Although our time in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia’s capital and largest city, was limited to 24 hours, it was one of the most moving and thought-provoking visits of our entire trip. Phnom Penh is a city that is very much shaped by its relatively recent history. It possesses great architectural and metropolitan beauty, as well as warm and engaging people, but is still recovering (along with the whole country) from the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia for four years starting in April 1975.
On the architectural front, evidence of colonial times is present everywhere, from the city’s broad, open, French-inspired avenues, to some of the old buildings that still manage to stand upright after years of neglect.
Sadly, evidence of the Khmer Rouge is also quite visible. In April 1975, Communist Party leader Pol Pot implemented a radical scheme to turn the country into an agrarian collective, leaving the cities mostly empty from forced relocations, imprisonment, and executions. The entire population of Phnom Penh was ordered to leave the city and take on new lives as working peasants in the countryside. Additionally, under Pol Pot’s directive, the Khmer Rouge tortured and executed nearly all educated people, including teachers, doctors, writers, and their entire families. Many more Cambodians died due to malnutrition or starvation. By the end of the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule, between one million and three million Cambodians lost their lives. We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former Khmer Rouge prison, which is quite depressing, but also houses exhibits that provide very thorough historical context.
The city of Phnom Penh is still recovering from the loss of so many lives and from the lasting blow to its economy. As a result, the streets don’t seem as crowded as they do in other main SE Asian cities, and the population is noticeably poorer. Tuk-tuk drivers aggressively pursued us (for legitimate business), and once delivering us to our destination, they would often insist on waiting for us in the hope of guaranteed business in the form of a return trip, which we soon realized may be one of their only chances of additional business for the night with tourism having taken a recent downturn. Children selling postcards and photocopied books were omnipresent on the street — as well as at every Angkor temple we visited — and somewhat heartbreaking, though it was encouraging that they often did so in their school uniforms. Amazingly, despite their recent hardships and ongoing recovery, the Cambodian people were warm and welcoming.
Despite the heaviness of what its population has been through and survived, Phnom Penh today is actually quite a pleasant place to visit. The royal palace in the center of town was beautiful:
There was also a fascinating market, with concrete architecture and a wide variety of things for sale, from shirts, to shoes, to fake watches, to fried critters (a popular snack food).
Phnom Penh is very easy to get around as well, since there was no shortage of tuk-tuk and cyclo drivers to show us around: