Future and Past – Phnom Penh

I last was in Phnom Penh in 2002 while traveling in Southeast Asia.  The Phnom Penh that Kate and I arrived to in 2015 was virtually unrecognizable compared to the one I remembered from back then. Cambodia is undergoing a major economic transition and nowhere is it more apparent than in its capitol city. Shiny buildings are going up everywhere and new international investment seems to be around every corner.

The air here is charged with a new kind of optimism for the future.  This optimism seems to be driving a major demographic change – people are having babies! Nowhere in Southeast Asia has this been more apparent than in Cambodia – there are so many young people – 50% of the population is under the age of 22.

I want to pause right now to say that this post only includes photos from two places in Phnom Penh  – the National Museum and Choeung Ek. After taking a ridiculous amount of photographs at Angkor Wat, I didn’t want to touch a camera for a few days. With that said, there were a lot of missed opportunities to photograph interesting parts of Phnom Penh…..let ‘s just say that it was one of our favorite cities so far on our trip.

The National Museum was a great continuation of the cultural history that we learned about at Angkor Archaeological Park. The museum was organized chronologically with cultural relics dating back to the Pre-Angkor period up to pieces from the present century. Unfortunately, photographs were forbidden inside the museum.  The photos here are from the front of the museum and the beautiful inner gardens.

The museum was open air – no windows/screens blocking anything from the outdoors – just wooden doors and shutters that I assume are closed and locked at night.  This made for a very pleasant experience while wandering the museum; birds flying overhead and sunlight shining in from outside.

Cambodian National Museum’s Spirit House – Spirit Houses are common throughout Southeast Asia in homes and businesses. Offerings are given to appease the protective spirit of a place (that might otherwise cause trouble). These houses are everywhere – we just saw a huge one at a car dealership yesterday 🙂

With all of the economic and demographic growth happening here it is hard to believe that this is the same place that emerged from a dark and horrific period in history only 35 years ago. From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. As a result of malnutrition, starvation, disease and outright execution, between 2 and 3 million Cambodians died during this period.  This is unfortunately a major chapter of Cambodia’s modern history – one that is still very visible today.  This is another reason the country’s populace is so young – the Khmer Rouge did not allow many people to grow old.

Mass graves at Choeung Ek

The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot and a number of other Communist idealogues. Their master plan included forcibly moving everyone out of cities and into labour camps in the countryside. The idea was to return to a completely agrarian society that was wholly self reliant. People were ordered to triple the rice production in the country, which of course, did not work. Money was abolished, books were burned, and traditional education was scorned in favor of farmwork. In addition to this, it quickly became clear that intellectuals and anyone who even remotely seemed like they might subvert the ruling party were targeted for possible execution. Often they were tortured in order for them to give up information on other “subversives”. Families of the condemned were usually in turn condemned as well. One of Pol Pot’s infamous quotes reflects this twisted ideology – “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.”  Women, men, children, babies – no one was spared.

There is a place outside of Phnom Penh called Choeung Ek. This was one of many execution sites (dubbed the “killing fields”) scattered around the country. Thousands were brought here after being held and tortured at S-21 prison (a former school) in Phnom Penh and were summarily executed. In order to save bullets the Khmer Rouge came up with a number of horrific ways to murder people that I will not mention here.

Kate and I visited Choeung Ek, and although it was a thoroughly depressing place to experience, we are both glad we went there. It was a sobering reminder of how horribly wrong dogmatic ideology of any kind can go.

The Memorial Stupa

After the end of the Khmer Rouge era, many of the mass graves at Choeng Ek were exhumed. remains of 8,895 bodies were recovered. Several mass graves were also left undisturbed. Many of the remains are now housed inside the large Memorial Stupa in the middle of the grounds. Skulls of the deceased are in full view on the lower levels of the stupa – many of them broken and cracked. This structure serves as a place of remembrance for the the entire country, with many ceremonies and gatherings held here. There were several offerings given while we were there – they can be seen in the photos below.

Offerings to the deceased

Kate and I also visited the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, which is now a museum. There we saw many of the makeshift cells prisoners were held in as well as hundreds of photos of the prisoners themselves – no photos to show here (photographs were forbidden inside the museum).  It was a draining experience.

More mass graves

Our time in Phnom Penh was a rewarding visit – at times depressing, at times educational, and often times fun (we managed to catch the new Jurassic Park movie in 4D while we were there. Yes…I said 4D! 🙂 ).  It is a city that I’m sure will be a totally different place in another ten years.

One thing that had not changed since I was there last was the crazy traffic – The video below will give you a taste of it – watch for the giant pile of limes (or some other kind of fruit or vegetable??) on the back of the motorbike near the end!

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