By: Paula Wallis

Phnom Penh is a difficult city to write about, for many reasons. It is a city rife with contradictions; extreme poverty and opulent luxury exist side by side, seemingly in harmony. Ancient temples of long ago glory sit next to bombed out buildings, never repaired, simply used as is. Beggars mournfully approach, displaying missing limbs, sheared off by land mines, only to turn around and produce a cell phone from the folds of their garb to text a friend.


Another reason I find it difficult to write about Phnom Penh is the mindset I was in at the time, I fear that I will not do this great Asian city the justice it so deserves. I arrived in Phnom Penh the day after receiving an email from back home imparting the news to me of the death of a close friend. Perhaps this was the worst possible time for me to visit the Tuol Sleng Museum and The Killing Fields; when my own mortality was foremost in my mind. Perhaps it was the best possible time; when my mind was most open to truly understanding what happened here, during the horrific and brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge regime. Whatever the case may be, there I was, on my own in Phnom Penh, with a load on my mind, and I threw myself into exploring the city and it’s surroundings, so that I didn’t have to think about what was really on my mind, and in my heart.

I arrived in Phnom Penh from Siem Reap by a combination of bus, then boat. Phnom Penh is situated at the convergence of the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers. After an idyllic sunrise ride through the floating markets and villages along the Tonle Sap Lake, it was a bit overwhelming to be dropped off amongst a manic crowd of moto-taxi drivers clamoring for my business, many of them, I was told, heavily addicted to what is known locally as Yaba, or more commonly known as Yama, a form of methamphetamine.

I picked the one standing furthest away from the frantic cluster of moto-taxi drivers; in other words, the one I thought looked the least drug-addicted and therefore not so desperate to earn $2.00.

He showed me a photo album with the name “Same Same But Different” emblazoned across the front. This was a bit of a cheeky name for a guest house. “Same same, but different” is a phrase you’ll hear throughout Thailand and Cambodia. It applies to the mass of backpackers following the “route” through SE Asia looking for that unique, off the beaten path experience. It barely exists anymore, and finding it usually requires no small effort on your part. So they use it amongst the foreigners to describe whatever latest tourist destination might have made it into Lonely Planet, or Rough Guide, etc. For example; Me: “Can you take me to the Reclining Buddha?”

Tuk-tuk driver: (driving in the complete opposite direction of my destination): “Ya ya. I take you there.”

Me: (speaking a little more slowly now) “The Reclining Buddha. I want to go to the Reclining Buddha.”

Tuk-tuk driver: “Ya ya. Same same.” But different, as I soon discover after being dropped off in front of some sort of temple that appears to be utterly Buddha-less. To the locals that work in the business of tourism, one destination is as good as another and I assumed my moto-taxi driver in Phnom Penh thought the same.

Phnom PenhI flipped through his album, looking at pictures of the Same Same Guesthouse, but he had me at the first page. It was situated on Boeng Kak Lake and the first photograph showed a sunset shot of their stilted bamboo patio, potted palms in silhouette against the sky, a couple of travelers sipping on some cold Angkor beers, watching the sun go down on the lake. That was enough for me, and I agreed on the $2.00 (US) fare as he piled my rucksack precariously on his handlebars and I jumped on behind and off we went, at breakneck speed, for my first glimpse of the city of Phnom Penh.

The first thing I noticed was the amount of scooters and motorcycles streaking about on the roads, with what seemed like entire families perched upon them. The most I saw was a family of five (including their young baby) piled atop one another, baby astride the mommy’s hip, cruising carelessly along, flip-flop clad and helmetless. By the end of the day, I was no longer agog at such sights.

The second thing I noticed was the gorgeous French colonial architecture, amid bombed out buildings, outdoor markets that seemed to lack any sort of organization, Buddhist temples, and well kept modern styles of building. What a unique, eclectic city.

