Saturday, 5 November 2011

Day 63: Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh: it's phnompenhenal!

Or pretty good, at least. I write on the bus to Siem Reap, which I expect to be my base for the next week while I explore Angkor Wat and its surroundings. We arrived in Cambodia's capital the evening before yesterday and spent a full day of sight-seeing yesterday.

One day isn't enough, for Phnom Penh is an enjoyable city to spend time in and we fell on our feet with some of the best accommodation we've had to date. The recently refurbished Narin Guesthouse was spotlessly clean, helpful, had a bar-restaurant on a large terraced balcony, and cost just $8 for a twin room. With beer at around $0.50 a glass, it was a delightful introduction to the country.

Our day of tourism incorporated the standard tourist highlights of the city: the Palace and the Silver Pagoda, the national museum, the Russian market, and just to cheer us up, the former torture prison of Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.

The Palace, pictured above, was beautiful, the national museum a bit dull but in nice surroundings, and the Russian market great if you like shopping for clothes and Buddha statues. I'm sure you can get more information on them on Wikipedia if you're interested. But it was the Killing Fields that made the most impression on me, and not in a good way. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, to be precise, are on the edge of Phnom Penh and are where around 17,000 people - infants included - were exterminated in the 1970s during the madness of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Not a happy place but it's important not to forget these things either. To its credit, Cambodia has faced up to its spell of genocidal madness and hasn't tried to sweep it under the carpet. The Killing Fields are an important reminder of Cambodia's dark past and mankind's dark nature.

But - a tourist attraction? Because let's not be fooling anyone, that's what we have here. Tour buses roll up and troops of white-haired French people potter around. A mother takes her daughter's photo in front the memorial and then they swap places for another snap for the holiday album. People wander the tight circle of the memorial and gaze at the thousands of human skulls there. Yes, the thousands of human skulls. The many thousands murdered here now have the indignity of their skulls being on display for tourists. Sure, it's a vivid way to remember the brutality of genocide, but I can't help but feel that there is also something a little inhuman about piling the skulls of people who should still be alive today up in a display case.

The Cambodia genocide was one of the 20th Centuries dark moments but it feels like a private tragedy for the Cambodian people to remember. Gazing on the skulls of Cambodians, wandering around the pits their bodies were slung into, observing the spot they were unceremoniously executed, I felt like a voyeur. The audio tour was very well done and appropriately grim, but in the end I felt the whole experience was pointlessly grim. Why put myself through that? It was like going to the funeral of a person I'd never met. Bury or cremate the thousands of showcase skulls and let these people rest. Sure, you'll get less tourists paying $5 to get in, but you'll have a memorial that really is about remembering rather than gawking.

That grim-a-thon wasn't the defining point of my brief time in Phnom Penh though. Instead my over-riding impression was of the feel of the city itself. A crazy Asian city with survival of the fittest traffic, it was lively and energetic, and more developed than I'd been expecting. Cambodia is poor, but there was a palpable sense of it getting richer, of it going somewhere. A girl in our guesthouse put it well when comparing it with Burma. In Burma, she said, poverty was final, and a poor person had the sense of hopelessness that no matter what they did there was no way out. But in Cambodia now there is a sense that things are getting better, in your own or your children's generation.

And the chief impetus to this recovery? Tourism. And in Cambodia, tourism is only about one thing: Angkor Wat. This 900-year-old building brings in millions of tourists annually and is the pivot that Cambodia revolves around. It is on their flag, it's the name of the national beer, it appears everywhere. And I'll be seeing it, and the surrounding Angkor area, in the upcoming week.

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