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While many Southeast Asian cities and capitals have experienced their fair share of chaos and strife in the past half-century, few places display such a drastic, dramatic, and circuitous history as Phnom Penh.
Once the pearl of French Indochina, European architecture and cafes sprang up along the banks of the mighty Mekong River, as French expatriates basked in the tropical sunshine of the Orient. Declaring its independence in the 1950’s, Cambodia thrived under King Sihanouk for the 1960’s, got sucked into the troubles of the US military action in Vietnam, endured the throes of the Cold War, suffered relentless illegal bombing by the US, a horrific fall into the Khmer Rouge regime in which the entire city of Phnom Phen was evacuated, and a decade long war with Vietnam that has left the country with millions of landmines and a vacant generation. Through it all, however, Phnom Penh has managed to thrive.
The major sights in the city mirror the dichotomy that is modern day Phnom Penh, ranging from the overwhelmingly elaborate to the darkest depths of humanity. Managing to escape the destruction of the Khmer Rouge, the Royal Palace and its surrounding gardens occupy the heart of the city center and dominates the Phnom Penh skyline. Home to the Royal family and temples such as the Silver Pagoda (in which the entire floor is covered in plates of silver), the entire palace grounds is representative of the rich history and the high-priced treasures of the Cambodian Kingdom. There’s even a massive Buddha made of solid gold. While the sea of gemstones is admittedly impressive (one dress for the queen contains over 200 diamonds), it’s hard to justify their existence as burn victim amputees live under cardboard boxes outside the Palace gates. Aside from the questionable displays of wealth, the entire compound is a virtual Khmer cultural carnival, with traditional silk weaving, instrument carving, and musical performances offered free of charge. The admission fee to the compound is a whopping $6 for foreigners, whereas native Cambodians pay a mere $.25. Also, be sure to cover up as those with exposed shoulders or knees will be denied entry.
While unfortunate, the reality is that Phnom Penh is known mostly for its darkest moment, that being the reign of the Khmer Rouge. While the regime was officially overthrown in 1979, the remnants of its horrific existence still exist in the re-populated city center, notably Tluong Seng Prison and the Killing Fields at Choeng Ek. Known simply as S-21, Tluong Seng was once a public high school in downtown Phnom Penh before being converted into a sanctuary of torture and death. Classrooms were converted into cells, and playground equipment was used for torture. Of over 20,000 people held at Tluong Seng, only 7 survived. When the Vietnam army finally “liberated” the capital in 1979, they found in an abandoned Tloung Seng 14 freshly killed corpses gracing the rooms that once housed education and knowledge. 30 years later it is still a grisly sight. About the most uplifting part of Tluong Seng Museum is the Boddhi Tree restaurant that is located right across the street. Aside from the unbelievable food and tranquil garden like atmosphere, the restaurant specializes in providing jobs for orphans and those people trying to start a better life. Large amounts of their proceeds go to charitable organizations, and they support sustainable development and progress in Cambodia.
It’s geographical and logistical “partner in crime”, if you will, was the Killing Field at Choeng Ek, an expanse of open field 14km south of the city center that holds the mass graves of those executed once the Tuol Sleng courtyard became too full. It is an incredibly unsettling and eerie reality to stand at the edge of a mass grave that houses hundreds of uncovered human remains. In a large stupa in the center of the compound rests thousands of human skulls from victims who have already been exhumed, thereby painting a sobering picture upon entering the compound. Perhaps most horrific of all, a plaque stands in memorial to a large tree in which infants and young children were murdered on its very trunk; in an effort to save bullets, the Khmer Rouge would simply take children by the ankles and swing them full force into the trees. If you plan to visit the Killing Fields, bring a strong stomach and some Kleenex.
That being said, Phnom Penh has managed to rise from the ashes of it’s heart-stopping past and rebuild around the treasures that once made it the jewel of Southeast Asia. European style cafes once again line the riverfront, and large groups of city dwellers take to the many central parks and monuments each evening for communal jogging, aerobics, soccer, and other types of sport. Our favorite culinary and leisure hangouts in the city center were Mekong River restaurant, Jaan Restaurant, and the parks in and around the Independence Monument and Olympic stadium. While the people watching is exceptional at all parts of the city, probably the best spot to simply relax in the shade and absorb some traditional Khmer culture is Wat Phnom, a large temple set on a hill where wild monkeys roam and elephants chauffer tourists around the well-manicured grounds. It’s like a temple meets a city park meets a zoo–a great place for a picnic in the bustling city center. Plus, beers are $.60 and wireless is free nearly everywhere you go. There’s no better way to an end a Phnom Penh day than with a cheap pint of Angkor while watching the sun set over the Mekong River from inside the hedges of a tucked away cafe. While the Kingdom of Cambodia continues to struggle to kick rampant government corruption and the leftovers of its past, Phnom Penh has all the right makings of becoming the “Pearl of Asia” once again.