Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is ripe with paradox. Today it is the capital of one of the world’s poorer countries, but its museum holds the treasures of one of the most prolific civilizations in history. Tiny alleyways strewn with garbage and home to orphaned children cross avenues lined with gourmet chocolate shops and bakeries frequented by tourists and international aid workers. The recent past has been plagued by horrible violence and suffering, yet its people seem to face the days ahead with humor and a strange sense of optimism.

Just about the only thing that is consistent about this place is the confusion it generates in its visitors. Your only choice is to confront the bad and embrace the good. We started with the bad and found ourselves face to face with the legacy of a woefully misguided revolution.

The Khmer Rouge, an ultra-Maoist regime that sprung up partly in reaction to the US bombardment of the Cambodian countryside during with the Vietnam War, took over Phnom Penh in 1975. Under the direction of a tyrant named Pol Pot, anyone deemed to be educated was seen as an enemy to the regime and slated for execution in the hopes of returning the country to its agrarian roots.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek now serves as a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Set in a quiet and seemingly peaceful setting is a tall glass stupa filled with the skulls of thousands of people whose lives where ended there. More subtle reminders of the genocide are shallow indentations in the ground, mass graves where bodies were found, and random piles of decaying clothing.

Perhaps even more powerful was our visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, a former high school that was used to imprison and torture victims prior to them being sent to execution sites like the one at Choeung Ek. The pictures of mangled, half-dead bodies that were taken when the city was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979 would turn anyone’s stomach, and intake photos of incarcerated men, women and children posted among tiny cells converted from classrooms were absolutely heart-wrenching to look at given the knowledge that only a handful of them survived.
Many children were orphaned as a result of the murderous campaign and a variety of programs have been developed to address the ongoing challenges. A good example is a restaurant we dined at named Friends that educates and trains street children to work in the service industry. We also met a young woman involved in a variety of different projects, including teaching free classes on the traditional Apsara dance form, which was nearly lost as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s efforts to eradicate all things artistic.

Phnom Penh is clearly a very intense place, but it has positive points as well. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are glorious remnants of the Khmer kingdom before it fell into decline, while the National Museum holds thousands of archaeological treasures from Angkor. The city also has some great Art Deco architecture, like the Central Market, which thankfully survived Pol Pot’s destruction. Phnom Penh is gradually coming into its own as a modern center of commerce and culture as well, and has a busting riverfront with cafes and restaurants and some fun nightspots where you can get your groove on with a truly international crowd.

We leave with a heavy heart, but wish the city and its people well on the road to recovery.


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