The blog is not finished! But after the Theft (yes, capital letters), the want/need to update the blog took second fiddle to dealing with the Theft and just finishing the trip sans computer. Since being home, it's been hard to get that motivation to complete it. But I will. Ever so slowly. Please be patient!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Life and Death in Phnom Penh

November 24, December 3-7,2011. Days 362, 371-375

“Oh, you’re going to Phnom Penh? You’re going to need a few days to let it grow on you.”

Those were the first words I heard from someone about the capital city of Cambodia. I wasn’t entirely sure what they meant other than perhaps it is like most cities and needs time for you to find its charm. Coming from Vietnam, the differences were immediately striking. I found it smaller(because it was) and surprisingly cleaner. There was certainly rubbish, but there didn’t seem to be nearly as much as the cities in Vietnam. I’m not knocking Vietnamese cities, just merely stating something I’ve noticed.

Independence Monument in central Phnom PenhIMG_6472

But the whole “need a few days to let it grow on you” adage? It didn’t apply to me. As soon as I arrived I felt drawn to the city. And in the few days I spent there(split in-between a visit up to Siem Reap and Battambang), I easily found a city that I could live in and relax in.

There would be a small contingent of people from the Mekong Delta tour that would start hanging out that very first night in Phnom Penh. And the Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverfront would become a common place to meet up. The FCC, as it is commonly referred, is the restaurant/bar that journalists would congregate during the Vietnam War. The group that met this time around in the FCC – Nicola and Juno from Ireland, Jan from Spain, Lucy from England, Jens and Julia from Sweden, Isabella from Germany, and Janine from Switzerland – proved just how well trodden the tourist trail in Cambodia was. You’ll find out in the coming posts just how well trodden.

The view from the Foreign Correspondents ClubIMG_7594

Phnom Penh, in its own right, is a city steeped in a very recent, and very bloody, history. In the 1970s, over a short three year period, the Khmer Rouge took over the country and killed over 3 million of its own people. The beginning of that period of hell began with the complete depopulation of the cities. Within a couple days of the takeover, every citizen of every city were forced out and to various rural areas of the country to work on communal farms.

Nowadays, tourists have a number of opportunities to learn about this tumultuous period in Cambodian history and to get a feel for the horrors that were inflicted on the Cambodian people. And, beginning not too long ago, people have a rare opportunity to see history unfold as well. Juno, a journalist in his native Ireland, let us know that the U.N. backed Tribunal for four senior members of the Khmer Rouge had actually just begun at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia(ECCC). Within minutes, five of us(Juno, Lucy, Isabella, Jan, and myself) were set to meet early to take a tuk tuk the 15km east of the city to go see the court in session.

Squeezed on the Tuk TukIMG_6466

Half unfortunate for us, when we finally arrived, the court was actually not being held. They had two days of opening statements and then were taking a break for a couple weeks. Luckily though, a Public Affairs liaison for the United Nations took time out of her day to give us a tour of the courtroom where it was all going down. And with no trial in session, and signing papers saying “We are not journalists,” we also got to take photos inside the courtroom. I definitely recommend anyone in Phnom Penh to try to make it out to the tribunal. Though, be warned, it takes a bit to get a tuk tuk driver to understand where you want to go, and it’s also fairly expensive. When the 5 of us went, Juno somehow convinced a driver to do it, round-trip, for only $15. When I attempted, on my second time in Phnom Penh, the driver wouldn’t go below $30.



In a way, it was probably good that we didn’t get in when we did as, at the time, we had no real background to the whole thing. The Genocide Museum in central Phnom Penh as well as the Killing Fields south of the city do a great, and at times emotional, job at telling the story.

Most tuk tuk drivers will take you to both for a decent price($12-$15 for the full day visiting both sites) though will usually take you to the Killing Fields first. I liked the way I did it, doing the Genocide museum first, as you more or less do it sequentially as people were first held in the buildings that now house the museum before being taken out to the fields to be killed.

The museum is simple, yet powerful. I found myself needing to take a break from seeing the wall after wall of photos of prisoner photos. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of people held in the prison, only five or six survived. Prison cells in the former high school are still up for you to walk through, and many photos and plaques tell stories from the people’s point of view, both survivors and guards.



The Killing Fields is the [highlight? most depressing?] area to visit. Once again, simplicity is best. With your entrance fee you get an audio guide included. And this is more than worth the $5 entrance. The guide is detailed and heartbreaking in the stories of families ripped apart, of the intense cruelty of the army forces, and of inevitable hope in the midst of the darkness. Having the audio guide also helps keep you to yourself, in a way that allows you to sit back and just think, pray, meditate.

Monument in the Killing Fields. There are over nine levels of bones insideIMG_7451

The “Killing Tree” where Khmer Rouge soldiers would beat babies to death against in front of their mothersIMG_7473

Each depression in the ground is the location of a Mass GraveIMG_7480

The history in Phnom Penh is dark. Humans are capable of the most horrific of behaviours. But it is our duty to never let these events be forgotten, and to spread the stories, so that we may learn from them and fight to prevent them from happening again.


  1. Hi Corrie, how are you getting on & where at now? Juno just forwarded this to me. We are mental busy in our respective papers & doing TV/radio bits as well. We had a nice trip to Paris after New Years. I like your writing style & am most jealous! N

  2. Thanks Nicola!! And thank you for the compliment. It means a lot coming from you!

    I'm doing fine and enjoying life! I'm in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia now, with the beginnings of a cold settling in(dammit!). How are you doing? How goes the writing? Doing more than just the "damn Euro crisis"? hehe