Friday, February 15, 2013

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

When leaving Australia I was unexpectedly informed that I was needed to accompany two of our guests who wanted to visit Phnom Penh (nom-pen) in lieu of going to Angkor Wat, which they had visited five years previously. Not being prepared for this slight detour, I was unaware of what to expect. But I found it fascinating and it turned out great.

The city has about 2 million inhabitants and it is the capital of the country. This is the Independence Monument, erected to mark the time when the French gave up their colonial ambitions, begun in 1863 and ending ninety years later in 1953. Note the scooters in the roundabout. My two guests and I were fascinated by the courteous way people drove here. The streets were very busy but not chaotic even though the lines on the road are only suggestions. People were patient with other drivers and willing to go with the flow. Those turning left across oncoming traffic would slowly edge into the opposing stream and complete a turn as small but obvious breaks were perceived in the oncoming traffic. This means one has to often yield to someone who pulls in front of you but no harm, no foul here. Fascinating.

The national flag which has the distinction of being the only flag with an existing building on it - the temple at Angkor Wat. Note the portrait of King Norodam Sihanouk, who passed away in October of last year at age 89. He is still a revered figure in this country.

Phnom Penh was established along the west bank of the Mekong River. Here four branches of the river can be found, two in the upstream direction and two downstream.

Downstream view of the river

View from outside the Royal Place in Phnom Penh

No cameras are allowed inside but the floor is tiled with slabs of solid and engraved silver, each weighing  more than 2 pounds

The grounds are beautiful

Colored tile roof

Another view from the east looking west

This is the National Museum and it houses many statues recovered from Angkor Wat farther to the north

Entrance to the National Museum

There's no way around it. Visitors to Cambodia will eventually come up against the genocide period during the time of Pol Pot. Similar to my visit to Rwanda last year, this country has developed educational and emotional markers for its citizens of this dark period. If this type of recall is difficult for you, then watch for my next posting on the ruins of Angkor Wat. There is nothing graphic below, just memories of atrocities that are difficult to comprehend.

A former high school was appropriated as a prison camp and called S-21. Pol Pot wanted to develop a strictly classless, agrarian society and so imprisoned, tortured, and killed all of the professionals and educated people, at least those who did not escape the country. Over two million victims were accounted for. Behind the barbed wire here are the former classrooms that hold 4-foot by 7-foot bricked-in cells. The Pol Pot regime came to power in April, 1975 after a five year civil war.

About 10 miles out of the city center are the Killing Fields. This monument was erected to help the nation heal.  The glassed in center holds tiers of human remains that were dug up in numerous mass graves here.

The mass graves were discovered after the regime fell in January of 1979. The outside world knew very little of this while it was occuring.

The Killing Fields. During the height of the darkness in 1978, over 300 people would be brought here each midnight in trucks. Loudspeakers hung from nearby trees to drowned out the screams. No one was spared here, including infants. What drives people to kill their own citizens? Craziness.

The most ironic message that comes to me is how gentle and kind the Cambodian people are to us on this visit. I cannot imagine how one Cambodian could inflict such pain on his own people. At least Cambodia today is thriving - over 3.3 million tourists will visit this country this year. Angkor Wat was virtually unvisited during the 1970's and 1980's. The change is for the better. This was so interesting on many different levels. Thanks for reading!

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