Meanwhile, back in Indochina…. a few weeks ago, gentle reader, I left you playing Hunt the Gecko all night in our hotel room in Chau Doc, not really the best preparation for our triumphal entry into Cambodia the next day. Nevertheless, we emerged from our sleep, ready to take in our final Vietnamese morning, and the exciting prospect of a four hour speedboat trip up the Mekong, into Cambodia, and on to Phnom Penh. What a stylish way to go from country to country! The boat belongs to the Victoria Hotel and they use it for day trips to the Cambodian capital as well as for proper international travel. There was plenty of room for us intrepid five to relax, stretch out and take in the beautiful scenery.
There was no particular problem at the border crossing, although it was a slow process. Fortunately the hotel provided a guide who explained precisely all the forms we would have to complete, which booths to stand at, which fees to pay, and so on. We were expecting quite a major border post, considering it’s an international boundary on one of the world’s biggest rivers; instead, it was like a couple of garden sheds and a Portakabin, surrounded by a few obligatory shrines and a mangy dog. Bureaucracy took its usual unhurried pace, and, about an hour later, with ID’s confirmed and dongs exchanged for riels, we were back on the river. The rest of the journey was uneventful with nothing to do but observe river life, until, as often seems to happen on the Mekong, the boat broke down. The Captain and the guide weren’t the remotest bit concerned though – I got the impression this happened all the time. The Captain did whatever is the naval equivalent of getting under the bonnet and wiggling a few connections, and off we went again. The Captain returned, somewhat smug at his engineering prowess, to his steering wheel. However, in doing so, he accidentally kicked over a bucket of iced water that had been keeping soft drinks cold for us so that the water went cascading all over the inside of the boat, splashing up the sides of our legs and ruining any delicate shoes that might have been worn. With a hundred sorries imparted to a few discomfited Brits, the Captain wasn’t looking so smug any more.
Arriving anywhere from sea is an exciting view – we’ve been on cruises that have called at Valletta and Venice, for example, and nothing can prepare you for the exhilaration of seeing these places from the water, as the land gets closer. Well, arriving at Phnom Penh from the Mekong is a similarly amazing sight to behold. From some distance you get the promise of all these gilded temples with their pointy roofs and elaborate finials shaped like the “nagas” of Buddhist mythology, although they remind me more of birds of prey talons, or those very ornate fingernails Thai dancers have. The initial sensation is one of elegance, a treasury of history, a place where time has stood still so that these extraordinarily beautiful buildings can co-exist with recent functional architecture in a modern frenetic city. You can’t wait to get off the boat and explore the city.
But first we checked into our hotel – and how fantastic it is. We were at the Raffles Hotel le Royal, and it’s probably the second most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in (want to know which is the most beautiful? It’s the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra). The bedrooms and the public rooms are immaculate, and they really get the service right too, being the perfect blend of friendliness and politeness. The Elephant Bar is a wonderful place to unwind at the end of an evening, the poolside terrace is exquisite, and the main restaurant simply fab – as we would discover the next evening.
After lunch it was time to head back into town and meet our guide, Phaly (I think that’s how you spell it – pronounced Polly). She was an extraordinary person with a very personal understanding of the sorrowful history of Cambodia over the last forty years. We would learn more about that, and her own experiences, the next day. Meanwhile, on a happier note, our afternoon was spent visiting the Royal Palace, whose intricate spires and quirky shaped temples had welcomed us at a distance on the boat that morning. You would think that the Royal Palace might be centuries old, but actually it only dates from the mid-nineteenth century, and is the official residence of Cambodia’s reigning monarch, King Sihamoni. There are many buildings that make up the whole Palace complex, including the Throne Hall, the Pavilion of Napoleon III, the Dancing Pavilion and the Royal Treasury. As you would expect, they are adorned with stunning decorations and it’s all landscaped to immaculate smartness; there’s hardly a leaf out of place. One of the halls has a rather bizarre costume exhibition; not that you wouldn’t expect an exhibition of costume in a place like this, but some of the models made it look as though they’ve been transported from a tatty 1980s boutique that’s having a hard time shifting some old stock. Alongside the Royal Palace you can also find the Silver Pagoda, with its stupa that holds the ashes of the current King’s grandparents, its Equestrian Statue of King Norodom dressed as Napoleon III, and its Buddhist temple.
