Friday 18 Aug
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
A city struggling to its feet
Arriving in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh it is visibly a city still recovering from the aftermath of war. In Ho Chi Minh City we saw the occasional elderly woman facially disfigured by 'agent orange', and there was a notable absence of a generation of men in North Vietnam , but here landmine victims beg outside most shops and restaurants. Cambodia is quite obviously poorer than Vietnam, and the extremes of wealth and poverty in Phnom Penh are as shocking as the gleaming Toyota land crusiers with their tinted windows cruising past the huddles of street kids.
With the exception of the impressive Royal Palace with its beautiful artistry, hundreds of gold Buddhas ordained with diamonds, and pagoda with a silver tiled floor, there is a distinct lack of traditional 'tourist attractions' for a capital city. Not surprising given that most cultural relics were destroyed and the 'middle class' were all but wiped out here less than 30 years ago. Unlike the vibrant Vietnamese capital of Hanoi where foreigners and locals are thrown in to the mix together, visitors to Phnom Penh are kept very separate to the every day life of the city. The choice is either to stay in the backpacker ghetto of the lakeside as we did with its blaring Bob Marley music, or the exuberant river front with its restaurants, bars and expat lifestyle. That said Phnom Penh is not without its charm. Monks in orange robes whiz by on the backs of scooters, and the many culinary delights of the street food sellers are enough to satisfy the most adventurous eaters. Delicacies include chickens foetuses, stuffed frogs and deep fried spider. Yup the big black hairy variety piled high on circular trays. But the poverty and problems here hit you, as soon as you leave your hostel. There are signs everywhere calling for an end to child prostitution (unfortunately not all tourists come here to sight see), and gun crime. The slogans of the anti-gun lobby read 'we no longer need guns' reminding you that it wasn't very long ago that people here actually needed them.
It's difficult to talk about Phom Penh without mentioning Cambodia's dark past. We visited the memorial at the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and the S-21 Genocide Museum whilst we were here. Thoroughly depressing places but they stand as a testimony to the atrocities that happened. We found the memorial at the 'Killing Fields' 15k outside Phnom Penh a very sombre and peaceful place. I don't think any of us actually spoke during our visit, lost in quiet reflection. A stupa has been erected in the middle of the mass graves as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. It contains shelves of over 8000 skulls and bones arranged by sex and age. Like the Nazis the Khmer Rouge meticulously documented everyone they slaughtered. But I think what affected me the most walking around the site were the fragments of human bone and bits of clothing scattered around the pits. This only happened 25 years ago.
The Tuol Sleng or 'Genocide Museum' was particularly chilling. More so because it was just an ordinary secondary school set in suburbia before it was taken over by Pol Pot's security forces and turned in to the S-21 prison. It was the largest detention and torture centre in Cambodia and tens of thousands of people were held here before being taken to the killing fields at Choeng Ek. I remember visiting the Nazis concentration camps in Hamburg with school but they now seem sanitised in comparison. I guess it was a lot longer ago but the Tuol Sleng museum looks like it has been left exactly the way it was found. The interrogation rooms on the first floor with their beds, iron shackles and instruments of torture, and walking through the individual wooden and brick cells on the second floor was deeply disturbing. The Khmer Rouge photographed everyone who was held there and the museum displays room after room of harrowing black and white portraits. Of the 17,000 men, women and children held at S-21 only seven people survived.
In the four years between 1975-79 they estimate that 2 million of a population of 8 million died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge - adding to the thousands who died from US carpet bombing during the final stages of the Vietnam war. The majority of Cambodia's educated were 'exterminated,' whole cities were displaced, families separated and many thousands died from disease or starvation. At the height of its insanity the regime even started devouring itself, and perpetrators were killed by those who replaced them. Chillingly this wasn't done in the name of 'fascism,' to use the regime's own propoganda this was 'the great leap forward to a socialist utopia.' Needless to say we found the museum a profoundly disturbing place, it portrays images of humanity at its very worst and we left feeling shell shocked.
I think it's easy to forget that it is still only very recently that Cambodia has enjoyed a period of peace. There was trouble here right up until the mid nineties. By all accounts made even worse by cock-ups from the UN. Everyone we've spoken to says things are getting better. There are more jobs, more kids are going to school and a growing number of much needed professionals. Like people we met in Vietnam, their biggest complaint is corruption which is rife. Kim, our guide in Kampot, told us the elections come round again next year. I don't know much about Cambodian politics at the moment but he and many other young people have great hopes for the Sovereigncy Party who they believe are the only ones who can end the corruption and deliver democracy. They won Phnom Penh last time round through word of mouth, but are still tiny in comparison to the two ruling parties, FUNCINPEC - the King's party, and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) - the old Communist Party, and the only ones with access to the media. He believed growing tourism was providing more job prospects, and with an increasing number of visitors to Cambodia each year the corruption couldn't be left unchecked forever. Being here it's clear Cambodia is still a country struggling to its feet. 40% of the population are under 14, and corruption is a huge problem, but the enthusiasm and optimism of the kids we've met (all be it all of them connected to the tourist industry) is an encouraging sign.