A morning visiting the sights of Phnom Penh
26.08.2011 - 26.08.2011 30 °C
Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia
With the boys never receiving their alarm call we were a little late starting our tour of the vibrant and fascinating city of Phnom Penh. However, with clear skies a remorque (the Cambodian tuk-tuk – larger and therefore more comfortable than the Thai equivalent) was soon speeding its way into oncoming traffic heading for Wat Phnom.
Wat Phnom (‘Temple of the Mountains’ or ‘Mountain Pagoda’) is a Buddhist temple built in 1373, standing 60ft tall on the highest hill in the city. Legend relates that Daun Penh, a wealthy widow, found a large koki tree in the river. Inside the tree she found four bronze statues of the Buddha. Lady Penh constructed a small shrine on an artificial hill to protect the sacred statues. Eventually this became a sacred site and sanctuary where people would make blessings and pray. Still early in the morning the usual hawkers and touts were missing for our brief tour, which provided a wonderful feeling of calm and peace at a wat we would see later in the day throng with a relatively large number of tourists (for as this is the wet season large amounts of tourists were not a particular concern in any region of Cambodia).
Moving on from the wat that gave this city its name the Royal Palace was next on our fast paced tourist itinerary. The Royal Palace, or Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk in Khmer is still home to the Cambodian royal family, they having occupied it since it was built in the 1860's, with only a short period of absence when the country came into turmoil during and after the reign of the Khmer Rouge. The palace was constructed after King Norodom relocated the royal capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh in the mid-19th century.
With the seat of Khmer power in the region rested at or near Angkor north of the great Tonle Sap Lake from 802 AD until the early 15th century the establishment of the Royal Palace in 1866 is a comparatively new event. After the Khmer court moved from Angkor in the 15th century after being destroyed by Siam, it first settled in Phnom Penh in 1434 (or 1446) and stayed for some decades, but by 1494 had moved on to Basan, and later Longvek and then Oudong. The capital did not return to Phnom Penh until the 19th century and there is neither record nor remnants of any Royal Palace in Phnom Penh prior to the 19th century. In 1813, King Ang Chan constructed Banteay Kev (the 'Crystal Citadel') on the site of the current Royal Palace and stayed there very briefly before moving to Oudong. Banteay Kev was burned in 1834 when the retreating Siamese army razed Phnom Penh. It was not until after the implementation of the French Protectorate in Cambodia in 1863 that the capital was moved from Oudong to Phnom Penh, and the current Royal Palace was founded and constructed.
Arriving only a few minutes ahead of the massed tourist hordes we could literally see the bus load waves of tourists entering the royal compound as we exited the first Royal Palace building on their tour agenda and entered the next.
Having paid over 6 USD to enter the palace I thought a picture of the Throne Hall would be an appropriate memory. The 'Preah Thineang Dheva Vinnichay’ or ‘Throne Hall’ means the ‘Sacred Seat of Judgement’. I guess the attendants shouting at me to put away my camera were the judges. Still I was able to grab a couple of shots before fully entering the glittering Hall. For this is where the king's confidants, generals and royal officials once carried out their duties. It is still in use today as a place for religious and royal ceremonies (such as coronations and royal weddings) as well as a meeting place for guests of the King. The current Throne Hall is the second to be built on this site. The first was constructed of wood in 1869-1870 under King Norodom. That Throne Hall was demolished in 1915. The present building was constructed in 1917 and inaugurated by King Sisowath in 1919. As with all buildings and structure at the Palace, the Throne Hall faces east.
As a still functioning Royal Palace many of the buildings in the compound are not open to visitors. Others such as a rather incongruous French-style iron building, a gift from Napolean III, that I know from previous visits looks completely out of keeping with the rest of the Palace, are wrapped in bamboo scaffolding for restoration work.
