Pnomh Penh – a city reborn

An amazing city that has regained its former life in the space of only 35 years after being emptied by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978. From the bustling yet friendly night markets, to the smiling tuktuk drivers, the Mekong river running slowly past as French impressions meet Asian energy, Pnomh Penh is a fascinating city.

We tried ginger and chilli frogs, chilli beef with red tree ants, deep fried oreos and a packet of crisps on a stick! The food was fantastic whether it was noodle soup for breakfast or beautifully fluffy bread. The market food smelled (smelt?) and tasted delicious and the restaurant stuff wasn’t half bad either. It was clear that we were moving one step closer to India and away from China as the curries were more Bombay than Beijing.

We visited the National Museum of Cambodia set in a stunning building with guardian elephants and chickens. One group was made of stone the other free to move around, I’ll give you a clue: we didn’t hear any trumpeting. Inside was a huge collection of stunning sculptures from all over the former Cambodian Empire with hundreds of buddhas and Buddha heads taken from Angkor near SIem Reap (our next stop). With descriptions and recreations of this ancient (think 9th century) world it whetted our appetite for what we would soon be enjoying.

Awesome building, loads of buddhas

We also checked out the National Palace which is really a collection of stunning buildings set in beautifully maintained gardens. There was also allegedly a silver pagoda which is pretty famous but we weren’t 100% sure which building it was! Yeah I know, it should have been the silver one!

One of the Royal Palace buildings
Not the silver pagoda

Before arriving in Cambodia Jen and I read “First They Killed my Father” by Loung Ung which is an eye-opening read for anybody interested in the atrocities carried out in Cambodia in the name of revolution. Told by one of the lucky ones who managed to escape to America with her life it is an incredibly moving book – Loung Ung was barely a child when the Khmer Rouge took power and forced her out of Pnomh Penh. So one of our first stops was to S-21 which is the official name for a former school that became a prison during the Khmer Rouge occupation.

A brief history probably helps… Following independence from France, Cambodia was ruled by a monarchy with a stable political system. That was until 1970 when Lon Nol (with the silent backing of the US) took control of the country, banished the king and ruled for five bitter years of civil war. In 1975 Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge would take control and systematically empty the cities out into the countryside and kill between 2 and 3 million people depending on who you speak to. They were also responsible for deploying an enormous amount of landmines whose effects you can see today in the missing arms and legs of many people in Cambodian cities.

S-21 was an interrogation centre for political enemies as well as a prison and some of the devices still on display were pretty horrific whilst the row upon row of mugshots taken of those who would go through the prison are soul destroying in their number. It is estimated some 19,000 “prisoners” would be put through the system which would nearly always end in one of the killings fields. The things we saw and read will certainly stay with us for a while and it was hard not to be amazed by the resilience of the Cambodian people.

S-21 in Pnomh Penh

Part of the museum is in a partnership with Okinawa Museum and evidence of the scale of the devastation that hit Cambodia over an almost four year period brought back memories of our visit to Hiroshima and the inhuman level of suffering that man can cause itself.

With this in mind, what really interested me the most about Pnomh Penh though was the way in which communities and the very city itself have rebounded. There were signs here and there that this was a city still finding its feet but you would never have known from meeting the people. Full of energy and smiles and interest in other people, conversations were easy and relaxed whilst bargaining in the markets revealed some very dry senses of humour.

We had a great time in Pnomh Penh but equally we couldn’t wait to arrive in Siem Reap and visit Angkor Wat and all the other temples all whilst celebrating Chinese New Year. That’s for next time though!

BREAKING BAD UPDATE: Series 3, Episode 6.