Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, offers a fascinating, and often heart-breaking insight into the country’s modern history. Here it is possible to see reminders of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which devasted Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, including sites such as the Killing Fields and the S-21 jail. However Phnom Penh is also home to the wonderful Royal Palace, and a flourishing restaurant scene.
Whilst sadly many visitors will often overlook Phnom Penh and head straight to Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor, it is worth spending a few days in the capital to truly appreciate the incredible resilience of Cambodia’s people, and how the country has emerged from one of the world’s most ruthless genocides.
During the Khmer Rouge rule, around two million Cambodians lost their lives. Out of this two million, hundreds and thousands of these people had been imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the soldiers, for reasons such as being ‘an intellectual’. Many of these poor souls were detained in places such as the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh. It is believed that up to 17,000 people had been taken here during the regime, and yet less than a dozen are known to have survived. Today, it is possible to visit the prison, and learn about the harrowing experience of those who perished here. Outside of the city lie the Killing Fields. This is where many of the prisoners from places such as S-21 were taken to be executed. 129 mass graves have been found in this area, 43 of which have so far remained untouched. The remains of around 9,000 people have been exhumed from the graves, and over 8,000 skulls now rest in the memorial stupa at the centre of the site. As the seasons affect the soil, more bones and pieces of clothes sometimes rise to the surface around the fields.
Whilst it is important to acknowledge the city’s dark past, there is more to Phnom Penh than its sad history. The Royal Palace is most certainly worth a visit; a collection of impressive buildings with beautiful exteriors and intricate artwork. The city also has an interesting variety of architecture, from Chinese temples to Colonial buildings, and the odd glittering skyscraper. There is also a burgeoning foodie scene, with delicious streetfood, colourful markets and a number of world-class restaurants.