I’ve rarely met anyone who’s traveled to Cambodia and liked it. Angkor aside, most friends and travelers I talk to haven’t had great things to say about the country, usually remarking that Khmers are sketchy or a little off at the least. And the reviews of Phnom Penh have been even worse; dangerous, eerie, and everyone is missing limbs. Like Cambodia though, I actually like Phnom Penh. Either Joylani and I have really opposite tastes from most people we talk to (unlikely since our tastes differ quite a bit) or peoples’ descriptions set our expectations unrealistically low. Arriving yesterday afternoon, we found Phnom Penh wasn’t the seedy town we had been expecting. Compared to the rest of the country, it is incredibly modern. Lots of new buildings, upscale hotels and restaurants, tons of internet cafes, supermarkets, electronics stores, and streets clogged with bicycles and motos. The streets were the most chaotic since India- it was nice to see the masses of life again.
Today we did sort of a walking tour of the city. Our first stop was educational, but extremely depressing. We walked a couple kilometers south of our guesthouse to a school in the midst of a residential and commercial area. The school was actually converted to a prison used for torture and extermination by the Khmer Rouge when they took the city in 1975. In 1980, just one year after the liberation of PP by the Vietnamese, it was converted to a museum. There was a lot in the museum that I don’t want to think about, much less talk about, so I’ll just a give some basic information.
The school consists of several three story buildings around a central courtyard. All the windows had steel bars or barbed wire to keep victims in the converted classrooms. Victims were kept at Toul Sleng to be interrogated before being executed. The two estimates I have seen are: of 14,000 total prisoners (over the course of 4 years), a dozen survived or of 20,000 prisoners, 7 survived. Either way, if you were taken to Toul Sleng, you were going to die. Many died from bullets or trauma to the head, some were beaten or tortured to death.
Some of the classrooms were sleeping quarters, where victims were forced to sleep on the bare floor shackled together. Other classrooms were torture chambers, where victims were tortured.
After seeing the miserable conditions that these people spent their last weeks or months in, we entered a gallery full of victims mugshots. The Khmer Rouge photographed many of their victims, but we also saw many photos of the children and adolescents they used for guards and torturers. Hundreds of black-and-white photographs stared at us from the exhibit. We also saw some paintings depicting the disgusting and horrific events that occurred there, some shelves of skulls with fractures or bullet holes, one exhibit telling the stories of some of the prisoners (as told by family members) and one exhibit documenting surviving guards stories. We learned that many of the victims at Toul Sleng had at one time been Khmer Rouge, but had arrested and executed for any number of trumped up/paranoid reasons. And many of the guards talked about Toul Sleng was horrible, but they don’t regret it because they would have been tortured and executed if they had disobeyed any orders. The constant fear of being killed, accused, or suspected of anything was horrible. The whole place was horrible. Unlike any Toul Sleng prisoner, we walked out of the school yard and through the quite neighborhood, both quite depressed.
We headed off to the rest of the cities sites, which proved to be unimpressive. We briefly visited the Russian Market and then across town to the Royal Palace, residence of the king, but it was closed. Next door was the National Museum, but that was kind of a let down. After months of seeing Buddhas of all shapes and sizes from a myriad of different centuries and just arriving from Angkor, the National Museum had nothing amazing. It was a long walk back to our guesthouse, especially as we’re officially in Cambodia’s hot season now. Phnom Penh doesn’t seem like it has much to see (some genocidal attractions and a few monuments), but it is any city to like. It has good food, its easy to get around, and it has consumer goods/services of a city, which is a lot more than I can say for the last capitol we were in.