Phnom Penh: Grandeur and Genocide

Today was a strange combination of royal majesty and horrific genocide. First, a bit about how we got to Phnom Penh. We departed Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam around lunch time and completed a two hour drive to the Vietnam/Cambodia border. There we disembarked the bus, collected our belongings and walked to the border station. After a long delay and seemingly endless bureaucracy we received the necessary stamp in our passport to exit Vietnam. Next we walked through “no man’s land” to the Cambodian border station where we helped employ a new army of border officials while they issued our Cambodian visa … two neighbors with equally inefficient immigration procedures. We are willing to bet that we could have simply walked through both stations without being stopped or questioned … But that is for another trip when we are not surrounded by students. In any case, after an hour or so we were on our way again. By the way we had to board new buses (Cambodian registered) and met new guides to escort us to Phnom Penh.

The journey from the border to the capital was very interesting. Clearly there are many floods during the raining season as many of the building are on stilts. There are many beautiful pagodas along the highway, about one per village is our guess. The area is mostly farmland for both wet and dry rice (not sure We know the difference but our guide seemed to know). We arrived at our hotel and were greeted with a welcome drink and a very efficient check-in, followed by yet another great meal.

Today we began our tour of the city by visiting the beautiful Royal Palace. Next we visited the national museum, which houses a great collection of antiquities. Much of the collection is related to our planned visit to Angkor Wat (tomorrow). By then it was time to eat (again) and we enjoyed a fantastic Thai meal.

After lunch we headed out of the city to the so called Killing Fields. The aptly named area is where more than 10,000 people were taken to be brutally murdered during the rule of Pol Pot in the late seventies. We were overwhelmed by the scale of this genocide and the fact that it happened while we were alive. As we walked around we noticed that more human bones and teeth would appear on the path. Apparently each day after the area is closed to the public the officials collect the newly unearthed remains. In case that was not enough human tragedy for one day (or lifetime) we proceeded to S21, the prison within the city limits where thousands of innocent people were tortured into confessing crimes they did not commit. Once they admitted their crimes, many after weeks of torture, they were taken to the Killing Fields to be executed. We have been to some grim sites in our travels but nothing compares to the Killing Fields and S21.

A very long day with too much sadness. The “highlight” of the day was witnessing the impact on the students. It our hope that they, collectively, will work to make sure this is not repeated in their life.

Here are some photos from the day