Phnom Penh and The Other Wonder of Cambodia

“won·der

noun \ˈwən-dər\

1   a : a cause of astonishment or admiration : marvel     b : miracle
2      : the quality of exciting amazed admiration
3   a : rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience      b : a feeling of doubt or uncertainty”

-Definition, Merriam-Webster

I had arrived in Cambodia not knowing what to expect. I had heard both rants and raves from all sorts of people. To be honest, I had expected it to be a lot like Thailand, but with less infrastructure and more Angkor Wat. What I found was an incredibly flat land of deltas, bayous, clay dirt and land mines, with a population full of smiles despite the tragedy of recent history.

Phnom Penh is accurately described as the tarnished pearl of Asia. Traces of a former hub of civilizations shine through this crumbling, crowded, and chaotic capital city. There are no skyscraper-filled financial districts or sprawling tourist traps but rather a few isolated places of interest like the palace, the Independence monument, and the temples. It is a crowded, working city, where the roads are always full of pedestrians and motorbikes on a mission – not in a hurry, but purposeful in their travel.

Phnom Penh is a vivid and unsettling place, one that sticks to your memory whether you like it or hate it. The motto of Phnom Penh seems to be “anything goes”. And I mean anything. Seeing this slogan playing out around town was even more disturbing. Access to hard drugs is all too easy in this city, especially in the backpacker district around the lake. Three guests at the hotel that I stayed at died of drug overdoses in two days. Prostitution is also in your face at all hours. While I was having a drink with a friend at an upscale bar along the Riverside, an older British man at the table next to ours was on his cell phone, booking an appointment with a teenage hooker for him and his friend, making no effort to be discreet. It was three o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday.

Perhaps most distressing of all was how tragedy has become a tourist commodity. Having taken history classes, I was interested in visiting visiting the museum and memorials around the capital that commemorate the millions of people killed under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge regime, headed by Pol Pot, kidnapped, tortured, and executed as many as two million of their own people during the 1960s and 1970s. Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum, is housed on the site of detention center S-21 in the middle of Phnom Penh. This former high school was converted into a prison and interrogation center during the genocide.

Tuol Sleng was a haunting experience. You could walk into cell blocks still littered with restraints and blood stains. I met the only living survivor of S-21 (only 8 were alive when it was closed), and walked through chilling galleries of victims’ photos and paintings.

The other major memorial is at the Cheung Ek Killing Fields which are just south of the city. The massive Buddhist stupa at the entrance holds over 8000 skulls that were recovered from this site as a memorial to the victims.

Yet, in the shadows of this charnel house, the touts and taxi drivers in the parking lots are only too eager to take you to ranches outside the city to shoot an AK-47 or toss a grenade at a live cow. What disturbed me most about this activity was that the fact that it even exists means that somewhere along the line, enough tourists were asking for this arrangement that it became a standard offer. That says a lot about what kind of tourists are attracted to Phnom Penh.

A global industry is forming that is called ‘genocide tourism’ or ‘dark tourism’ that promotes visiting sites of mass atrocities, such as the concentration camps in Poland or the memorials in Rwanda. Attending these sites pays tribute to those who died, fulfilling the world’s promise to never forget.

However, some of these places are becoming commercialized to the point where they will become about money, not remembrance. At the end of my visit, I learned that the Cambodian government has leased the Killing Fields to a private Japanese firm, which now runs it as a for-profit business. Both the museum and the fields had gift shops, where you could buy souvenirs – genocide souvenirs.

I wish I had not gone here. I felt like the skulls on display stripped the victims of the dignity of being buried. It felt like a violation of a terrible graveyard.

At this point, you may be asking what this ‘other wonder’ of Cambodia is.

The other wonder of Cambodia is that despite the horrors that have taken place, the people in Cambodia are smiling and kind, even though they have lost entire generations from their population. The other wonder is that the family who owns the bar on the corner invites you to play Connect Four with them while you have your drink. The other wonder is that children are skipping down the street singing Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girl”.

The resilience of these people in the face of tragedy is the other wonder of Cambodia.

What do you think about ‘genocide tourism’? Have you had an ethical dilemma about visiting a place?

2 thoughts on “Phnom Penh and The Other Wonder of Cambodia

  1. Cambodia was an amazing experience for me as well. I was 18 and eager to hit every corner of the globe, drink in hand. What hit me in Cambodia, after leaving the majestic Angkor Wat temples as I lay on top of a speed boat hauling down the Mekong was exactly that what you said-the Cambodians have a resilience that is phenomenal.

    I had gone to Auschwitz when I was only 12, so it struck me but not the way Tuol Sleng did, not at all. I remember wandering through the stalls where people slept and died, feeling haunted and sick. Passing by the images of people was horrifying and tragic.

    I did not go the killing fields, nor did I shoot a cow. I do remember though crossing the street, to a cafe covered in bugambilia where my travel mates were seated, drinking cocktails and eating snacks…maybe I still feel guilty about all that I have and had. Perhaps the feeling I had crossing the street was the worse, like I should feel empty for the rest of my life from what I had seen. Yet feeling sorry for yourself forever will do you and no one else any good.

    So it is vital to focus on the beauty and life and use that as fuel for change. When you’re in Cambodia, the warmth the people try to give you, despite the pain in their eyes, is worth the visit entirely. What’s better, is the children who hopefully have yet to be scarred by corruption and reality. Their smiles beam and always make you think of Cambodia favorably.

    • Thanks for the comment. It sounds like you had quite a sobering experience at Tuol Sleng. I had expected the museum to be a bit more abstract but it was very graphic and profoundly tragic in portraying the events. I also found it helpful to focus on appreciating the kindness of people going about their lives, even with this atrocity so recent in their past.

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