in the 1960’s Phnom Penh was bulging at the seams as peasants
from the countryside and refugees from across the border
sought refuge from the overspill from 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
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
some of its once-numerous temples and heritage buildings
escaped the wanton destruction.
thirds of the contents of Silver Pagoda (the name derives
from the floor of the main temple, fashioned from five tonnes
of pure silver) was damaged, but it is still spectacular.
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 from 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 from the tenth to the thirteenth
centuries hint at a civilisation at its cultural zenith.
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.
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 complex has
been rebuilt, but the central sanctuary contains only a
jumble of shards from the temple's former glory.
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.
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 into the notorious S-21
Security Prison by the Kh’mer Rouge.
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.
kilometres from Phnom Penh lies Choeung Ek, the extermination
camp that received the prisoners from S-21 and other prisons
around Phnom Penh. Nearly nine thousand corpses were exhumed
from 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.