the affluence of Singapore and KL, and the relative affluence of Thailand, both Laos and what we’d seen so far in Cambodia were marked by poverty – small, scrappy villages with a single communal water source, not much sign of kids being in school and plenty of touting and begging (especially by particularly persistent kids). Arriving in Phnom Penh was then a pleasant surprise.
I had no real image in mind for Phnom Penh, so it was a happy discovery to find a pleasant city, bordered by the river and full of parks, gardens, elegant boulevards and other open spaces. On our first evening in Phnom Penh we wandered down Sisowath Quay by the river and found … people enjoying themselves. There were some food vendors but they didn’t seem desperate to close a deal, and all the children we saw were just playing – chasing each other, falling over us when we got in their way, squabbling over their nifty pedal cars and snacking on fruit and popcorn. It was refreshing to see. We also saw a new development – public dance groups. A big speaker and some kind of sound system were set up, and a group of people would spontaneously form in front of it. A ‘leader’ would then demonstrate some choreography and the crowd would soon follow. Rival groups of 30-40 people would spring up, trying to drown out each others’ music. All very festive. (Choreography was a bit lame, though.)
This feeling of joy and abandon made more sense after our visit the following day to Tuol Sleng, or S (Security) 21. This used to be a high school in suburban Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge used it for the detention and torture of high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials fallen from favour and other members of the population who came to the attention of the regime as potential dissidents.
Only a handful of people ever survived S21 (most inmates were taken to the Killing Fields about 20km from the city and murdered, if they managed to survive the torture and starvation).
The school is kept much as it was, with some horrific exhibits (photos of inmates, even deceased, and some skulls) and very informative ones. Part of the reason why photos of victims are displayed so openly is to show visitors the incontrovertible evidence of the genocide that occurred, because while some Khmer Rouge officials are in custody (including the head of S21), trials have not yet commenced.
Given our short time in Cambodia it would be inappropriate to think we understood the effect of the genocide on Cambodians, but we did wonder whether the carefree vibe we noticed in PP had something to do with the survival of these amazing people. Tuol Sleng is well worth a visit – it’s one of the most horrific places I’ve ever been, and it was a difficult place to be, but I’m very glad we went.
After a gut-wrenching day, we decided we needed some levity – colour and movement. Where better than the nearest market?
We ended up going to three of the main markets in PP – the Central Market (amazing architecture, but undergoing renovation, and not that interesting as markets go), the Russian market (so named because they used to be the only people in town with any money; this one was pretty cramped and crowded, but good fun) and finally O’Russey market, our favourite.
We enjoyed watching the inventive ways they could pack vehicles.
And of course sat down for a snack. This place was great – little fried bundles of vegetables and tofu. The vendor also gave us some nuts, similar to chestnuts, to try. Delicious.
While we were there, we also spent a couple of hours at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, or FCC. It’s in a beautiful old building on the Quay, great views over the town, and with a very decent Happy Hour.
(This photo is just for show. We mostly stuck to martinis at AUD3 each).
And so that was Phnom Penh – an unexpectedly great place.
From here we had planned to head south and stay on a remote little island off the tourist beach hub of Sihanoukville. However, after poking around on the internet we found reports that the area had become pretty inundated by rubbish on the beach, and was no longer the idyllic beach paradise we’d hoped for. So, enjoying our flexibility, we ditched that idea and headed straight for Saigon…