Sunday, December 23, 2007

Smiles and scars in Phnom Penh

Yesterday was not a good day health-wise, so today's visit to Tonle Bati has been shelved til I feel a lot better. I've spent more hours in bed than out of it over the last two days and I still feel like shit.
As I've nothing to report personally, here's a visit to Phnom Penh by Simon Marcus Gower of The Jakarta Post, Indonesia.

Phnom Penh, a city of scars and smiles
Brilliant blue skies are above. The occasional fluffy white cloud breaks the blue, and moves on, guided by a gentle breeze perfectly created to caress a weary traveler. It is a breeze that offers just some relief from a tropical heat that would see Phnom Penh become otherwise unbearably hot and dusty. This, though, is a relatively small city and its limits can be reached quickly. The surrounding Cambodian countryside can soon take over. The river that runs through the city seems largely untouched by the hand of man on one side. Ferries are occasional and riverboats few and far between. There is a level of tranquility and peace that runs through residential and office-bound areas, reflecting nothing of their traumatic and brutal past. Phnom Penh is sleepy and at ease - an uninformed visitor would not believe the devastation the city has known. New developments are spoken of and visible in the rise of ubiquitous glass and steel monolithic office blocks. But the city is still largely defined by its historical and French colonial grid-like city plan. Today, Phnom Penh may still be considered in recuperation from the horrors and brutalities that were visited upon its people and its buildings 30 years ago. The people of Cambodia have historically suffered under the excesses of human brutality and 30 years ago this brutality took the form of appalling atrocities and genocide. For most individuals, this history is incomprehensible. Phnom Penh can still show the world its scars from days gone by, and in so doing, it simultaneously horrifies, educates and warns us. The people of Phnom Penh today are, despite it all, remarkably welcoming, genuine, open and friendly.Getting around the city is made easy by ever-present tuk-tuks - motorbikes to which a carriage is attached. Their drivers are typically helpful and pleasant.A t a rate of 8,000 riel (or US$2) for a journey to pretty much anywhere in the city, this mode of transport is convenient, inexpensive and fun. Sitting in the carriage of a tuk-tuk, that can seat four easily; it's not hard to feel relaxed. The breeze offers some natural air-conditioning, while passengers and tourists move around the city. Tuk-tuk drivers are worldly-wise and tourist-savvy, but rarely pushy or annoying. They are ready and willing, and can be hired for the day, or even days consecutively.

Two of the most immediate and obvious sights on a tourist map are the Royal Palace and the National Museum. The Palace shines brilliantly in the sun with its golden and yellow d├ęcor. But again, there is a restfulness to be discerned here. The Palace complex is kept in immaculate condition. The trim hedges, cut grass and topiary all give clues to the esteem and reverence paid here. The grounds are relatively quiet and not flooded with tourists. Although the arrival of school children by the bus load can quickly change the atmosphere somewhat, teachers seem intent on their charges learning about Cambodian history. The students behave appropriately and are less of an intrusion than masses of tourists. The Palace does, though, clearly venerate the monarchy and like most others, the Cambodian monarchy has had a varied and rather checkered history. In the neighboring National Museum, veneration is paid to images of Buddha. Visitors here could be forgiven for mistaking the National Museum for a shrine or Buddhist monastery. Its central courtyard is an sanctuary of calm with still ponds, selected statues and miniature hedges. The oasis-like atmosphere is accentuated further by the presence of Buddhists monks. The collection of carved and cast images from around Cambodia is extensive, but is something more than a mere museum collection. Throughout the museum, simple mats are laid in front of images of Buddha, where offerings are made of flowers, fruit and incense sticks, whose delicate fragrances waft through the museum's open halls. Signs of Cambodia's antiquity and Buddhist roots are spread throughout the city with many, many temples (or wats). Pagodas glisten under a hot sun and are contrasted by the city's blue skies. Wat Phnom is built on a small hill toward the north of the city. It is here the city is reputed to have been founded by a wealthy widow, Daun Penh, who settled near the river in the 14th century.It is remarkable places like this survived the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. At that time, religious places were considered unnecessary. Religion was disregarded. It was thought to only take the Cambodian people to a Utopian notion of their existence - an apparent new beginning at the year zero. Remarkable also is that the Cambodian people survived such an onslaught. But they did, and today they quietly, powerfully, seek to remind visitors of their survival.

The people of Phnom Penh will suggest, but not insist, a visit to two sites that chillingly commemorate the happenings of the mid-to-late 1970s. They are referred to as The Killing Fields sit some 15 to 20 kilometers south of the city at Cheoung Ek. A monument, of sorts, has been raised to the thousands of people viciously killed here. It is a tall tower within which sit numerous shelves. And resting on each shelf are dozens and dozens of skulls. The tower's surroundings include pits and trenches where bodies were buried in mass graves. It is simultaneously gruesome, respectful and eerie. Local children busily offer to show visitors further sites of mass burials, while the joyful sounds of nearby school children make a stark contradiction to this place death. The stories attached to The Killing Fields of Cambodia are too many to relate here. Similarly, the experience of visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is harrowing and difficult to tell. It is near impossible to relate in words. The Genocide Museum was originally built as a school, but in 1975 it became a prison and a center for torture. It is estimated somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 people were killed between the walls of these buildings and during nearly three years of operation. Less than 10 people came out alive. Today, as a museum, this complex of buildings is retained in just about the same condition it was found at "liberation". Its rooms are stark and many of the crude cells remain. The most difficult and harrowing rooms to visit are those that contain hundreds of photographs of the prison's victims. The photos show humans who had clearly already suffered; some with cuts and bruises, many with looks of absolute fear. Others wear innocent smiles - and there are many children. But these images are a startling contrast to the people of Phnom Penh today. Today's residents are friendly, seemingly peaceful. It's difficult to conceive their history casts one of the world's longest and darkest shadows. It is a history however that should not blind visitors to everything the city has to offer.

Many people, it seems, stay a short time in Phnom Penh - or don't visit at all, favoring instead the vast wonder that is Angkor Wat, further north-west at Siem Reap. This is a shame and an omission that leaves a vital part of Cambodia neglected. Much of Cambodia's economy depends on tourism and Phnom Penh can be - and rightfully should be - a significant part of this trade. With its still-evident French colonial charm, its wonderfully welcoming and pleasant people, and abundant pagodas, Phnom Penh offers a different, if somewhat challenging and rewarding travel experience.

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