Phnom Penh, Cambodia introduces herself with a blast of intense hot, humid air the second you step off the plane.
After that, the sensory onslaught never lets up. Leaving the airport there’s a crowd of people waiting for family and Tuk Tuk drivers barking for clients. Mixed with the sound of motorcycle engines, the overwhelming noise was disorienting after the quiet inside the airport. As you continue into the city, the smells begin to collect: gasoline, banana, dust, urine, and durian. The smells and sounds ebb and flow, but never dissipate completely. Thankfully my friend S was there to guide me when I arrived; the collection of sights, sounds, and smells was overwhelming and disorienting after two days of traveling.
Phnom Penh isn’t large, but its growing thanks to construction and modernization projects which seem to be around every corner. Old structures are being retrofitted with luxury condos and tall modern office complexes are on the rise in every direction. Concrete roads are being built to replace the dirt ones leading into the city and much needed stoplights are going in at major intersections.
The traffic was one of the things that was difficult for this westerner to get used to. The moped or motorcycle is the vehicle of juice and drivers take full advantage of their ability to sneak along side or through small openings in traffic. Rules and right of ways are suggestions, dividing lines and roundabouts are routinely ignored. The brave can rent a moto or bicycle and join the throng… but I’m not that brave. I walked around the city, crossing intersections when I dared or took a Tuk Tuk, a covered cart pulled by a motorcycle.
On my one day to walk around on my own, I went to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Also known as S-21, Tuol Sleng was a prison and torture center under the Khmer Rouge. My friend S was working with the testimony from the Khmer Rouge trail and had told me a little about the atrocities committed under the regime, but being physically surrounded by the evidence was intensely emotional. I spent nearly four hours walking through the buildings and taking in the stories on the audio tour.
There are graphic images and stories of the torture throughout and a quiet uneasiness followed me around the grounds. Photographs of some of the 17,000 victims to go through this prison stare at you, somehow both pleading and resigned. The personal stories and testimony from survivors made me sick to my stomach. Before you leave the grounds, you can speak with two of the only seven survivors. Both gentlemen have written books about their experiences and are happy to sign a copy for you. I walked out of the quiet grounds into the noise and smells of Phnom Penh a solemn and emotional wreck, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.
A few minutes north is the Royal Palace and Wat Preach Keo. These two sites are open to the public for a small entrance fee, but closed for lunch from 11am-2pm.
Unfortunately, this was exactly when I reached them, so I was only able to view from the outside. They are quite beautiful traditional structures, adorned with gold. The streets immediately facing have been blocked off to traffic and tourists walk freely along the sidewalks. The afternoon sun has an intense direct heat, with the shade feeling ten degrees cooler.
Shortly after I gave up and took a Tuk Tuk away from the heat and tourists, through the cacophony and smells, to S’s place and collapsed on a bed. Phnom Penh is both amazing and exhausting.