Phnom Phen - the underestimated capital of Cambodia

Phnom Penh riverside
"You will get mugged!", "It's a very ugly place", "I hate Phnom Phen"! - these are just a few quotes of what we heard about Cambodia's capital before we arrived there. But after our jungle adventure we were just hoping for a nice hotel room with a real shower and no bugs all over our stuff.

What we found, at first sight, was not too inspiring. A typical SEA big city, it took us quite a while to get to the hotel from the bus terminal, through narrow, dark, smelly streets. The hotel room was small but clean, however the bathroom was huge with a real shower, warm water and enough water pressure. The perfect relaxation and cleaning for us.

Phnom Penh riverside
The next day we had to check out whether it was really such a bad city. Stepping out of the hotel, people smiled at us, tuktuk drivers asked us where we wanted to go. A couple of steps further we found ourselves suddenly in the middle of a vegetable and fruit market. We continued and discovered lots of cute cafes between nightclubs, you find yourself well entertained at any time of the day obviously. After a delicious breakfast in a Scandinavian restaurant we decided to discover the famous Riverside. A huge promenade where people hang out, sell food, exercise or chillax along the river.

Phnom Penh pagoda
The houses don't look very nice in total perspective. But as soon as you take the time to zoom in and look at them individually, you discover real treasures. I could barely decide where I would love to settle down for a while. The colonial style that inspired the architects let me imagine high ceilings, cool rooms that give you a break from the hot weather outside, and they all had spacious balconies to enjoy the stunning view over the Mekong river. Along the promenade one finds of plenty cafes, restaurant and bars, all with their individual food concept (a real exception in SEA). After our day of discovering more and more incredibly beautiful corners in this city, we decided to enjoy happy hour on one of the countless roof top bars, watching another spectacular sunset. What a perfect day!

Cambodian street food - snakes, crickets, cockroaches
But we weren't done yet. Our local friend Phary promised to take us to the best massage in town. Another "Seeing Hands" massage, we paid 10 USD for two hours. That was no pleasure at all. I screamed three times because the guy really worked hard on my back. But he managed to solve some problems in my back that not even my mom could (a personal trainer with special education in different massage techniques and a lot of experience with my body). It felt better than in the entire past year! I was incredibly thankful and relaxed after the treatment, a magic moment that lasted a long time.

S-21 prison
The next day we hung out in the backpacker opposite the guesthouse we stayed. Both are named "Velkomen" and are managed by an Australian guy. He was super friendly, just like the other guests of the place. We soon got in touch with other travellers and enjoyed to hear their interesting stories. When we quickly went back to our room for a break in the afternoon, the basket of laundry that we asked the staff to wash the same morning, was already back in our room, all clean and smelling fresh. That was a really great surprise and we were very thankful for it. The service in the Velkomen guesthouse was excellent, the rooms made while we enjoyed breakfast, the staff at the reception was always there and attentive, that was definitely worth the 20$ we paid for the two of us.

Cell block, S-21 prison
On our last day I realized that I couldn't leave Cambodia without seeing what's left of the Khmer Rouge Horror. When I was in Thailand in 2002/03, I went to see the Bridge over the River Kwai, the Hell Fire Pass, the cemetery of the soldiers who died during that episode and a museum, and it helped me a lot to understand what happened outside Europe in terms of terror and war. I had no clue that this was only a very little part of what happened in the last century in SEA.

What I heard about the genocide in Cambodia now was at least equally impressive. Our dear friends, whom we met in Thailand on this journey now, gave us a book of the memoires of Tiziano Terzani, who was one of the most important journalists covering news from Vietnam during the big war there. After reading his story, that refers a lot to Cambodian history. We watched the movie "The Killing Fields" that tells the story of Sydney Schanberg, who covered the media broadcasting about the events in Camvbodia during the Khmer Rouge era and I read a lot about the war and history of Cambodia in general.

S-21 prison
On one hand this all helped me to understand Cambodia today. On the other hand it is extremely hard to not become too emotional about it, as always. You see people without legs and other handicaps where ever you look in Cambodia. Everybody can tell you a story of their encounters with the Khmer Rouge or landmines, of hunger and war. History is present where ever you go. So I decided that I have to see at least one of the key locations in Phnom Penh. Fabs and I got up early to walk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the S-21, where 17'000-20'000 people were tortured before they disappeared in the Killing Fields between 1975 and 1979. 12 people survived.

Torture instruments
Already 1980 the prison was turned into a museum. Tuol Sleng was only one of about 150 execution centers in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge documented everything that happened in that place. Prisoners were mainly from Cambodia, but there were also victims from 12 other countries. Most of them were actually sailing on the ocean, their boats drifted off course and they fell in Khmer Rouge hands. No foreigner survived the S-21, a Canadian got burned alive on the way there already. I don't want to go more into details here though.

This all was well visible in the museum. The prison consists of four big main buildings. Visitors can walk in and get an impression of what happened. Photographs of victims, cells, cloths, documents, paintings and original torture instruments let history horror become real. That all did not move me too much, as I have seen (just as everyone probably) so many documentaries, movies and war museums already. What really hit me surprisingly though was, when we walked out of the last building, after seeing all the photos of the leaders, survivers, victims, etc. suddenly there was an old man sitting on a little table. The face looked familiar. He sat behind a stock of books and signed them for the tourists.

Bones of deceased prisoners 
The title of the book was "Survivor", and it all got obvious. I just saw a huge photo of this old man in the building. Right one floor above the torture instruments, one below the faces of those who were responsible. This man went through all the shit I just saw. And the things I coldly looked at before suddenly became real. The connection between abstract and million times heard history became alive, two meters in front of me. That was very impressive. I still don't know exactly what makes things like that move something inside of me. But here in SEA I have trouble sometimes keeping my emotions together, however sometimes I seem to not care at all about things.

I think it was very good for me to get the experience and to realize once again how terrible the world can be but that even though this is reality, it doesn't mean that it is the only reality. The contrast between what we saw in the museum and the beauty we saw all over the city/country lets me hope. And sure, once more I appreciate so much how incredibly lucky I actually am. It's a little too easy to forget that sometimes.

More pictures from Phnom Penh and the Tuol Sleng genocide museum (S-21)


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