My driver entered what seemed a labyrinth of tiny, dirty alleyways, turning this way and that, still at incredible speeds, and finally pulled up in front of the Same Same Guesthouse, where he kindly deposited my rucksack at the front desk for me. I gave him a one dollar tip and he seemed a little overwhelmed by that, smiling and bowing repeatedly at me, hands clasped in front of him, prayer style.

I was given the choice of a room with a private bathroom ($4.00 US) or a shared bathroom at the end of the hall ($3.00). I decided to splurge on the private bathroom, and once in my very basic room (fan, lumpy bed with sheet, rickety bedside stand); I opened the bathroom door with relish, anticipating a nice long, cool shower. I immediately closed the door and vowed never to open it again. It resembled a dark, concrete cave, and I swore I saw something move in there when I opened the door, something that maybe hadn’t been exposed to the light of day for a very long time. Shared bathroom it is, I thought.

Phnom Penh-3I went down to check out the lakefront patio and it was everything the photo I’d seen had promised. Low key chill-out music drifted from the speakers and a few backpackers sat around, quietly discussing the best sights to see while in Phnom Penh, all the while gentle waves lapped quietly at the moorings. After a long day’s travel, this was the perfect place to sit back and watch the sunset after I ordered a Khmer curry dish with rice and a cold bottle of Angkor to wash it down. (All for about $3.00 US).

There are quite a few of these lakefront guesthouses clustered along the edge of Boeng Kak Lake, all with perfect sunset vantages, and they range from the very basic (like mine) to slightly fancier, some even boasting air conditioning and pillows and blankets with your bedding. Price ranges are all ridiculously cheap, though. In the evenings, after sunset, most of them show movies in the common area, should you need a night off from the frenetic Phnom Penh night life. One of the guesthouses, while I was there, showed Mel Gibson’s Braveheart nightly, to a packed house of English, Irish and Scottish, all of them cheering on their own country, as though history hadn’t told them just how it was going to turn out.

The next morning I mentally prepared myself for what I had actually come here to do; explore the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, and The Killing Fields. I had picked up a book in Bangkok called Surviving the Killing Fields on the recommendation of a fellow traveler who had just returned from Phnom Penh. It’s written by Haing S. Ngor, who also played the part of Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist in the movie The Killing Fields. It’s a graphic first hand account of one man’s tale of survival of the “Intellectual Cleansing” carried out by the Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot at its head. I found this book to be very disturbing, to say the least, but it also brought home to me what I was going to see here, which when hearing about it back home, seemed far off and not quite real. Not so now. Reading this book may not have helped my state of mind any, after the sudden death of my friend, but I feel that to really understand a country’s people and it’s culture, you must explore both the glorious and shameful aspects of its history.

According to the Khmer dictionary, Tuol Sleng, which was named long before the Khmer Rouge appropriated it for their horrific purposes (it was once a high school), loosely translates to mean “Poison Ground.” This couldn’t be more appropriate. The very air felt poisoned there. After stopping on my way in to give a dollar or two here and there to the amputees begging outside the prison walls, having lost limbs to one of the many land mines this country still hides under its soil, I paid the entrance fee and began to explore in earnest. The former classrooms of Tuol Sleng Highschool were converted into prison cells, with all the windows enclosed by iron bars, and covered with barbed wire to prevent any possible escapes. Some were divided into small cells, designed for single prisoners, some left as is and used to house mass groups of prisoners. In each cell, the regulations were posted on small pieces of black board, including rules such as “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all,” or “Do not make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your jaw of traitor.”

The cells were mainly left as they had been during the reign of Pol Pot, iron beds with shackles, set in the center of the room, and in some rooms you can see splatters of what appears to be blood staining the ceiling or the walls. One of the most disturbing aspects of the museum, I found, was the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to document each and every prisoner that had come through its doors. This was evidenced by a collection of photographs taken of the men, women and children that had passed through here, or died here. The photographs are now on display in black and white throughout the museum and along the hallways. Some of the prisoners stare at the camera distantly, eyes glazed over, spirit broken, but some stare defiantly into the camera, challenging. Some faces still show evidence of brutal beatings. Some very few, heartbreakingly, smile into the camera sunnily, as though they know they will soon be released into the waiting arms of their family. The photos of the children are the hardest to bear witness to. But bear witness we must.

