By: Jas Mitch
Sorry, this post may be a little darker than normal since one of the obligatory things to do in Phnom Penh is to visit the Killing Fields and S-21 Genocide Museum. That is right after you figure out how to pronounce Phnom Penh (Fom Pen?, Pfffnom Pee-hn? Phom Peh?).
There is plenty of info out there on the atrocities that occurred here, but I wanted this post to focus on how astounded Jas and I have been on how well they have been able to bounce back from what was a complete breakdown of society, family, religion and politics only a couple decades ago.
It was not that long ago and nearly everyone we met was there or had grown up through it.
Our first couple days in Phnom Penh we spent in the city and were amazed sheer difference between Cambodia and their neighbouring countries. Things just appeared to be developing rapidly - the quality of the streets, the newly developed skyscrapers, the number of businesses coming to town, the large number of high quality cars on the road, the freedom of the press and speech.
Sure, having spoken with some of the expats and locals I know its not perfect - but definitely the progress was more impressive than most places we have been.
One of the first places we visited was the National Museum which was a very well constructed and maintained Khmer building. In some of the less ‘free’ places we have visited I have always enjoyed museums where they try to rewrite history with their own story. None of that in Cambodia though, this was a very factual and well presented museum.
They also had a strong focus on the conservation and restoration of their history.
After this we visited the Tuol Sleng prison and learnt more about what had happened here. It is a very dark place. When we were there we even had the opportunity to meet both of the two remaining survivors of the prison (both well into old age now). After the tens of thousands that died here, these two were incredibly lucky to survive and only managed to do so since they had skills the regime needed.
The first was a painter who survived painting portraits of Pol Pot. We had an opportunity to sit down with him and hear his story and ask him questions about his time there. The thing that struck me most is his drive and enthusiasm for getting his story out there - he was just so determined that people knew what had happened here. It was seriously inspiring after the torture he went though that he was able to come in day after day with a drive to tell people his story. Talking to a survivor can be daunting and you don’t know what to say - so ‘question time’ was a big contrast between this guy eager to share his story and the tourists that have no idea what to ask a survivor of such a horrible place. In the end his drive broke through and the conversation opened up - he really is a top bloke and just wants people to know.
I even got his business card.
We didn’t spend much time with the other survivor since we were getting a little overwhelmed and had to go. The next day we went on to the Killing Fields and took the tour out there. Also a bleak place but the audio tour does an excellent job explaining what had happened.
One thing that I noticed was on our way out to the fields. This was our first time on the outer of Phnom Penh and while we were really impressed at how well developed the city was, getting to the outskirts we saw that the city is still very much under construction with unfinished roads, abandoned buildings and so much dust. It reminds you that not too long ago this city was completely abandoned and just how far they have been able to restore it.
If you have travelled though Asia and developing countries, you may be familiar with the casual corruption that can exist in the government. Without a doubt I see corruption being the number one factor holding back developing countries. But Cambodia has been different, after their complete collapse they have been able to rebuild a new and how well they have been able to progress.