We then moved on to Wat Phnom, a very lively and happening temple built in 1373 to house some early Buddhist statues; now it’s a market and a meeting place as well as a place of worship. It’s very colourfully decorated, verging on the gaudy more than the tasteful. Very prevalent in Cambodia are the people near to temples selling caged birds – the idea is you buy a bird and then set it free – it gives you good Karma. One of our group decided to buy one of these wretched animals trapped in its tiny cage; she paid over her money and received the little cage, which she then opened – shook a little – and the bird just dropped dead out of it onto the floor. I’m sure that didn’t do anyone’s Karma rating any good at all. Whilst I was trying to stifle a smile remembering Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue, our fellow intrepid traveller just marched straight back to the bird seller and demanded a fresh one. It all seemed very strange to me. The new bird flew away and Karma was restored. Outside Wat Phnom there is a big garden clock, set in the lawn adjacent to the temple. It still works – although I doubt it’s been there since 1373.
And that concluded our afternoon sightseeing. Like all Asian cities Phnom Penh’s roads are a battlefield between car, cyclist and pedestrian, although it wasn’t as terrifying as Vietnam. We safely made our way back to Raffles for afternoon tea and a nap, before returning into town to try the FCC for dinner. That’s the Foreign Correspondents Club to you and me. It’s somewhere people rave about, but to be honest, we couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. My pizza was cold, and Mrs Chrisparkle discovered she had a big ugly black thing walking over her hand at one point, at which she let out a shriek, some good old Anglo-Saxonisms, and the big ugly black thing fled for its life.
The next morning we all went for a leisurely walk around Phnom Penh’s old historic centre, to observe its fascinating mix of Khmer and French colonial architecture. We drove past the Medical University and the main railway station, which reminded me a little of the old Hoover building in Perivale. We saw Telecom Cambodia and the Children’s Hospital, where the streets were thronging with parents and children anxiously going in and out for appointments, then happily chatting about diagnoses and medications. We saw what once was an imposing elegant building but with its façade damaged, its paint peeling from the surface, overrun with vegetation and surrounded by a collapsing corrugated iron fence – this was right in the heart of the city. Apparently it once was a very grand hotel, but once it had been attacked and had fallen into disrepair, it’s just been left to rot. We saw the Main Post Office, stately, as they often are; and a fruit and veg market, glistening with goodies and not as stomach turning as some markets can be. We visited the modern market hall, circular in design, with entrances north, south, east and west; and with outside rows of stalls lining the four entrance paths – it must look very elegant from the air. We took in the National Museum, with its four pavilions housing the most striking statuary – a beautiful building in itself and there are some amazing exhibits there.
After all that edification, it was definitely time for lunch. It was yet another of these youth projects, Friends, and their Romdeng restaurant. It was possibly the most impressive of all these restaurants, that aim to train former street children, give them a career and also provide a splendid culinary experience. The food and service was great, and if it’s still on the menu, the chocolate and banana spring roll with strawberry sauce is To Die For.
Wherever you go in Phnom Penh, you cannot escape memories of the Pol Pot regime. These beautiful, kind, gentle people were subjected to the most brutal and cruel subjugation that virtually eradicated an entire generation. It’s very striking in Cambodia that you see many people aged around 25 or younger, and many 55 or older; but disturbingly few in between. They simply didn’t survive. Those that remain have few assets, as their property was seized or destroyed – our guide Phaly told us that she works to maintain the rest of the family and all eight of them sleep in one room. Her parents were killed when she was young and as a result, she doesn’t actually know her birthdate or age. Things one takes for granted in the west are precious commodities in Cambodia. Yet they don’t appear to resent the past, they seem to accept it in a very Buddhist way, and overall it’s a very peaceful, welcoming place, much more similar to Laos than to Vietnam.