I left there shaken and decided to wait until the next day to visit The Killing Fields. I just didn’t think I could take any more that day. I hopped onto a moto-taxi and headed back to the guesthouse. In dire need of some light-hearted entertainment, I made my way to what I had dubbed “The Braveheart Guesthouse”, ordered an Angkor, sat down on the Scottish side of the room, and joined them in cheering on William Wallace (apologies to my English husband, but I think the Scottish needed more than Mel Gibson on their side.)

The next morning, slightly rested after a night of fitful sleep, I awoke to the single drum beat of the Buddhist monks gathered in the alleyway outside the guesthouse. The drum beat marks the beginning of their early morning chant, which echoes back and forth among the concrete buildings as they make their way from door to door accepting donations of rice, fresh baked bread and the like. I took this as a good note to start the day on, and made the journey over to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, the most well-known of the sites of mass burial graves used by the Khmer Rouge to dispose of their victims.

If you have ever been to Auschwitz, in Poland, you’ll find shades of it echoed here in Cambodia. There is a commemorative stupa, a tower of skulls encased in glass, a monument to the victims who were murdered here. Also on display are the clothes that were taken off the bodies before they were tossed into the mass burial pits, many of these clothes were used again on new prisoners brought into Tuol Sleng Prison. Most disturbing of all, perhaps, are the shoes left behind by the victims, some small enough for tiny baby feet.

I wandered around the surrounding fields and forest to pay my respects at the mass graves; now empty pits in the ground; small wooden signs to mark their existence. As I made my way around them, small Khmer children ran up to me again and again, taking my hand and imploring me to “take picture,” as they smiled sweetly up at me. To these children, who didn’t live through the horror of the Khmer Rouge, this is just another opportunity to make a dollar or two, but it just didn’t feel right to me to be taking pictures with happy children as though we were in Disneyland, so I smiled back at them and sent them on their way.

By backing Pol Pot, the Chinese, and, more subtly, the U.S.A., have done a great disservice to this country. An aide to Jimmy Carter has said that Pol Pot was an “abomination,” but admitted to “encouraging the Chinese to support him.” During the Khmer Rouge regime, at least 200,000 Cambodians were murdered, many of them considered intellectuals. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants and the like were among the first to be executed. Eventually it came to the point that if a person wore glasses, they were considered to be an intellectual, and this gave the Khmer Rouge cause to execute them. Who knows how many generations this loss of Cambodia’s greatest resource, knowledge, will impact in the future. Much of the Khmer Rouge regime will never be brought to accountability for their actions, one reason being that it was an army comprised largely of children, who were simply doing what they had to in order to survive.

After spending two days looking at the aftermath of genocide, I had some misgivings about heading out to the shooting range and firing a gun, at anything. But a line from a movie kept sticking in my head, in which one character enthuses about how, in Phnom Penh you can “blow up a cow, for, like, a dollar.” Not that I desired to fire a bazooka at some poor, unsuspecting cow, quite the opposite. My intention was to tag along with some English fellows that I’d met at the guesthouse and observe as they fired AK-47’s, etc, with solemn promises not to “blow up any living creatures.”

We were presented with a menu when we arrived. This included target shooting with AK-47’s, Uzi’s, M-16’s, and 12-gauge, semi-automatic combat shotguns. There were more options, but my knowledge of weaponry only extends so far. Nowhere on the menu was there a cow on offer, but there was an option to blow up a car, for the hefty price of $200 US. However, as the saying goes, money talks. And in Cambodia, if it’s to blow up a cow you desire, then a cow you shall have. One of my new friends was pulled aside and discreetly offered a chicken, if he wanted to target practice on one, but he politely declined. After sipping a couple of rounds of cold beers in the shade, and firing off a few rounds (I know – beer and guns – bad idea,) we left with wallets considerably lighter than when we’d arrived. It’s more expensive then you think to visit the firing range here, with most target practice starting at $20 US.

