I didn’t understand much about Cambodia’s civil war till coming to here, hearing locals’ stories, and reading a book on the subject. This may be the case for many westerners. Almost every Cambodian family lost family members to civil war and the Khmer Rouge. A cab driver told us about the day they took his brother. Another told of how they murdered his father. All in all, an estimated two million out of eight million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge, a previously marginal political group that managed to hijack the country in the 1970s. The justification for their actions was that they were trying to return Cambodia to an agrarian state, which was idealized in their philosophy. They were setting the clock back to the year zero, and getting rid of technology. Intellectuals, people with glasses, teachers, police, doctors, students, people who’d eaten chocolate or seen a movie, in short, anyone who wasn’t a farmer or factory worker; was deemed undesirable in this new society. These undesirables were ultimately killed, unless they could successfully masquerade as farmers.
"First They Killed My Father," a survivor’s autobiography, is a horrifying, yet typical personal account of the war. It’s also a great primer on what happened.
Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh is a high school converted to a prison by the Khmer Rouge; now it’s a museum. As we walked through it, it was hard to believe the sunny modernist school was the site of so many atrocities. Or that children’s exercise equipment was used for torture.
We walked through classrooms furnished only with old rusty misshapen beds, shackles, toolboxes, and other torture implements. Grainy photographs of the last victims found dead at the prison were on the walls. Victims were tortured horribly at Tuol Sleng. In larger rooms, there were large grids of mugshots the Khmer Rouge took of their victims — women, men, children, babies, the elderly, sick people unable to lift themselves. The Khmer Rouge documented their crimes in a clinical manner like the Nazis.
In one room were piles of skulls, marred by bullet holes or bludgeoning. Sometimes people were bludgeoned to death when bullets were deemed too expensive.
But the Killing Fields of Choeung ek, several miles outside the city, is were where most of the prisoners were actually taken to be bludgeoned and buried in mass graves — sometimes alive. And these sites are only the largest and most notorious; Cambodia is littered with mass graves from the war.
There is a multi-level memorial stupa at the entrance to the Killing Fields, containing the bones of thousands of victims killed there. On the bottom level of the stupa is a lucite box of the victims’ clothing. At eye-level are piles of thousands of skulls. Several levels up are other kinds of bones.
The Killing Fields itself now looks like a sunny field pockmarked with old mortar shells. It’s truly hard to imagine people bludgeoning one another to death in this now peaceful place. It’s also hard to fathom how many of the killers are currently leading peaceful lives in Cambodia.
Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts. Luxurious mansions blocks away from begging amputees. Fois gras on offer at the riverfront, baked spiders at the market.
The difference between "safe" neighborhoods and the no-go areas is stark, as is the contrast between rich and poor. Average annual income is about $200. The Cambodian population is incredibly stratified, with a number of very rich people, millions of extremely poor, and not much of a middle class.
Phnom Penh has a large population of foreign aid workers, and is visited by a fair number of tourists. The average Cambodian makes so little that foreign aid workers and tourists are incredibly wealthy by comparison.
This is graphically illustrated when you walk by a luxurious housewares shop right out of Soho, then see a mother living on the street, with her baby laying in the middle of the sidewalk. Or realize your $2.50 latte might cost more than what an average Cambodian would pay for a day’s food. We’ve seen more abject poverty in this city than on the rest of our trip so far.
That said, Phnom Penh can be surprisingly charming. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it boasts a wonderful mix of French colonial, art deco, and modernist architecture. I’m unsure whether many buildings were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, but there are currently many great specimens in town. A standout is the Central Market, a spectacular yellow, ziggurat-like dome.
French Colonial buildings are seen throughout the city.
The riverfront is quite beautiful, and has some nautical-looking streamlined deco buildings. This is the view from the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, which is housed in a lovely old building.
And there are some really unusual, whimsical modernist buildings as well, in bright colors.
And the National Museum, built in the ’20s in a modernized Khmer design, is a gorgeous building, with an impressive collection of ancient Khmer art.
Phnom Penh also has a great strip of bars at the riverside, and fashionable restaurants with really good European and Khmer food. Again, the collision of fashionable high street with poverty-stricken street life.
We spent about four days in Phnom Penh, and had mixed feelings about the experience.
On our last evening in town, we enjoyed drinks and dinner with Felicia, an Australian I’d met on the Bokor Mountain trip. She’s currently working at the U.N. in Phnom Penh, and it was interesting to hear her perspectives on Cambodia.