Best for a history lesson
Cambodia is a country of many contrasts. The population is largely young and carefree, but they carry the burden of painful memories. Poverty is a huge problem, but that hasn’t stopped the capital city, Phnom Penh, from blossoming into a well-organized, cosmopolitan (if small) city. They’ve taken the remnants of all the invading cultures and cobbled together a city that’s completely Cambodian in essence. Walk around Phnom Penh and you’ll see ritzy hotels, sprawling bungalows and wide avenues, but also seedier corners and more run-down eateries and cafes. There are also constant reminders of just how recent Cambodia’s rehabilitation has been – it’s not unusual to have someone maimed in the war approach you for alms, not something that you’ll find in Siem Reap.
To understand the country that Cambodia has become, it’s important to understand the country that it was, and Phnom Penh is perhaps the best place to do it. It isn’t the easiest choice to make – and you can definitely spend a few happy days here without delving deeper – but it’s one that has its own rewards.
For a gentler introduction – though ‘gentle’ is admittedly, a relative term – start out at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Once a secondary school, this blockish complex was converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge when they took over Phnom Penh. It stands as it was left, abandoned at the fall of the regime in 1979, with empty prison blocks, instruments of torture and a collection of photographs within its walls – all that remains of the countless lives that ended here.
Only seven people made it out of Tuol Sleng alive. The rest were moved to Choeung Ek, outside city limits, where the Rouge established a sort of extermination camp. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center now stands at the site, and tells the story of its hapless occupants. It’s a sickeningly eerie experience, to walk around in this verdant space – all construction at this site was torn down, and the fields left to grow over – and hear of the horrors that took place here. Do yourself a favor and spring for the audio guide. The narrative isn’t vitriolic, instead, it intersperses descriptions of what happened here with the history of that time and stories from survivors, providing a well-rounded perspective of the war. Here, then, is a tree that babies were thrown against to break their fragile little bodies, and that’s where their parents were beaten to death with iron bars and pick-axes. There’s little visual evidence of it all, save the bone fragments that occasionally rise up through the soil, but the effect is sharp and startling all the same, before you leave, mind churning with all you’ve learned, stop and pay your respects at the stupa built at the center of the field to honor the many lives lost.