Phnom Penh & Cambodian Indepedence Day
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
“Phnom Penh has risen from the ashes to take its place among the cool capitals of the region.” – Lonely Planet
I loved and hated Phnom Penh. For me it was a tour of a horrific past combined with a cheerful celebration in a city that had a lot more charm than others had be lead to imagine.
In April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and within 48 hours, had cut off all supplies and closed schools, offices, places of worship and entertainment, hospitals, factories, and police stations. Every man, woman, and child was forcibly evacuated from the city in what has been described as a “death march.” Families were split and sent in different directions and within three days, the city was empty. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot sought a return to an agrarian economy and all its residents were forced to work in labor camps or “collective farms.” He began to kill everyone that he thought would undermine his plan, including some his own family members. All around Cambodia, his ‘detractors’ were sent to prison/interrogation camps, where they were tortured into making false confessions before being brutally murdered. The most infamous prison is known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) and when the burial space in and around S-21 filled, prisoners were marched 15km to the south to Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields), where they were brutally murdered and buried in shallow pits. Between 17,000-20,000 people passed through S-21 and Choeung Ek and only 12 were known to survive. The Khmer Rouge were eventually driven out of Phnom Penh (and Cambodia) by the Vietnamese in 1979. Both S-21 and the killing fields are now memorials to those who were killed by the regime as well as museums and educational sites.
I hadn’t done much research before arriving and I didn’t really have a plan in Phnom Penh for my short stay, other visit the Killing Fields, a somber destination to say the least. I wanted to visit these visit memorials because I knew that atrocities happened throughout Cambodia, but I honestly knew very little about the specifics of what happened. I wanted glimpse into the country’s horrible and relatively recent [totally f*cked up] past. For what turned out to be my only full day in Phnom Penh, I spent a good chunk of it drifting through the memorial at Choeung Ek and the museum at S-21, somberly learning what I could. Naturally, it was depressing. Really depressing.
BUT between before and after those stops, I aimlessly wandered the city, like I do. And I really liked it. Naturally Phnom Penh was chaotic, but there was a lot of character to that chaos. New glistening architecture towered over ancient buildings, old markets sat next to modern boutique restaurants, artsy statues lined well-kept city parks, and old slowboats trudged up and down the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. It was really pleasant for being so busy. And the street aerobics was pretty entertaining too.
On the afternoon of November 9th, I got back to the riverfront around the Royal Palace mid-afternoon and the mood was anything but depressing. Thousands of people were packed into the Royal Palace Park and strolling the riverfront, all laughing and smiling as tons of kids ran around without a care in the world. Large colorful balloons anchored to the ground fluttered in the breeze and as the sun got lower on the horizon, the sky lit up overhead. It was an amazingly festive atmosphere. At the time, I had no idea what was going on, but it was awesome. I roamed around all afternoon and right after sunset, I posted up on a balcony bar overlooking the Tonle Sap River for some beers, watching the craziness below. Looking down, traffic was bad, even for Southeast Asian standards. Just as a British couple next to me told me everyone was celebrating Independence Day [from France, 1953], fireworks began exploding over the river.