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Walkabout in Phnom Penh

By day two of Phnom Penh, I’d already had enough. The heat grit and generally ugly demeanor of the city had taken their effects on me. Just little things like the constant harassment of the tuk tuk drivers, people peeing in the open, the dead rat on the sidewalk just made the city a less than desireable place for me.

Late in the afternoon I strolled through a market just a couple of blocks from my hotel. The smell, the flies, the blood, the vegetables turning all did not give me confidence in the food I’d be eating that night.

Cities take on a different personality at night and Phnom Penh is no different. The relative cool of the evening draws out the crowds. Young lovers, families and curious tourists all come out to the river banks and open space in front of the palace. They gather to play, buy food from the many street vendors and stroll along the brightly lit streets.

Just off the beaten track, the scene quickly lost its romance.

I returned to the outdoor market that I had photographed earlier. Much of it was shut down though a few vendors hung on while others went through the motions of cleaning up. The smell wasn’t easy for me to take. Worse though, as I strolled through the crowded alleys, I noticed the ground moving in places. Looking closer, I realized that a bevy of oversized rats were doing some shopping of their own.

I don’t have any great fear of rats, though these were about two feet long from nose to tail and mostly fearless. They didn’t budge as I slowly strolled through their rotting smorgasbord. As I set my camera up, I can’t deny that I had visions of being attacked on the back of my ankles by bloodthirsty vermin. What I would have given for a pellet gun and handful of bb’s!

The next morning, I decided to get out of the city center for a walk to S21, the prison-now-museum where communist dictator Pol Pot tortured and killed many thousands of his fellow Cambodians during his brutal 1975 to 1979 rule. Most people choose to tuk tuk their way the couple of miles that it takes to get there, but I liked the idea of experiencing the city first hand to see what I could.

The Cambodians may be poor and their government not able to do much, but they do have cool crosswalk signals here. Check out this little video. The best part is at the end.

The day coincided with the Cambodian New Year so the noisy temples were filled with worshippers. Here’s a video with some of the sights and sounds of the new year celebration:

This man handed out a few Reals (Cambodian currency) to the beggars who sat outside the temple gates

After a couple miles of walking in the midday heat, I finally made it to the prison. The banality of the present day scene belies the horrific cruelty that took place here. In this room, the high value prisoners were held and tortured. Photos of the victims show them bloodied and beaten to the point that their life left them long after their will to live.

The barbed wire on the outside of the building wasn’t so much to stop prisoners from escaping as it was to stop them from killing themselves by throwing themselves off the higher floors. For many victims of the relentless waterboarding and other vicious tortures, death was no doubt a welcome relief.

Before becoming a prison, the complex was a school. It’s easy to imagine children walking to class here. Hard to visualize the macabre scene of beaten men being herded aboard trucks to their death.

My next stop was to one of the many killing fields in Cambodia. There’s one that’s set up as a memorial/tourist destination but in reality there are hundreds of these murderous sites scattered throughout the country. At the killing fields, prisoners were bludgeoned to death by the hundreds and buried in shallow mass graves. According to the nearby sign, this tree was used by the Khmer Rouge to kill babies and small children by swinging them by their feet and bashing their heads.

This three story memorial contains thousands of human skulls stacked in shelves that fill the middle of the tower. They’re all on display.

To get to the killing fields, a tuk tuk was required because the distance was way to far to walk. On the way back, I snapped photos of some of the many scooters zooming by. Here a mom breast feeds her baby on the back of one. Seeing families of four on a scooter is not uncommon - traveling by scooter is just part of everyday life here.

My last day in Phnom Penh. Whew! Tomorrow I leave for the more scenic city of Siem Riep, an 45 minute plane ride to the north. I’ll be happy to leave this town.


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