The final Pagoda on our visit and probably the most famous was the Silver Pagoda. Housing many national treasures its most notable Buddha is a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha (the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia) and a near-life-size, Maitreya Buddha encrusted with 9,584 diamonds dressed in royal regalia commissioned by King Sisowath. During King Sihanouk's pre-Khmer Rouge reign, the Silver Pagoda was inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles and some of its outer facade was remodeled with Italian marble. Curiously this was the only Pagoda that the culture destroying Khmer Rouge made any attempt to maintain as a feeble propaganda gesture to promote their cultural awareness and conservation of the Cambodia’s history and heritage.
From there we headed to the slightly out of town Russian Market for a little souvenir hunting. So named as historically it was frequented by the wives of visiting Russian officials. Replete with all manner of Cambodian souvenirs we browsed the stalls with interest but did not find anything worthy of purchase.
Our final stop was the sobering and brutal Tuol Sleng genocide museum. When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975 most of its residents, including those who were wealthy and educated, were evacuated from the city and forced to do labor on rural farms as ‘new people’. Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s forces and turned into the notorious S-21 prison camp, where Cambodians were detained and tortured.
Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and therefore killed many people perceived as educated, ‘lazy’, or political enemies. Many others starved to death as a result of failure of the agrarian society and the sale of Cambodia's rice to China in exchange for bullets and weaponry.
From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.
Reading autobiographies of prisoners who survived their incarceration, frequently by using a talent such as painting or shoe repair, arrest and imprisonment often followed no logic. Confessions of working for the CIA were tortured out of individuals that were little more than factory workers with no perceivable way of contacting any foreign intelligence organization let alone working for them.
Upon arrival at the prison, prisoners were photographed and required to give detailed autobiographies, beginning with their childhood and ending with their arrest. After that, they were forced to strip to their underwear, and their possessions were confiscated. The prisoners were then taken to their cells. Those taken to the smaller cells were shackled by their legs to the walls or the concrete floor. Those who were held in the large mass cells were collectively shackled to long pieces of iron bar. The shackles were fixed to alternating bars; the prisoners slept with their heads in opposite directions. They slept on the floor without mats, mosquito nets, or blankets. They were forbidden to talk to each other.
The day in the prison began at 4:30 a.m. when prisoners were ordered to strip for inspection. The guards checked to see if the shackles were loose or if the prisoners had hidden objects they could use to commit suicide (barbed wire covered the exposed corridors to stop prisoners throwing themselves to their death). Over the years, several prisoners managed to kill themselves, so the guards were very careful in checking the shackles and cells. The prisoners received four small spoonfuls of rice porridge and watery soup of leaves twice a day. Drinking water without asking the guards for permission resulted in serious beatings. The inmates were hosed down every four days.
Wondering through the old school buildings and learning of the conditions one is obviously reminded of our earlier visit to Auschwitz and the inhumanity of man towards man. The lack of prosecution or punishment of many of those responsible for this atrocity is still clearly an open wound in Cambodia today. After the collapse of the regime Pol Pot denied all knowledge of S-21, a laughable statement if it was not quite so grotesque a subject.
Somewhat sobered and thoughtful we now had little time to return to our hotel and catch our bus to Siem Reap. Our journey would take some six hours. Leaving late due to mechanical problems which appear to plague the Paramount Express Bus company we finally crawled out of the traffic of Phnom Penh and into the paddy field countryside that we were to pass for most of our journey to Siem Reap.
For Ed and Marin it was their first cross-country bus trip, it might also have been their last! Whilst comfortable enough from what we have previously experienced the lack of space to recline and length of the journey gave them an insight into ‘backpacker travel’ that I am not 100% convinced they will be eager to repeat.
Yet, the bus did get us to Siem Reap. Albeit late, arriving as the monsoon rains fell. Fortunately, our excellent hotel was not far from the bus station with two air-conditioned suites and large comfortable beds awaiting our arrival. Sleep was soon upon as Trey and the boys prepared for their visit to the largest temple complex in the world the following day.