Another article in our OBT series.
We arrived in Phnom Penh airport late in the afternoon. While we waited for our ride, Mike saw a Dairy Queen that was advertising a Durian Blizzard with durian flavored Oreos. First, I should tell you about durian, which is a fruit. At the hotel in Bangkok, there was a sign in front of the elevator about a 2000 Bhat fine, about $60, if you brought a durian fruit into the hotel. In Phuket, the fine was 3000 Bhat. So, we asked people what that was about and they said it smelled really bad but if it was fresh it tasted ok. As a result, we were all curious about it, but basically too chicken to buy one and try it until we arrived at the Phnom Penh airport. So, Mike had to get a Durian Blizzard and try it. I can tell you that there was definitely a bad smell, but the ice cream tasted ok. We all had a taste and then threw it away. Personally, I couldn’t get past the smell, but it did seem like a necessary experience.
The Killing Fields and Pol Pot
The primary reason we were in Phnom Penh was to learn about the Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields. We got a very candid and personal account of what life was like from 1975 to 1979 during the Pol Pot regime. Basically, when Pol Pot, not his given name, took power in 1975, there were 7 million Khmer people and 4 years later, there were only 4 million people left in Cambodia. At least 1 million were killed in prison or in more than 300 killing fields around the country and another 2 million people died from starvation and disease.
First, we visited one of The Killing Fields that has been partially excavated. As you walk on a raised boardwalk among the mass graves, there are boxes full of clothes and others full of bones from the site. Skulls and some bones have been placed in a very large glass stupa so you can see them and pay your respects. Unlike the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, the discussion of the genocide in Cambodia was handled very respectfully. I found this visit very disturbing and I can’t imagine any normal person would feel otherwise.
Then we visited the main prison, now a museum, in the middle of Phnom Penh. The prison was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979 and they took lots of pictures of what they found, which are displayed at the site. As part of the prison museum, there were “mug shots” of thousands of victims taken by the Khmer Rouge and the leg shackles used to attach prisoners to the floor are still in place. When the prison was liberated, 5 children were rescued. One of the most astonishing things was that one of those little boys now works at the prison telling visitors what it was like for him at that time. For those who don’t remember the news from the time, even after the killing fields were known, the US supported the Pol Pot regime in an effort to prevent the Communist Vietnamese from taking over Cambodia.
It was even more horrifying to think that I was in college when these atrocities were happening here. But, the fact is genocide is still happening in the world today. Events like this should never be forgotten no matter how painful they are to see.
Phnom Penh, the City
This city is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, there are lots of modern buildings with glass storefronts and on the other hand, some streets are still dirt and people are cooking and eating on the street like Vietnam. We were told that the average wage in this country is $3/day so we were surprised to see so many nice cars and more banks than I recall seeing anywhere else in Southeast Asia. While Cambodia is supposed to be a “communist democracy”, the prime minister isn’t getting voted out anytime soon and has complete control. They have a king as well but he has no power at all. In fact, since the Khmer Rouge were given amnesty at the end of the Pol Pot regime, the current prime minister was one of the Khmer Rouge. His sales pitch now is me or the Khmer Rouge. There is also a very high level of corruption, we were told that all of the big fancy cars belong to people who work for the government. My friend Jane took a picture of the Anti-Corruption office as we passed it on our cyclo-tour; her driver burst out laughing at the irony. Everyone in our group commented on the Anti-Corruption office after our cyclo-tour.
Knowing about Phnom Penh, would you still want to visit? (I still would)