Phnom Penh: A beautiful city with a horrific past

Posted on August 15th, 2013 by BreAnn

Cambodia is a unique developing country, full of amazing temples and architecture, but it is also a country that is emerging from decades of civil conflict including a massive genocide in the 1970s. Either way, it is definitely an interesting place to visit. Crossing the border from Vietnam into Cambodia (on June 23rd), we visibly saw the poverty level increase. Vietnam isn’t the richest country, either, but the level of poverty in Cambodia compared to other countries in all of Asia is pretty high.

Once we got into our hotel in Phnom Penh, in a decent area of the city, we felt comfortable going out to explore a bit. Our first mission: find cheap local food!  The area surrounding our hotel was scattered with a TON of western food places, selling food items from $3.50 to $10 USD which is EXPENSIVE by Cambodian standards!  Sure, it’s smart of them to set those types of prices, but I was actually pretty annoyed when we started looking at restaurants, knowing they were blatantly overcharging tourists because most people don’t know any better.  I mean—hey—if you can get a meal for $3.50 USD, that’s a steal, right?

Our exciting $1 dinner!

NOPE. Try $1.50 per person. 🙂  Yep, we were pleased on our very first night to find a local food joint that sold a delicious dish of noodles, meat, eggs, and veggies for only $1 per plate! We ended up getting a third plate and splitting it, but we continued to go back to that same restaurant night after night for our $1.50 per person dinner. Awesome!

Originally, we didn’t plan or want to spend too much time in Phnom Penh, and instead spend more time in the city of Siem Reap—home to the amazing Angkor Wat temples—but we needed to apply and wait for our 60-day Thailand visas… so, we had four days in Phnom Penh to sightsee.  But we were happy we stayed and visited . . . the city is home to some impressive and beautiful buildings and temples.

We explored the National Museum of Cambodia, and were surprised by how many artifacts and statues were displayed right out in the open—NOT in glass!  There were a lot of amazing things to look at, and we took our time from room to room. The temperature outside as well as inside was, however, a bit distracting, as we were pouring down sweat in the 95 degree hot and humid weather as we tried hard to concentrate on the history we were reading about. We paused a bit in the center garden area to feed the fish in the pond, which were CRAZY hungry for the fish food we threw in the water.

I loved the unique architecture in Phnom Penh!

We also spent an afternoon at the Royal Palace, and wandered around the many impressive and beautiful buildings inside the courtyard. I really loved the unique and ornate architecture of many of the buildings, especially the curvy spikes found on many of the buildings, which are called the “chovea” and represents a dragon’s tail. I took so many pictures and just soaked it all in… there was just something about these buildings and the design of them that really drew me in.

On another note, we spent one entire day completely taking in the incredibly shocking and horrific history of the genocide that took place in Cambodia from 1975-79. A little background:  In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, a communist group led by a man named Pol Pot, took over the capital city of Phnom Penh. The Cambodians rejoiced as the civil war had come to an end. However, three hours after the Khmer Rouge victory, all civilians living in the cities were forcibly evacuated to the countryside, signaling the reign of terror. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge planned to bring the country back to “Year Zero” creating an equal society comprised of one agricultural class. Thus, every intellectual Cambodian became an enemy, and soon many educated people in the country were imprisoned and/or executed as a result. More on that later…

Prison S-21 grounds

Just within Phnom Penh, there is an old high school that had been turned into a prison (called Prison S-21) during these times to be used basically as an “execution center.”  Today, this old site has been turned into the “Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum,” and now houses some former prison cells and beds, as well as rooms with information boards of the prison history and photos of many prisoners who were executed there.  James and I visited this site, and learned that back during the period of the Khmer Rouge regime, these buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed here.

The sad thing about this all, is the majority of prisoners and those killed actually didn’t commit a crime: they were imprisoned or killed simply because they were educated, or if they were “suspected” of speaking out against the Khmer Rouge.

NOTE: if you have a sensitive system, or are easily shocked by details of human torture, then you may not want to read further… 

Prison cells at S-21

Most prisoners at S-21 were held there for two to three months, routinely beaten and tortured with electric shocks, searing hot metal instruments and hanging, as well as through the use of various other devices. Prison guards would torture the prisoners to get them to “confess” to false crimes, or to name family members and friends who supposedly have spoken out against the regime (who were then also imprisoned or executed).  Some prisoners were cut with knives or suffocated with plastic bags. Other methods for generating confessions included pulling out fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, holding prisoner’s heads under water, or waterboarding; which is a form of torture in which water is poured over cloth covering the face and breathing passages of the captive, causing the individual to experience the sensation of drowning. Although many prisoners died from this kind of abuse, killing them outright was discouraged, since the Khmer Rouge needed their confessions. [If you want to read more about this prison, click here.]

