Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is a step back in time, not greatly changed from the days of French colonial rule. Like the cities I grew up in in Taiwan, most buildings are two or three stories, and off the major arteries, many streets are dirt. It is a city of about two million people. With mostly small motorcycles and proportionately few cars, the traffic has a much easier flow than the teeming cities of the Asian Tiger nations.  One senses growth and intensity in this city.  Yet, there is only one modern six story shopping mall, and the chain restaurants are only just beginning to arrive.

My brother, Sam, his brother-in-law, Doug  and I all flew in on different flights into Phnom Penh, Cambodia and rendezvoused at the downtown Scandic Hotel on December 2, 2004.  Sam came in from Shanghai via Hong Kong,  Doug came in from Taipei and I came in from Seattle via Tokyo and Bangkok.  


Our small hotel used to be a colonial home in the days of French rule, and it, like other old large homes in the area, was walled  and with big leafy trees shading its courtyard. A room with three beds was $30 per night, and Doug and I visited upstairs in the shaded outdoor cafe while waiting for Sam to arrive.  As sun set, we did a walk along wide boulevards  to the Mekong River.  At the river we found large expensive hotels, some old and some new, and an expanse of park where the city comes at night to cool off.  Vendors of every description sold food, and cheap plastic wares.  An amusement park, much on the scale of a traveling U.S. carnival, had rides for small children,  a roller blading rink and a ping pong concession.  There were very few lights on, and those that existed were of low wattage, giving the whole area a very dim, muted feel.  

Independence Monument

Sam arrived and it was well into dinner hour, so we took a taxi to the Foreign Correspondents Club, an expat hangout made famous by the movie, "The Killing Fields." We ate in an open upstairs dining room with a tall ceiling, lazy paddle fans, and a sweeping view of the Tonle Sap River.   My three course, fixed price dinner, attentively served by an experienced, uniformed waiter, was $10.  The menu featured intriguing dishes from all over Asia and France.  My Thai salad, with ample freshly ground red pepper was on fire and delicious. 

The Killing Fields

The next morning,  we hired a car and driver for the half day and did the hard stuff, visiting the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng torture center.  In 1975, Pol Pat won an election to the joy of the people who thought they were getting rid of a corrupt administration.  Four hours later, Pol Pat's implementation of the worlds most extreme form of communism began, and his army literally drove everybody out of the capital city of Phnom Penh and later the other major cities.  Mass interrogations and exterminations began of all the intelligentsia, leadership, property and business owners. Everybody in the country became equal; everybody farmed, lived in pitiful conditions, and starved.  It is estimated that 1.5 million died in exterminations over the next 10 years,  and many more starved or died or disease and accident because of the horrific living conditions.

We bounced over rutted dirt for 15 kilometers out of the city, to what could have been a peaceful farming area by a river, dotted with tall sugar palms and roamed by scattered groups of brahma cattle.  However, here in a tower monument, were stacked the over 8,000 sculls exhumed from the pits in this area.  Most of the sculls are fractured. To save precious bullets, the Khmer Rouge soldiers would stand the victims by the edge of the pit and club them to death.  Other victims worked inside the pit, removing clothing and anything of value.  The sanctuary offers the puzzling contrast of a peaceful, tranquil setting, and some of the most horrific brutality imaginable.


Mass graves in a tranquil setting.

A monument of 8,000 sculls, a permanent reminder.

Back in the city, we went to a walled school campus, very reminiscent of the three storied concrete high schools we saw in Taiwan.  Here, at the Tuol Sleng torture center, between 2,000 and 5,000 prisoners of interest were kept at a time. They were interrogated and tortured for usually about four months, and finally exterminated.  The methods were inhumane to the extreme.  Careful records were kept of the of victims, complete with photographs. Photographs and paintings depict the methods of torture.   One room has pictures of the torturers themselves, then and now, and comments as to why they did what they did.  When the Khmer Rouge finally capitulated rule, it was under the provision of amnesty; so many of these who committed the terror now live among those who were affected. An uneasy tolerance prevails.  


One of many torture rooms.

Photos of children exterminated.

To be clear, the killing fields and the torture museum are a part of Cambodia's history. Today, Cambodia has a parliamentary style government and it is rapidly catching up to its more prosperous Asian neighbors. Tourism is flourishing. The rest of this story portrays a much more inviting Cambodia, as it exists today.



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