Thus, having spent the morning taking in the sights and sounds of modern Phnom Penh, and the beauty of its archaeological and artistic heritage in the National Museum, it was time to turn to sadder things. The Tuol Seng Museum of Genocide is situated in a former school in the centre of the city, that was used as a prison by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and has been left as a reminder future generations. It’s a harrowing and haunting experience, but essential to understand the true nature of what went on and to admire the indomitable spirit of the victims. Outside you see a sign with the prison rules – designed to intimidate and bully the victims into acceptance of their fate. Inside, on top of the spartan beds in each cell lie instruments of torture; on some of the walls you see pictures of people who spent their last days in those cells; the white and yellow floor tiles are blackened with the spilled blood of the murdered. When you hear what actually happened it chills you to the bone. Pol Pot’s terrorists, who gathered together all the intellectuals, the professionals, the teachers, the doctors – everyone except the farmers by the sound of it – and tortured and despatched them, were mere boys aged 12 to 16, encouraged to let loose their bloodlust on the terrified population. It’s extraordinary to think that this sector of the community – one that under ordinary circumstances society educates, assists and nurtures – should turn on its fellow citizens in such a barbaric way.
For me the most memorable exhibits in the Genocide museum were the galleries of photographs of some of the people imprisoned and who knew they were going to lose their lives. The majority looked – unsurprisingly – devastated, broken and desperately sad. A few looked furious, arrogant, proud and determined not to give in. That spirit of defiance was awe-inspiring. Illustrations on the walls showed the torture methods they used and looked positively medieval in their cruelty.
Out of all the thousands that passed through its gates, only seven people survived the prison experience. On the day we were there, one of them, Chum Mey, now into his eighties, was giving a talk to a group of students, as well as selling copies of his book, Survivor. It was an honour to meet him, but I also felt a distinct degree of discomfort at freely wandering round the prison where he had suffered such appalling hardship. He seemed very happy to meet tourists though.
In for a penny, in for a pound. Once we’d been well and truly humbled by our visit to the Genocide museum, it was time to visit the Killing Fields. It’s an appropriate end to the day, as you’re following the route of those prisoners who were shipped off from the Tuol Seng to be sent the five miles out of town to the deceptively peaceful setting of the former orchard at Choeung Ek, to be killed. It’s an extraordinary place to visit – for so many reasons. At its centre is a memorial pavilion, built in 1988, with glass panels around, and inside you can see approximately 8,000 skulls of victims found at the site. It is gruesome – but it’s also strangely dignified and noble.
There is a sequence of tourists signs denoting the places where the trucks, bringing in the victims, would stop, and from where they would be led away for immediate execution; but when the numbers got too many, it became impossible to kill them all quickly enough so they needed a detention spot where the victims could await their death – and there is a tourist sign indicating that spot too. There is a sign marking where the Executioners’ office was; and finally the Chemical Substances Storage room sign shows where they used to keep DDT and other such chemicals which would be scattered over the corpses to obliterate the smell and also to kill off any people who had accidentally survived their executions.
What affected me most was the frequent sight of bones and clothing just peeping out of the surface of the ground. Although there was an exhumation of the mass graves in 1980, there hasn’t been the time or resources to perform a thorough clearing of the site, and no doubt everywhere you walk is only millimetres above a burial site. There’s a display cabinet showing some rags of victims’ clothes that came to the surface during rain whilst they were exhuming the mass graves. It’s a particularly pitiful sight, just to see the ordinary, everyday items that people were wearing on their most extraordinary of death days. The Khmer Rouge didn’t like to waste valuable bullets on these people if possible, so they were frequently bludgeoned to death by using blunted hoes; and some trees on the site provide branches with very sharp jagged edges that were used as tools for decapitation. There’s another tree – The Killing Tree – against which babies were flung by their ankles. I think I’ve gone into enough detail.
It’s so incongruous that such a ghastly place is a tourist destination, but, like Auschwitz, it’s somewhere you have to go and bear witness to the atrocities committed by man on man, in the hope that it might prevent it from happening again. We both felt that the Killing Fields were actually more upsetting than Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a site of enormous dignity and reverence. The Killing Fields had an ice cream stall, souvenir shop and a children’s playground nearby. There were ladies walking round selling pashminas. I guess life goes on.
I can’t imagine anywhere more welcoming than the Raffles after such a harrowing afternoon. The juxtaposition of present day luxury and 1970s genocide is surreal. However, you can’t change the past and can only live fully in the present and look to the future. So for dinner that night we ate at the Raffles Restaurant Le Royal which was hideously expensive but a real celebration of enjoying life.