Monday, June 28, 2010

Phnom Penh: Is that an elephant in the street?

Yup, it is!

photo by Erik

So, after the crazy night-life and busy traffic of Saigon (traffic photos to come), we've spent a few days in the still-busy but less busy capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia - Phnom Penh.

Yesterday we visited the Toul Sleng genocide museum and the Killing Fields. Toul Sleng, also called S-21, was originally a children's school which the Khmer Rouge communist regime (led by Pol Pot) transformed into a prison. Cambodians and foreigners who were against the regime (or even thought to be against it) were captured, held, tortured and killed in the prison complex. The complex itself has been transformed into a museum and many of the original gruesome artifacts are on display (including torture weapons, old bed frames, gun cartridge containers, the remnants of old prison cells, and photographs of inmates who were men, women and children). To me, the museum has a very haunted feeling - the air seemed to be filled with a strange eerie energy.... but also hope for the future and hope to heal the wounds of the past.

The Killing Fields was our next stop of the day, which is a monument to those who died during the genocide, erected in a mass grave site. It is one of the various sites where the Khmer Rouge transported its victims to - a place to bury victims in mass graves. A place to get rid of the dead, a place to kill the living. Another eerie place where the grave sites remain pockmarks in the fields, where bone fragments are found on the ground, and where the skulls of many of the dead are on display to allow people to pray for the souls of the dead.

Although they were difficult places to visit, it was worthwhile because it gave us a better understanding of Cambodia's recent past and what has shaped it's people. Cambodia has a very complicated and violent history that is difficult to fully grasp - it has only recently stabilized (with in the last 15 years or so). And we are now lucky enough to be able to visit this beautiful country.

Today we did some more relaxed touring around. We went to the 'Russian Market' - a place for shopping and eating. Then we went to the Royal Palace - a beautiful place but we found it to be a very frustrating tourist trap. The admission was rather pricey given the level of access and historical explanations that are provided to tourists. I understand that since it is a working palace it is not possible or beneficial to turn it into a museum or spectacle for tourists. However, without any literature on the various buildings and religious artifacts, for foreigners who want to learn about Cambodia's monarchy and religion, visiting the palace is not an educational experience unless you happen to have prior knowledge (or a very detailed guidebook!). So, we walked around and saw a lot of beautiful buildings but we had no idea what most of them were or what they functioned as. I think it would be great if they handed out a map of the buildings with very brief explanations. That way they wouldn't have to put signage around a very beautiful palace but tourists would still be able to learn about the Cambodian culture. 

Anyhow, that's my little rant :) Phnom Penh is a lovely city and I really like Cambodia so far (very different from Vietnam ... so difficult to compare).
Tomorrow we head for Siem Reap where we will explore the temples of Angkor. Our guidebook has some great explanations of the major temples there so I'm sure our experience will be better than our time at the Royal Palace. 

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