Phnom Penh is a pretty crazy, frenetic city, but despite the stressful hot hours we spent bustling through traffic-clogged streets, we found crucial historical sites here, that shouldn’t be missed: namely, S21 Prison and the Killing Fields.
The city itself has some redeeming features – like a beautiful art-deco inspired central market replete with the usual textiles, jewellery, and also some really wonderful fresh fruit, veg, and prepared meals. We ate here pretty much every day, as the restaurants otherwise are pretty turistico in town! The Russian Market is also pretty good, but far more frantic! There’s also a pretty river in town, where locals and tourists alike sit to basque in the sunshine, and the nearby palace makes a nice backdrop to the view. There are also lots of ‘happy herb’ pizza places on the river which we tried a couple of times, with pretty hilarious results!
Now, to the real highlights: firstly, S21 Prison. For the uninitiated, S21 Prison is an old high school building that was converted into a torture prison during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the ’70s. Thousands of people of all ages passed through these torture chambers during the regime, from both Phnom Penh and nearby cities – thought to be impure capitalists, to be tortured into submission to the new communist Khmer empire. The building itself is haunting, with near-empty torture chambers (old classrooms) with remnants of their previous use – from bloodied tiles, to dented metal bedframes, to chains, to torture instruments. Outside, on the courtyard, the gallows where people were tied until they passed out, still casts a shadow against the concrete.
We walked around and listened to the incredible audio tour – taking in the mass detention cells, the wooden cubby holes used to separate prisoners, the rooms full of hundreds of photos of faces, distraught, staring vacantly outwards, the room of skulls of the departed. We heard about torture techniques – toe-nail pulling, shocking, blugeoning to death (to avoid being heard outside), the even more unspeakable – and were reduced to shuffling silence, taking it all in.
Afterwards we chatted to a tuk-tuk guy outside as we drank coffee, and his friend’s dad had been taken into the centre. We were so shocked by how recent the history was, and how little we’d done as a country to stop any of this from happening.
On our last day, we took a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields themselves – the place where torture victims would be taken after S21. Walking around the fields was a similarly sobering experience: we saw clothes buried in the mud slowly emerging from decades of being submerged; we saw the ‘baby killing tree’ where they smashed babies skulls (complete with hundreds of bracelets hung by visitors in blessing). We saw pits where people were pushed into after being bludgeoned to death (the Khmer didn’t want to waste their bullets); and finally, a huge column sculpture full of hundreds of skulls of the deceased. A truly necessary, if horrific, day.
After one more ‘happy’ pizza and a few shakes on the river, we hit the hay and spent the next day bussing it to our second Cambodian location, Siem Reap.