Killing Fields and Royal Palace of Phnom Penh

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, March 15, 2012

March 15, 2012 and March 16, 2012

Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: 205 miles (330km)
6.5 hours on the bus

With low expectations, we came to Phnom Penh, at the confluence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac rivers, Cambodia's Capital and largest city (1.5 million), center of security, politics, economics, cultural heritage and diplomacy. We weren’t disappointed! As the capital of one of the poorest countries (per capita GDP $820 per annum) and a city that Pol Pot decimated and made into a ghost city of 45,000 by 1979 (from 2 mil.), what should one expect? Despite the billions of dollars U.S., other foreign governments and NGO’s have been pumping in recently, it remains largely underdeveloped with newish modern structures dotting the center, transitioning to sprawling low-rise masses of plain looking block and concrete buildings in the outlying areas.

The city was a stopover for us on our way to the beaches of the southwest coast.

We stayed at Angkor International Hotel based on Henrik’s recommendation. The lobby of the International hotel was fancy! We had reserved a room in advance for $15 and didn’t get excited by the lobby. Our room was spartan in line with our $15 rate. We were happy enough.

Great Markets 

We threw our backpacks in the corner and went out to find a place to eat. Loads of tuk-tuks were everywhere and three-wheel single person pedi-cabs ply the market area too. We crossed the local market filling the street between our hotel and Sisowith Quay, on the Tonlé Sap river, which connects the Tonlé Sap lake with the Mekong river. Our market was lively, colorful, and exciting; especially considering this is not the 'main’ market in Phnom Penh.

Great Restaurants 

Restaurants line a wide highway with a view to the Quay. We picked Karma Restaurant and enjoyed pasta salad and fish and chips. Friendly staff and great food caused us to return the next evening for chicken and mashed potatoes. Yumm. The other notable pleasant spot we tried was The Blue Pumpkin; bakery, restaurant & lounge. Blue Pumpkin has air conditioned second floor seating with a great view of the river. We are sure there are dozens of great food spots in the city. 

Phnom Penh Sightseeing

Popular Phnom Penh sights include the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, the National Museum, the Russian Market, Central Market and Wat Phnom.  We hired Thom, an English speaking tuk-tuk driver, to take us around for the day for $18.
The Killing Fields
Our first stop was 15 kilometers from town at the Killing Fields. Why have we visited places such as Auschwitz, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., and now, the Killing Fields? 
We don’t expect answers to the unanswerable. However, we value a better understanding of the cruel facts and feel a responsibility to remember and acknowledge that something terrible happened.

Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge marched in to Phnom Penh April 17, 1975 and his executioners quickly exceeded the capacity of camp S-21 burial site. In mid-1976 they opened Cheoung Ek at an orchard 15km from town to execute and bury prisoners (8985 corpses counted there). In Cambodia, during Khmer Rouge era, 1975-1979, 1.1 to 1.7 million perished (15% to 30% of the total Cambodian population) through hunger, disease and executions (30%-40%) . The small site, one of over 300 killing fields found in Cambodia, is called Choeung Ek. It is in a quiet location in the country. We were provided MP3 players that worked flawlessly as we followed an audio tour of the grounds; site of mass graves, the Killing Tree, the Memorial Stupa, etc. The poignant stories stuck a fine balance between the horror of the events that happened here and sanitized softening of the events. The Stupa, a tower containing skulls and bones of victims, added tangible reality to the incomprehensible events.

Russian Market
Returning to the city, we stopped at the dull Russian market where everything from dry goods fish, DVD’s, clothing, vegetables was for sale. It was stinky and stuffy in the midafternoon heat. We walked across to KFC for ice cream and I bought a scarf of Cambodian silk at a small shop. Couldn’t resist. 

Wat Phnom

Next we stopped at a park like setting with steps leading up a hill to Wat Phnom.  The site marks the legendary founding place of Phnom Penh and has been rebuilt many times over the centuries. The 1926 version is the newest incarnation. The stupa behind is under refurbishment again.

Royal Palace

Our final stop was the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda located behind tall walls. The ‘Palace’ part of the grounds include a number of buildings including the Residence, a micro Museum, Throne Hall and Stupas that contain remains of several members of the Royal family. The story behind the palace embellishes the lengthy history of the palace dating to 1866 at current location. But all the structures have been rebuilt, first in wood, then again in concrete and block. It’s all less than a hundred years old and not particularly impressive.

The Silver Pagoda
We made our way around interior walls to the adjacent, Wat Preah Keo Morokat (the 'Silver Pagoda'). This pagoda is unique among pagodas. It is named for 5329 silver tiles that cover the floor. Each tile was handcrafted and weighs 1.125 kgs. This is where the King meets with monks and royal ceremonies are performed. It has an impressive collection of 1650 pieces of priceless Buddhist and historical objects including the 'Emerald Buddha’. There is also a 90 kg golden standing Buddha encrusted with 2086 diamonds. Many of the pieces, including one particularly nice simple Buddha made of silver, are exquisite works of art in addition to having religious importance.

Many of the treasures were looted during by the Khmer Rouge 1975-1979, but luckily, the Khmer Rouge chose to keep much of the collection intact for propaganda purposes.

We took a brief look at the deteriorated and weather damaged murals, painted in 1903-1904, and Keong Preah Bath Shrine containing Buddha’s footprints and several historic books.

The Royal Palace grounds are pleasant but not really a ‘must see’. Still, we wish they’d allow photos in the Silver Pagoda and Throne Room.
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