I travelled to Cambodia’s capital from Ho Chi Minh City, entering my fourth South-East Asian country in as many weeks, and yet again encountered the Mekong River, which had become a familiar sight from time spent by it, crossing it, and travelling down it in Thailand and Laos. Here it involved a car ferry, on which fried crickets were available, which for some reason didn’t appeal to me…
Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia, home to over 2 million people, but that felt pretty small compared with Ho Chi Minh City, and better for it. An enjoyable way to see some of it was by cyclo, a more intense experience than the speed really justified.
The roads were pretty busy though, and pollution noticeable.
I ended up on the banks of the Mekong River again, busy with people making offerings at the Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine.
Nearby is the Moonlight Pavilion, part of the Royal Palace complex built between 1866 and 1870, though this is the second pavilion on the site, constructed in 1913-14 in a similar design to the original. Most of the Royal Palace is off limits to tourists, but the pavilion can be seen from outside the walls.
My hotel had some wise rules, with the memorable fruit durian on a par with drugs and guns in terms of prohibited items.
Wat Phnom is the tallest religious structure in the city, built in 1372, but I was more interested in the giant bamboo snake on the grounds in front, and the pro-democracy demonstration that had gathered in advance of the upcoming election (this was in September 2013).
In 1975 Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, one of the most horrific regimes of the 20th century, responsible for the death of around a quarter of Cambodia’s population. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a reminder of the atrocities inflicted, one of more than 150 torture and execution sites established by the Khmer Rouge. The former secondary school was turned into Security Prison 21, in which over four years ~20,000 people were imprisoned and the majority tortured.
After that harrowing experience I then visited The Killing Fields site of Choeung Ek, the best known of the sites where well over a million people were killed between 1975 and 1979. A central stupa is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls, while the surrounding fields are still strewn with human bones. It was harder to comprehend that at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as the site itself was idyllic, a complete contrast from the horrific events that took place here.