Many prisoners that were held at Prison S-21 at some point were blindfolded and loaded into trucks and brought to a place called, “Choeung Ek,” or otherwise known as, “The Killing Fields” where they were then murdered and buried with piles of hundreds of other bodies.  This area is about 10 miles outside of Phnom Penh, and James and I also visited this site as well. The grounds at this time are

It’s grown over with grass now, but you can see the area where a hole was dug and bodies were dropped in and buried. Very eerie…

mostly grown over with grass and mainly consist of information boards, but the whole experience gives you a sad and eerie feeling. We were given audio guide devices with headsets when we arrived, and spent a couple hours at the site, sitting on park benches, and listening to the gruesome, horrific, and heartbreaking details of all that occurred in the surrounding fields. It was INCREDIBLY SHOCKING to look around us and listen to the appalling and gruesome details of what happened here only 35 years ago! What was even more disturbing is to learn that many of these mass graves in this area have not been excavated yet, so after heavy rainfalls, it is common for bones and clothing to rise to the surface!!!—due to the large number of bodies still buried in these shallow mass graves.

It’s all SO SICKENING. And we felt pretty depressed, sympathetic, and sickened as we learned about the past and visited these places around Phnom Penh.

So then the BIG question is: WHY????

Why does genocide like this happen???  As we read gruesome detail after gruesome detail, I was BAFFLED by all this human torture, lack of human regard, and I just couldn’t understand WHY or HOW anyone would or could commit these acts against other living, breathing human beings and think that it’s OK??  Not only did genocide happen in Cambodia; we also know about the Holocaust in Germany, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and Darfur in present day.

Just a few of the million+ people who died in the genocide

As I read more and more about Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, it became a bit more evident. Genocide often revolves around one dictator who has very extremist beliefs, and initially “sells” the public on the wonderful change he will bring to the country, especially if that country is in dire need of a strong leader.  Once in office, things often quickly take a turn for the worse. This person and his followers often believe in order to achieve order and extreme power, they must extricate anyone and everyone who may oppose their beliefs, or get in the way of them achieving their mission.  Typically, people who may “get in the way” are often educated, well-spoken individuals… especially teaches, priests, and monks. It was said that if a Cambodian had on glasses, knew another language, had foreign friends, was highly religious, or held a job other than farming, he or she was considered “a suspect” and would be taken to prison and tortured into admitting to crimes they had not committed.

In addition, country-wide, western influences such as capitalism and city life were expelled. Religion and all foreigners were to be extinguished. Schools were closed, embassies were shut down, and the use of foreign languages was banned.

To further the actions of this horrible regime, there were several factors that aided in their efforts:

  • Brainwashing. Many people who were part of the Khmer Rouge were uneducated and young.  The Khmer Rouge brainwashed children into becoming Khmer Rouge soldiers. They taught them to hate their parents and many of the child soldiers’ first victims were their own parents.
  • The nearby war in Vietnam. Most genocide is committed under cover of war or during the conduct of it. And when there’s a war, the leaders intent on genocide know they can get away with it. They have impunity. It’s easy to go further and believe that war is also a good way to harm and even get rid of other people.
  • Silencing opponents. By imprisoning or executing anybody intelligent, there weren’t many educated people left to teach others what was REALLY going on here. People were forced to submit to their demands and rules.

Fortunately, the genocide under the Pol Pot regime ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded the country, liberating the Cambodian people. It is estimated that around TWO MILLION PEOPLE, or 25% of the country’s population died by starvation, torture or execution during the three years, eight months, and twenty days during the Khmer Rouge regime. Most of these people were from the educated class.

What does that mean for Cambodia today?

Half of Cambodia’s current population is younger than 15 years old!

Half of Cambodia’s current population is younger than 15 years old.  Although the country is somewhat on the upswing, it is still a very poor country, mostly composed of undereducated individuals. Since a huge portion of the educated population in the 1970s was extinguished, including many teachers, it left the country at an extreme disadvantage. Many Cambodian citizens are farm workers and cannot regularly attend school; the literacy rate in Cambodia is only 77.6% (2008).  (As a comparison, the overall world literacy rate is 84%, and the nearby countries of Vietnam and Thailand have 94% and 93% literacy rates, respectively.)  Today, only about 45% of Cambodian kids finish elementary school. The figure is much lower for children who live in rural villages.

Things in Cambodia seem to be moving in a positive direction, however. Tourism nowadays, mostly due to the temples in Siem Reap, including Angkor Wat, has been steadily increasing, creating many new jobs and generating a significant amount of revenue for the country. And the World Bank’s December 2012 forecast predicts Cambodia will experience an average annual GDP growth rate of 7 percent over the next five years. To address disparities in literacy rates, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport has designed and implemented inclusive policies such as bilingual education in provinces with a large minority population, scholarships for girls and students representing other vulnerable groups, and non-formal education opportunities for youth and adults that are not integrated into the public school system.

But overall, traveling in Phnom Penh and learning about the history of the genocide was definitely an interesting and eye opening experience. And once again, the experience made us even more grateful for our upbringing and our freedoms in the US. We took all that we learned with us as we continued our adventure further through Cambodia. More on that coming up in the next post . . .

To see photos from our experiences in Phnom Penh, click here.




2 responses to “Phnom Penh: A beautiful city with a horrific past”

  1. Ann says:

    Wow, it’s all so horrifically sad 🙁 I wonder why it’s not talked about more like the Holocaust is… I guess because there wasn’t any US involvement like there was in Germany and WWII. Thanks for sharing.

    • BreAnn BreAnn says:

      I know. It was very surprising and sad and horrifying all at the same time! And when I researched genocide, it’s horrible just how many places around the world it has happened—or still happening! 🙁

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