We only spent a few short days sightseeing in the bustling city of Phnom Penh—the capital of Cambodia. Since leaving Thailand and entering Cambodia the pace of travel picked up quite a bit compared to all the traveling that preceded. Our return flight to the U.S. (already booked) and the consequent end of the trip was only about one month and a week away by the time we left Phnom Penh. Due to the short time left and the amount of ground left to cover, a faster pace was required, as well as being a little more selective about where to visit and for how long. Aside from the little sightseeing we did, we also said farewell to one more of our fellow travelers (Paul), while another (Jen) decided to continue traveling with Sarah and I through the rest of Southeast Asia.
Phnom Penh has a long and rich history as one of Southeast Asia’s cultural and political centers. Though, much of what travelers experience during their time there, as we did, is the relatively recent and dark history revolving around the horrible atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the ruling political party of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 led by then leader Pol Pot. The leaders of the party were responsible for the mass murder and forced labor of millions of Cambodians. For more on the Khmer Rouge check out this Wikipedia page.
Most people typically visit two Khmer Rouge sites, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields. Our friend George (Nepal trekking partner) visited the sites before us and suggested we visit both in one day in order to avoid prolonging the depressing experience. We chose to visit only one, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, an old high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison to house and torture alleged political enemies. The buildings were full of classrooms converted to small prison cells and some larger rooms used for torturing. There were exhibits describing some of the atrocities committed and photos of the victims. It was a somber and eye opening experience. We watched a short film at the beginning describing the history of the Khmer Rouge and the prison.
Instead of visiting The Killing Fields we chose to spend a couple hours walking around the Royal Palace. The palace sits about 100 meters from the edge of the mighty Mekong river and is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Of the palaces we’ve seen throughout our trip it’s in better condition than most. While we were there they were in the process of rehabilitating one of the buildings. The guidebook emphasized something called the Silver Padoda. We searched the entire palace complex looking for the pagoda and couldn’t find it. I mean how hard could it be to spot a silver pagoda, right? Well, it turns out that the name “Silver Pagoda” comes from the fact that a small portion of the floor inside of the pagoda is covered in silver tiles. So the pagoda itself isn’t made of silver. Too bad.
Though Phnom Penh was a whirlwind experience it was still a memorable one. The history of the Khmer Rouge sticks with me the most. If we visited Phnom Penh again I’m not sure we’d spend anymore time than we did. Two full days seems like plenty.