Bloody history, uncertain future.

Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
Trip End Sep 16, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, May 8, 2006

Ah, Phnom Penh, Paris of the Far East.

Well, not quite.

Phnom Penh's reputation precedes itself. We had read stories of backpack snatchings by thieves on motorbikes who dragged their victims behind them until they relinquished. However like most stories you hear on the road, the likelihood of anything actually happening to you is very, very slim. We were no exception.

It is interesting to note that during the despotic and intensely communist Khmer Rouge government (1975-1979) that Phnom Penh was forcibly evacuated as everyone was forced to abandon the city and their property and revert to an agrarian lifestyle of forced 14 hour days of labor with very little food. Given that, modern Phnom Penh is surprisingly bustling with a moderate amount of commerce (although no big international fast food chains exist as of yet, if you consider that a mark of progress.) The streets are (almost) entirely paved, and there are a substantial number of more expensive restaurants feeding the expats and western tourists alike.

However this is a facade of modernity and progressiveness, as you can see the massive economic corruption gap between the citizens and Cambodia's government in full force. It is necessary to bear in mind here that the only way to pull yourself out of poverty is to know someone in the government who can get you a government job. Although government jobs offer very low official salaries, a government employee's potential for graft is huge-- from the reception clerk to the boss at the top to the police officer on the street-- their SUV's are all purchased with bribe and extortion money collected from the unlucky citizens of Cambodia (and the occasional western tourist, though thankfully we were not affected).

If a Cambodian has a problem with this system and refuses to play along, they remain poor for the rest of their lives. Thank you, come again, sorry no refunds. However given the difficulty with which one can find one of these plum jobs, more often personal ethics give way to personal freedom and the wheels of this corrupt government churn along.

It is common sight in the capital to see luxury SUVs with "STATE" license plates zooming past peasants riding wooden oxcarts down a major highway in the center. Such is life in Cambodia's capital, which actually still has a few dirt roads left in the center.

However despite this bleak vision for the future, Cambodians must still feel lucky as their recent past was considerably worse. Take a look at our photos of the Tuol Sleng Prison (S-21) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a torture prison and concentration camp used by the Khmer Rouge, both now memorial museums. In those days if someone suspected you of conspiracy against the government, you and your entire family were interrogated, tortured and executed. Stories of cruely matching or perhaps even exceeding the Nazis are prevalent in this country, with babies being beaten against trees.

We're a bit shaken by our experiences in Phnom Penh and will be heading out into the country for some fresh air and a new perspective.

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