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Phnom Penh

Back in the 1960’s Phnom Penh was bulging at the seams as peasants the countryside and refugees across the border sought refuge the overspill the war between the US and Vietnam. By the middle the 1970’s its population had reached two million. Four years later, it was a few thousand!

Golden Temple
Golden Temple

In April, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, in its insane determination to create a peasant nation of uneducated peasants working the land, ordered the entire population of Phnom Penh to leave the city within 48 hours, and then attempted to raze it to the ground. ​

Fortunately, some of its once-numerous temples and heritage buildings escaped the wanton destruction.

Two thirds of the contents of Silver Pagoda (the name derives the floor of the main temple, fashioned five tonnes of pure silver) was damaged, but it is still spectacular.

Amongst other relics, it houses a life-size solid gold Buddha and other excellent Buddhist statuary. The long wall enclosing the pagoda is decorated with frescos.

The National Museum, built in 1926, is an uneasy amalgam of French Colonial and traditional K'hmer architectural styles. It contains a wealth of K’hmer artifacts and relics the ancient Funan period to comparatively modern exhibits. As might be expected, it’s a treasure house of statuary and sculpture. The sensuality and tranquillity of the effigies the tenth to the thirteenth centuries hint at a civilisation at its cultural zenith.

Phnom Penh street
Phnom Penh street

The Royal Palace is also impressive. As it’s resumed its function as a royal residence, not all of it is open to the public, but the part that can be seen is interesting.

Among the several 'wats' scattered around Phnom Penh, Wat Phnom and Wat Ounalom are noteworthy. The former was first constructed in 1434, but has since undergone four rebuilds, the latest being in 1926. It has plenty of interesting shrines, effigies and frescos, and is popular with the locals.

Originally a monastery, Wat Ounalom was created in 1443 to accommodate a hair of the Buddha. It survived the ravages of history until 1975 when the K'hmer Rouge levelled the main temple, completely destroyed its ancient library and slaughtered the patriarch.

The complex has been rebuilt, but the central sanctuary contains only a jumble of shards the temple's former glory.

Some of Phnom Penh's markets are worth a visit, particularly the New Market, (Psar Thmei – wide range of general goods, flowers and fresh food) and the Russian Market (Psar Tuol Tom Pong – real and fake antiquities: good for souvenirs)

Cambodia is a small country struggling to escape high levels of poverty created by a history of colonisation and brutal wars culminating in the K'hmer genocide and mass destruction of infrastructure.

Apsara dance
Apsara dance

Despite the tourist pictures, much of the capital city is made up of poor quality housing and unmade roads.

Flooding is commonplace in the city during wet season, and pollution is high.

Sadly, one of the most-visited 'attractions' in Phnom Penh is the Tuol Svay Prey High School, converted the notorious S-21 Security Prison by the Kh’mer Rouge.

The building is now a museum of the Khmer Rouge holocaust. It isn't a comfortable visit. Those of our customers that have been there often find that it’s the mundane things that are the most difficult – the small personal possessions and particularly the matter-of-fact posed photographs of men, women and children who were brutally murdered there.

About fifteen kilometres Phnom Penh lies Choeung Ek, the extermination camp that received the prisoners S-21 and other prisons around Phnom Penh. Nearly nine thousand corpses were exhumed 43 mass graves.

A further 86 graves remain untouched - the total of executions is estimated to be around 20,000. There were thousands of similar centres spread across Cambodia.

A 1984 British Oscar-winning film gave a collective name to the Kh’mer Rouge extermination centres – The Killing Fields.

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