After Siem Reap, we stupidly decided to transfer to Phnom Penh and extend our visas there which takes a week. In hindsight, we wished we would have extended our stay in Siem Reap and extended our Visas there. (we didn’t do our research very well here for the visa options!, but the not so friendly customs officer in Hanoi, Vietnam didn’t help either)
There isn’t really that much to do in Phnom Penh apart from the Royal Palace, National Museum ( where there are a few original relics from Angkor) and the killing fields. It’s a worthwhile trip, but only for a maximum 3-4 days. As we travel as a family, I would n’t recommend SL21 and the killing fields for the faint-hearted and very young children.
The Royal Palace is a sight to behold. The buildings and mausoleums dedicated to the Royal family are tremendous. The monarchy is still held in high regard in Cambodia.
When in the Angkor Museum, Siem Reap, there is reference many times to the original artefact being at the National Museum in PP. This is a slight exaggeration, as the museum is very small and many of the artefacts are in overseas Museums, such as Paris.
You can easily get around the museum within a half day. It’s a worthwhile visit including one of the many not-for-profit cafes or restaurants nearby.
One of the torture rooms – you can make out a picture on the wall of one of the remaining victims left behind after the Khmer Rouge evacuated quickly.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – SL21
If you’re interested in modern history, a highlight (or lowlight depending on your viewpoint), was the visit to the ex-School-turned-prison for the Khmer Rouge in the late 70’s. The history of the Khmer Rouge and a chronicle of the Cambodian Genocide as part of Pol Pot’s ‘experiment’ into collectivist farms and forced labour. He was responsible for the deaths of approximately 25% of the Cambodian population, an estimated 1 to 3 million people.
Bear in mind the Khmer Rouge was in alliance with the Vietnamese Government against US-backed forces so the whole area is linked to the Vietnam War & so-called ‘Communist’ threat raging across Asia at the time.
Of 20,000 inmates of Tuol Sleng, there were only seven survivors, of which two were in attendance, Chum Mey being one of them. It is an uncomfortable experience meeting the survivors of such a camp. What do you say? I was lost for words when Chum Mey smiled and nodded to me. All I could think to do was return his smile, with my hand across my heart and lightly bow to him (as is common across Asia).
Kaung Kek Leu (also known as ‘Comrade Duch’) the prison commandant was sentenced only in 2010 to life imprisonment by a UN war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.
It is a harrowing, unforgettable visit which certainly tests your emotions.
Ghosts of Tuol Sleng
As everyone who has visited Tuol Sleng – I too have been stunned by the photos of the victims staring at me from the past.
“Ghosts of Tuol Sleng” is an attempt to shed new light on the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, by presenting them in a different way than the usual mug shot, that everyone who visits Tuol Sleng will be familiar with.
By photographing the individual pictures in different light conditions, and with visitors to the museum interacting, my aim is to revitalize the victims, show them as human beings – who like you and I – just wanted to live, but never got the chance, dehumanized by a gruesome regime.
None of the pictures are manipulated, but are reflections of the light cast by the images on the glass that protects the photos.
Photographing the reflection of the image instead of the image itself, a ghostlike feeling passes through the pictures.
According to popular Khmer belief, a person who hasn’t been given a proper burial will have to live on as a ghost, unable to find peace. While shooting the pictures this was unknown to me.
When a person dies in Cambodia, the body is usually taken to the local monastery, where it’s cremated. At the funeral, Buddhist monks will chant prayers, to comfort the family and give the mortal’s soul a safe passage to the afterlife.
The gact that none of Tuol Slengs inmates were given a proper burial after being executed in the Killing fields at Choeung Ek 15km. outside Phnom Penh – is a continuing source of suffering for surviving family members.
Of Tuol Slengs 20,000 inmates only 7 survived.
Contrary to popular belief – we can only hope that the victims of Tuol Sleng have been able to find peace, and won’t have to live like ghosts in the afterlife. It’s hard to imagine that their suffering should continue after what they endured. I prefer to believe that it didn’t.
Stefan V. Jensen
It is worth going to Phnom Penh but for only a long weekend, as then you will have covered most of the sights.
We stayed at the NKS hotel also known as Ny Ka Smy Hotel, which was one of the cleanest hotels we have stayed in. It is in an upcoming area of PP, a short walk away from the Russian market, with many bars. Unfortunately, the open sewer runs beside the hotel and we all fell ill. I assume when it rains the lack of a hygienic drain system means you walk the dirt into your room, even though it is common practice to take your shoes off at the door. Young kids with a severe bout of projectile vomiting is not fun.
It’s not really a place we enjoyed (possibly due to falling ill), but also due the lack of interesting activities.
Why troubled as I state in the title? While we were there the current ruling party declared they could dissolve any other party they wished. It doesn’t sound good for any form of simple democracy that exists at present.