An illustrated visit to Phnom Penh and the killing fields

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh was beautiful. Through the madness of ticket queues (one for Cambodians, one for visitors), Cindy and I somehow emerged the the very first people to enter compound, and for a precious few moments, we had the palace to ourselves.

The Royal Palace

Phnom Penh Royal Palace and beautiful garden arrangement
The Royal Palace and gardens in Phnom Penh

Separated from the noise and exhaust fumes of the racing motorbike traffic outside by a high ring wall of orange stucco, we had emerged into a serene world of topiary, manicured lawns, and towering temples.

White columns in rigid geometric formations raised the temples from their massive footprints, and layered on top were those unmistakable roof shells, cascading off one another, decorated with curling tendrils, determined to reach just that little bit higher. The sunlight poured down the gilded tiles in blinding streaks of white.

We had terrible luck trying to enter the Royal Palace, which should be noted; we were turned away 3 separate times. Once because it was raining, a second for not adhering to the appropriate dress code (as if visiting a temple), and the third time because of the long lunch break between 11-2pm!

Entrance fee is USD$10.

Visiting the killing fields

We’d been in Cambodia for almost a month, and on our first day in the city we decided it was time to find out more about the genocide.

Two major sites for learning about this were at Choeung Ek (AKA ‘the killing fields’) and Tuol Sleng (S-21) genocide museum. 

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek was one of many extermination sites and mass graves that the Khmer Rouge used around the country during their 1975-79 reign, a senseless martial reign of radical social reorder, brutality, hunger and torture. Almost 10,000 people were found buried at this site, one of many in the country.

Everyday Cambodian people were delivered to this small field 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh by the thousands to be questioned and executed. Choeung Ek can be visited with audio aides with commentary to help you understand the significance of where you are and what you’re looking at.

The audio guide takes you on a loop through the grounds, pointing out mass graves and places of execution, monuments constructed with human bones from the victims, and a small but interesting museum.

Uniform of Cambodia's
Examples of the Khmer Rouge uniform in the museum

Entrance costs USD$3, and another USD$3 for the audio guide.

Tuol Sleng

Tuol Sleng is a former school in the centre of the city, but during the Khmer Rouge occupation it was outfitted to become a prison. Classrooms were reworked with iron bars and crude brick dividers to create cramped cells. Nets and barbed wire kept people from jumping off balconies.

People were held, tortured for information they didn’t have, and executed. Up to 20,000 people passed through the prison. At the time of our visit, in 2012, One of the few surviving former inmates was signing copies of his book. Paintings of the conditions in Tuol Sleng from another former inmate are also displayed on site.

Both these sites are very difficult to visit emotionally, utmost respect should be taken.

Exploring the city

Temples

Cambodia is a country with a lot of temples to see, and Phnom Penh is no expection! Wat Phnom stood aloft from a high hill in Phnom Penh, a large white stupa being guarded by roaring lions painted in soft pink. Wat Ounalom was close to where we stayed; a small network of streets awash with backpacker hostels. Surrounding the Wat are numerous Buddhist monk residences and beautiful old buildings.

Statues of lions on a cambodian temple
Wat Phnom’s salmon pink guardian lions

Markets

The Central Market is one eye-catching building. It’s colossal X shape is raised higher with a bulging dome planted in the centre. Stylistically, it’s stepped structure looked like it had been built of pale yellow Lego blocks.

Inside the centre of the market was an open, airy room with a bright yellow domed ceiling, and a labyrinth of jewellery vendors. I bought some small metal animal statuettes, and Cindy bought some kind of Chinese opium pipe. Outside the market proper, clinging on like barnacles were hundreds of makeshift market stalls under sun shades, selling everything from Angry Birds T-shirts to deep fried spiders.

Another popular market is the Russian Market, a narrow series of alleys under a single low roof, bursting with scarves, souvenirs, clothes, and other trinkets that you don’t really need.

The National Museum

Sketch of phnom penh museum with red paint
Phnom Penh National Museum

The National Museum of Cambodia. The building shared the same flamboyant decorative roof spires as the Royal Palace, though with it’s faded maroon paint job it lacked the Palace’s majestic colour scheme.

Inside its washed red walls were thousands of Khmer artifacts, mostly statues. I must admit their significance was lost on me, so hiring a guide may be a good idea. It’s central courtyard has a beautiful garden. For $10 entry, it’s not a bad afternoon out.

Street life

One of Phnom Penh’s most charming attributes is its street life, and simply by walking from place to place, you can observe this colourful, bustling city in action. We spotted monks in internet cafes, motorbikes carrying fridges, men combating a flooded street with just a broom, bicycles carrying around clouds of helium balloons.

Drawing of a group of monks using the internet in Phnom Penh
Monks using the internet in Phnom Penh

Numerous small businesses are popping up to provide help for people affected by poverty. One such is the Friends Restaurant, with a trainee program for youths from the street. Another is the Seeing Hands massage, where all the masseuses are blind or vision impaired, believe it or not!

A ridiculous photoshoot!

There’s a photo booth at City Mall Shopping Centre (where the Legend Cinema is) where we had our photos taken, and decorated with cheesy Asian cartoons, love hearts, frilly borders and speech bubbles. A nice little souvenir while you wait for the movie to start! As a laugh, we found a little shop that do a more professional photoshoot (and this one is really cheesy) not far from Wat Ounalom.

Inside, they prepped us with sparkling and flowing Cambodian costumes (which looked like something from a royal wedding). They did Cindy’s hair and makeup, and gave me formal business shoes and a sword. Sparkling in green and purple robes, we posed for photos, Cambodia-style. But sorry, you can’t see them, they’re just too embarrassing!

Oudong

We explored the town of Oudong, an hour away by tuk-tuk, to see it’s four impressive stupas standing high on a great mountain and visible from miles around. A team of three enterprising youngsters accompanied us up the endless, winding stairs, clearly eager for a tip. After the climb, we sat down at a small family-run restaurant. As we sat on a bamboo platform, we tucked into a whole chicken, a bucket of rice and a mountain of morning glory.


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