Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is set on the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Saprivers. It has wide tree-lined boulevards, faded colonial architecture, good restaurants and a lively riverfront esplanade scene.
I wandered through the peaceful grounds of the elegant palace and pagoda and visited the Cambodia National Museum to see the collection of artifacts removed from the temple complex at Angkor.
In the evening having drinks at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club bar on the waterfront is the thing to do, taking in the sights and sounds of the busy thoroughfare.
The locals enjoying the evening stroll, tiny food stalls spring up, a girl walks gracefully along effortlessly balancing a flat basket of drinks and snacks on her head. You could sit watching the faces and vehicles in the passing traffic for hours.
Suddenly, there’s an elephant walking along the street, he seems to be putting his head into a bar, he’s snaffled a few baguettes and a pat from the girls at the street stall outside, and his keeper guides him slowly back out into the traffic.
As elsewhere in Cambodia, the transportation of choice is by motorbike (moto). Although they are good drivers, with two people pillion weaving in and amongst the crazy traffic it is hair raising. The preferred technique for making a left turn is to head into the oncoming traffic for awhile until an imaginary gap opens up so that you can zip across three lanes to the other side of the road. Then you open your eyes and your heart starts beating again.
A visit to the “killing fields” will be a sobering part of any holiday. This is the execution and mass burial site which was used by the prison in town under Pol Pot’s regime. The prison (security office number 21) is now a Cambodia genocide museum.
It was once a school and at first looks innocuous, until you see the barbed wire (to stop prisoners from committing suicide by leaping from the balconies) and walk into the first classroom/interrogation room. An iron bedstead, manacles and a thankfully indistinct photograph of the tortured victim who was found there when the Khmer Rouge were ousted.
Somehow you expect the stench of death to assault your nostrils but all I could smell was the warm frangipani scented air from the trees in the courtyard, dropping their creamy blossoms onto the grass. The next building is the cellblock and contains room after room of mug shots.
Small black and white photographs of internees, many young girls and boys, some unbearably young as whole families were imprisoned. Every face is an enigma. Some bewildered, some still defiant, some blank and numb, some still innocent and unknowing. There were to be seven survivors at liberation. A few of the children’s faces almost look like they could be school photographs but the number pinned to the chest gives it away.
Having grown up hearing news reports about the troubles of Cambodia it is difficult not to look into the faces of the people trying to identify signs of what they have suffered.
By Natasha von Geldern