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Published: August 7th 2007
Phnom Penh must rank as one of the least appealing capital cities in Asia. Arriving there after a 7 hour journey on a non-A/C bus, including a lunch stop inconveniently scheduled 30 minutes earlier during which we'd been constantly assailed by hawkers, I received the most tout hassle I've received since India. We had to force our way off the bus and away from the bus station before we could escape from hotel brochures being thrust in our faces. My mood was not improved by continual hassle by tuk tuk and moto drivers as we plodded around, and our first 3 choices of guesthouse all proved to be full. The city is also pedestrian-unfriendly, with pavements (when they exist) an obstacle course of parked vehicles, trees, street vendors, and mysterious holes, and traffic lights appearing to be optional rather than obligatory stopping points when on red.
Having said that, it's hard to be too critical of a city that, less than 30 years ago, epitomised the worst excesses of one of history's most genocidal regimes. The rise of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge was in large part due to anti-American sentiment, caused by the heavy civilian casualties inflicted on eastern Cambodia
during US raids on areas where the Viet Cong were supposedly hiding. It's unlikely though that the majority of the country quite understood what would happen when Pol Pot came to power, heralding as it did an era that set the Cambodian economy back by decades and brought enormous misery to its population.
Pol Pot aimed to bring back the glory days of the Angkor civilisation of 1,000 years ago using a Maoist ideology. From day 1 of the regime, cities were emptied (as they were considered hotbeds of capitalism) and their inhabitants banished to the countryside to begin a new life in the fields. Phnom Penh experienced a drop in population from upwards of 1 million to 15,000, an urban exodus with few parallels in history. Targets of grain production imposed by the Khmer Rouge were 3 times what Cambodia's previous grain production had been, so the new farmers were greatly overworked to meet these targets (not to mention the fact that, of course, most of these people had never farmed before). Malnutrition affected workers in many parts of the country, as did incorrect diagnosis and treatment of disease (the Khmer Rouge favoured traditional medicines and treatments over
modern ones), leading to many of the estimated 1 million deaths during the genocide.
In addition, religion, money, and private ownership were banned. Families were forbidden from eating in their own homes and instead had to dine in community halls.
There were other fates than a conversion to peasanthood. Pol Pot ordered the mass extermination of intellectuals, teachers, Buddhists, and their families. Wearing glasses was deemed a sign of intelligence, the punishment for which was death. Having associations with previous governments could also lead to execution. The smallest detail from a person's past could be picked up on and turned into a "crime" for which they should be punished. This led to a spiralling paranoia that affected everyone up to the highest reaches of the government. Killing for the most trivial of reasons became commonplace, and people rightly came to fear the power wielded by party cadres.
The most graphic symbol of this period, at least in Phnom Penh, is Tuol Sleng, or S21 as it became known. Formerly a school, it was turned into an interrogation centre through which about 20,000 people passed. Prisoners were tortured, and killed either at the site or at one of
the infamous Killing Fields in the nearby countryside. Though the background info in the buildings now leaves something to be desired, the many rows of stark black and white pictures of inmates, taken when they arrived at S21, assume a certain poignancy when you know there were only 7 survivors. The last 14 victims, discovered hideously disfigured by the invading Vietnamese forces who brought the regime to an end, have been buried in the school's grounds. Photos of them from when they were found, which are mercifully indistinct, hang in the cells, bloodied corpses chained to iron bedsteads. Cabinets full of skulls, and paintings showing some of the tortures inflicted on the victims, complete a thoroughly depressing depiction of the evils that humans can inflict on each other.
S21 was comfortably the most thought-provoking thing I saw in Phnom Penh. The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, though pretty enough, struggled to compete with the images of Bangkok's Grand Palace, which were still fresh in my mind.
Phnom Penh was also the location for my first haircut of the trip, at which both LA Woman and I braved the scissors of the Juliana Hotel hair salon, coming away pleased
From a Cambodian notebook
with the results. I also threw away my compass, which had become magnetised by my shoulder bag, and a loyal pair of shorts from Australia, whose red dust-engrained backside had finally begun to just look filthy.
The final insult from the capital was being accused by the guesthouse of breaking the toilet seat in the bathroom, a crime we were innocent of but which they clearly wanted to charge us for. A stand-off ensued, at the end of which the guy on reception said we shouldn't worry about the problem, clearly not realising that the damage to his guesthouse's reputation was a bigger deal.
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