Walking towards the terminal at Bangkok’s Dom Mueng Airport, I bumped into an Air Asia pilot who asked me, “If your main motive is to visit the Angkor Wat temples, why are you going to Phnom Penh? Why not fly directly to Siem Reap?” As a matter of fact, I never had any intention of missing out on what was once known as the ‘Paris of the East’, the heart and soul of Cambodia — a city that’s home to a beautiful palace and many temples, with a busy riverfront, and people with a welcoming mindset.
Lady on the hill
In the local Khmer language, ‘Phnom’ means ‘hill’. Lady Penh was a wealthy lady who lived on the outskirts of a village located in present-day Phnom Penh. A flooded Mekong river caused a hollow tree with four bronze statues of the Buddha to float up to her lawn, a signal that prompted her to build a temple for the Buddha. And so, I huffed and puffed a steep flight of stairs to Wat Phnom, the only hill temple in Phnom Penh, to see a majestic bronze seated Buddha amidst eye-catching murals depicting scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Hindu epic Ramayana.
It was the French colonial authorities, who had turned this riverside village into the ‘Pearl of Asia’. I could walk on sweeping boulevards, reminiscent of Paris, home to colonial-era architecture, gaping at the post office building featured in the Hollywood film City of Ghosts; the Hotel Le Royal building (where Somerset Maugham stayed), featured in the film The Killing Fields; the Central Market with its spectacularly French-designed art nouveau dome, where I could also indulge in the pleasure of bargaining for garments and souvenirs. Sadly, they were in a state of neglect, but this only added to the romance of a bygone era. When I tried speaking French, nobody responded, probably because the Khmer Rouge regime had killed thousands of educated Cambodians, most of whom were French-educated, so that by the end of their reign in 1979, the French had been wiped out of Cambodia.
It was Vietnam that deposed the Khmer Rouge regime and built the Cambodia–Vietnam Friendship Monument, which I went to see next. A large concrete structure featuring statues of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers together with images of a woman and baby representing Cambodian civilians, it was built in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown. Similarly, a must-see was the Independence Monument built to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. It’s designed in the form of a lotus-shaped stupa, similar to the style seen at the Angkor temples.
Despite the passage of 40 years, Phnom Penh’s grim history of the Khmer Rouge regime is evident to a foreign visitor. Pol Pot, a reclusive, sophisticated, Paris-educated revolutionary leader, and his murderous cadres aimed to create the most equal communist regime. To end distortions of equality, Pol Pot decided that all city folk, especially the highly educated ones, must be brought on par with villagers doing manual work. The regime gave power to poor rural workers and turned them into instruments of death and torture. Over a quarter of the Cambodian population, around two million people, was murdered over the course of just four years. Bullets were too costly to use on such a scale and killing was done with clubs and agricultural implements. The heads of babies were smashed against trees. Victims were made to dig pits into which their own dead bodies were dumped later.
Being Cambodia’s principal city, it was Phnom Penh that suffered most during this black period of history when I went to see the Tuol Sleng Museum, chronicling the Khmer Rouge-inflicted genocide. The site, a former high school, was just one of at least 150 execution centres established by the Khmer Rouge. They renamed the complex ‘Security Prison 21’ (or S21, for short), and enclosed the buildings with electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prisons and torture chambers, and all windows covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides. During the Khmer Rouge years, when a person was accused of betraying the revolution, his family would be arrested and brought here. Guards would use electric shocks as a method of torture and use the old-school swing bars to hoist prisoners up by their arms. When the prisoner finally confessed, he would be taken to the ‘Killing Fields’ and executed. I did not have the stomach to visit the Killing Fields, also known as Choeung Ek, a site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where there is a large memorial containing over 5,000 skulls from victims buried nearby. The fields are splattered with bone fragments and bits of bones still surface from time to time.
It was time to see the more cheerful side of Phnom Penh and on my radar was the Royal Palace, a sprawling complex of buildings and an important landmark, a building topped with traditionally styled, multi-tiered golden-apex roofs with a central spire. But for the Khmer Rouge period, this palace was always occupied by kings and queens ever since it was built. Facing the Mekong river, it has within its compound the Silver Pagoda, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, with its floor inlaid with 5,000 silver tiles, where King Norodom Sihanouk’s cremated remains are laid to rest.
Later in the evening, taking a stroll along Sisowath Quay, the renovated riverside promenade with street food peddlers, open-air aerobics classes and team sports players, I could be a part of Phnom Penh’s phenomenal energy and nightlife. In their rush to reach Siem Reap (and the Angkor Wat), most travellers overlook this metropolis, bypassing it altogether. I found Phnom Penh attractive in its own right, and was delighted to discover another city beyond Siem Reap.