Shootin’ guns is thirsty work. Or not. But it’s a good excuse to head out on the town for a drink or two. And if you’re looking for a night of mayhem, with very little recollection the next day, then Phnom Penh is more than happy to deliver. A book written by Amit Gilboa, addresses this very subject. Off the Rails in Phnom Penh, a controversial look at the dark side of Phnom Penh, offers a somewhat disjointed take on the drug addiction, prostitution, and general lawlessness that many expats are drawn to there. It’s not pretty. But it’s there, and you can’t ignore it. Sex tourism, sadly, is big business in Phnom Penh, bringing many foreign visitors over for the young boys and girls on offer there.

However, if it’s just a drink you’re after (and I sincerely hope so), then a few watering holes of note include; Elsewhere, The FCC, the Magic Sponge Bar, and of course, the rather infamous Heart of Darkness, which seems to draw mixed reviews. I think it depends on the crowd present on the night you’re there. My experience there was great, if not so much the next day. It’s open until sunrise, and I took full advantage of their long hours. At one point, I was surprised to see many locals dancing to Dead Kennedy’s Holiday in Cambodia. I asked one of the locals who had joined me on the dance floor if he knew the lyrics to it, meaning, “Are you okay with dancing to a song about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge?” He made a peaceful gesture with his hands, kind of pushing them down and away from himself and said, “No Khmer Rouge. Just dance. Have fun.” Okay. Got it. And this is pretty much the reception you’ll receive when trying to broach the subject of the Khmer Rouge with any of the locals. The younger ones, at least.

Phnom Penh-2After you’ve shaken off your ridiculous hangover the next day, there’s a lot more that this city has on offer besides The Killing Fields and gun ranges. Take a stroll through the outdoor markets and down to the Tonle Sap riverfront, it makes for a pleasant walking tour, and many sights worth seeing are nearby, like the Royal Palace, and the neighboring Silver Pagoda. You can also take a river cruise for a different vantage of the city. There are plenty of great restaurants and pubs along the river as well.

When it comes time to return to your guesthouse, the cyclo, a bicycle rickshaw, is a more relaxing, and even cheaper way to get there than by tuk-tuk or moto-taxi. There is somewhat of a language barrier with the drivers though, as they tend to be older and know a lot less English, or other foreign languages, than the moto-taxi drivers, so explaining your destination can be a bit of a challenge, and lead to some interesting end results. When I asked my cyclo driver for a ride to the Same Same Guesthouse, he smiled and nodded and began on his way. I was confident that he knew what I meant, but after an hour in what felt suspiciously like the wrong direction, I began to wonder. I gestured for him to pull over at a gas station, and went in and tried to explain my situation to the staff there. Luckily, they spoke some English and were able to translate to him where I actually wanted to go. They told me that he had mistaken my request and was taking me to a town some two hours away, where he thought I wanted to go. I was thankful that we had caught our misunderstanding before it was too late, but I couldn’t help marveling at the fact that he was still willing to pedal me two hours away for $2.00!! I gave him $4.00 when he brought me safely to my guesthouse and he was ecstatic.

After a couple of weeks of city living in Phnom Penh, I was more than ready to hit the beach again, but I’m glad I got to experience all that what was once known as “The Pearl of Asia” had to offer, and it’s an experience I know I won’t soon forget.

About the author:

Paula Wallis makes her home in beautiful British Columbia in the Best City in The World, Vancouver. She spends her spare time seeking out the best beaches in the world and is a huge fan of hammocks. Follow her on fanaticnomadic.blogspot.com