08/02/2014 - 08/07/2014
Phnom Penh struck us as a hard landing kind of a city - a tough place to be introduced to southeast Asia. Dusty streets lined with trash, chaotic traffic and completely impassable sidewalks, very visible poverty and prostitution, and the occasional aggressive tout make for certain challenges. Crossing the street entails walking gradually out into busy traffic, making as predictable of movements as possible so drivers can avoid you. On the flip side, there is a vibrant market culture here, the city is flush with bustling activity all hours of the day and night, the sights, smells and sounds brimming with life. The large river walk along the Tonle Sap river is full of pedestrians, and comes alive at night with exercise/dance groups, peddlers and lots of children. There is also some great local Khmer food. Underpinning it all is the tragic leadership of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, with mass graves and the notorious Tol Sleng prison a short drive from the city. Cambodia is still working to overcome the emotional and economic strain of their recent past, but it truly feels that Phnom Penh is on the rise. There is an energy and excitement, with a young population and a lot of development taking place.
We really enjoyed Phnom Penh, and it certainly helped that we were able to spend a day with Emily, a friend from back home currently living and teaching here. Part of travel is the stretching of your comfort zone, and learning to thrive in new, challenging environments. Long term travel has enabled us to really feel comfortable in some very different situations, and it's great to be in a city that makes us step outside that comfort zone once in awhile. Seeing the markets should be the first thing a traveler does upon arrival (to any city really). Getting to know what kinds of things are being transacted and in what fashion and state of cleanliness gives an insight into the people and products throughout town. Buying things is a great way to learn some of the language, practice bargaining and come away with some great stuff. The markets also have some of the best "real" Khmer food we've tried.
The central market is near a lot of guesthouses, bars and restaurants, and has also been recently renovated. The result is a very clean, orderly, tourist-friendly market that is slightly more expensive. The food section has a lot of variety, with noodle soups, sweets, random things (usually sweet) wrapped in banana leaves, and a whole slew of nameless local dishes accompanied by rice, usually excellent. The Russian market is a bit more of a maze, with shop after shop overflowing with clothes, car parts, hardware, and lots of trinkets, antiques and bric-a-brac. Also a good food section, with excellent fried noodles and Banh Chou, which is a Vietnamese style crispy pancake salad with small shrimp, some herbs and vegetables, and hot sauce. But the Kandal Market is why we travel - an incredibly chaotic, very local market, with a dizzying variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood spilling out into the street. Even the most seasoned traveler will see completely unrecognizable mystery foods, spices, pastes and sauces at every turn. The stalls are packed so close, all that remains is a small walking path that is constantly jammed with people squeezing aside for motorbikes to pass through. The occasional leg burn from an exhaust pipe is not out of the ordinary. But despite its chaotic nature, the place is shockingly clean, the meats and seafood very fresh (often still alive), and some of the best local Khmer food can be found here. The best places have 10 to 15 trays of food, and you just order some rice and 2 or so of the dishes for an excellent, cheap meal. Common dishes are ginger chicken, beef and basil, hard boiled eggs with pork belly in a sweet brown sauce, and usually at least two kinds of (not spicy) curry, but the real joy is just in pointing to stuff that looks good, and letting yourself be surprised.
An important part of any visit to Cambodia is understanding the tragedy that occurred here under the Khmer Rouge. When the prince of Cambodia was overthrown by a coup, the new leadership supported the American position against communist North Vietnam, and in particular, the Nixon Doctrine and extensive carpet bombing in northern Cambodia, where Northern Vietnamese troops were known to be hiding. The rebel group called the Khmer Rouge took this as an opportunity to gain the support of the prince and the people, and took over on April 17, 1975, after years of civil war. The celebration didn't even last a day. The ideology of the Khmer Rouge had shifted and become the corrupt brainchild of a man named Pol Pot, who called himself "brother number one." Within a couple days, cities were completely emptied, requiring millions of people to march for days into surrounding countryside where they were relocated into villages and required to comply with Pol Pot's ideals of a purely agrarian society. Money was abolished and the people were stripped of all possessions and forced to work long days in the rice fields. Families were split up, children taken for soldiers, and anyone even suspected of being well educated was almost immediately executed, including doctors, teachers, former government workers, artists, and writers. Even just wearing glasses could be a death sentence. Entire families were wiped out under the regime's extreme paranoia that someone may seek revenge of a loved one. The rice that was grown was sold to China in exchange for arms, and widespread famine mixed with a complete lack of medical professionals meant that many people died of starvation and disease.
The Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese, but in that short time, just over 3 years, an estimated 2 million people died from starvation and purges - over 1/4 of the population. Millions of others were traumatized by starvation, torture and/or loss of family members. The Tol Sleng museum and Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh pay tribute to the victims of this genocide and are excellent sources for information and victim's stories.
Tol Sleng is a facility that was used as an interrogation and torture center for people suspected of being spies, ex-government workers, or families of the above. Tiny cells, evidence of torture devices, and horrible photographs tell the awful story of the over 17,000 people that came through here.
A short 20 min tuk-tuk drive away from Phnom Penh lie one of the country's many scattered Killing Fields. 86 of 132 mass graves have been excavated, an estimated 20,000 people buried here. A large memorial stupa holds the bones and clothing of victims, along with 7,985 skulls.
After visiting these solemn places, our tuk-tuk driver asked if we wanted him to take us to the shooting range. Seriously!?!