Saturday, December 19, 2009

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

It was time to leave the hassling of Vietnam behind and head to Cambodia. I boarded a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was impressed with the wide leg room and excellent customer service on this bus (way better than the service on Vietnamese tourist buses). The attendant even filled in the Cambodian visa form for me, ensuring a seamless border crossing.

Phnom Penh was chaotic! People who everywhere, hawking goods. Like Vietnam, motorcycles and makeshift cafes took over sidewalks. Noticeable differences include the pervasiveness of tuk tuks (motorcycle-pulled-carriage) and litter.

As soon as I got off the bus from Saigon, I was harassed by hotel and motorcycle touts. Along with travelers Ivy (from Laos) and Anh (from Vietnam), we found a hotel and explored the city together. Sights in Phnom Penh include the markets, Wat Phnom (Khmer-style temple after which the city is named), Independence Monument, National Museum and the National Palace (with its temples). A stroll along the Mekong River waterfront is also an enjoyable experience.

My most profound experience in Phnom Penh, though, had to be the visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a school--turned-prison that was used by the Khmer Rouge to torture people. The Khmer Rouge were a group of radical Marxists who terrorized Cambodians from 1975-1979. Basically, anyone who did not support their agrarian revolution were killed. These included innocent people such as teachers, doctors and intellectuals. The Khmer Rouge were finally driven from power by the Vietnamese in 1979, only to have the UN refuse recognition of the new government. The Cambodian government finally established a Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2006, eight years after the leader, Pol Pot, passed away.

Inside the museum were remnants of what appeared to be a concentration camp. There was a case full of clothes and a case full of skulls. In the courtyard, there were the gallows, used to hang prisoners. The classrooms were either torture rooms or prison cells. Each prisoner had a metal can, which served as his or her bathroom.

The photo exhibits were what touched me the most. It was very eerie to walk past thousands of photos of victims’ faces, before they were executed. In fact, it was sickening and inhumane that such injustice could be done to others. Another intriguing photo exhibit was put together by a Swede, one of the few foreigners allowed into Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period. His pictures each show his thoughts from 1978 (when he visited) and from 2008 (the year the exhibit was compiled). His opinions were very different, as he was a Marxist back in 1978.

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