We arrived in Phnom Penh while eating dinner on the River Orchid. After dinner we found a pharmacy and explored the local’s night market which only happens on Sunday. In addition to clothing, food vendors were selling local cuisine  circling a large open area covered with mats for picnicking. We also listened briefly to a program on a stage where children were apparently telling what they wanted for Christmas. The language barrier kept us from appreciating the humorous responses.

Royal Palace Throne Hall

Royal Palace Throne Hall

The next morning we each mounted a cyclo for a city tour of Phnom Penh. The Royal Palace, built in the 19th century, is a beautiful example of classic KIhmer style, and is the official residence of Cambodia’s reining monarch, King Sihamoni. The Throne Hall is where the king’s confidants, generals, and royal officials once carried out their duties. Today it is used as a place for religious and royal ceremonies (such as coronations and royal weddings) as well as a meeting place for guests of the King. The cross-shaped building is crowned with three spires. The central, 59 meter spire is topped with the white, four-faced head of Brahma. Inside, the Throne Hall contains three royal thrones (one is more of western style and the other two are traditional) and golden busts of Cambodians kings and queen starting from the reign King Ang Doung onwards. No photographs are allowed.

The Khemarin Palace is used as an official residence of the King of Cambodia. This compound is separated from other buildings by a small wall and is located to the right of the Throne Hall. The main building is topped with a single spire prang.

The Silver Pagoda, located within the complex, is named for its floor, which is inlaid with more than 5,000 silver tiles. An impressive golden Buddha is bejeweled with 9,584 diamonds. Sorry no photographs are allowed.

The National Museum, built in the early 1900s, is housed in a beautiful building built in the Khmer-French. The museum houses a collection of Khmer art such as sculpture, ceramics, bronzes, and ethnographic objects. in four open-air buildings built around a courtyard. Several pieces are from Angkor Wat. Photography is allowed only in the courtyard and a statue of Garuda at the entrance.

In the afternoon my wife attended a Khmer cooking class where she learned how to make spring rolls, beef loc lac, and chek kits. I walked around the city, especially enjoying the walkway next to the Mekong lined with flags from around the world. Onboard in the evening we enjoyed a special dance performance by children from a local orphanage. In addition to entertaining us with traditional Cambodian dance, the boys exhibited innovative break dance routine.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center Stupa

On our final day in Phnom Penh we visited Choeung Ek, the site of mass graves of victims of the Khmer Rouge killed between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept by the Khmer Rouge in their Tuol Sleng detention center. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Apart from the stupa, there are pits from which the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site. The film The Killing Fields is a dramatized portrayal of events like those that took place at Choeung Ek.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school located in Phnom Penh, was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill”. Tuol Sleng was only one of at least 150 execution centers in the country, and as many as 20,000 prisoners there were later killed. When prisoners were first brought to Tuol Sleng, they were made aware of ten rules that they were to follow during their incarceration. What follows is what is posted today at the Tuol Sleng Museum; the imperfect grammar is a result of faulty translation from the original Khmer:

  1. You must answer accordingly to my question. Don’t turn them away.
  2. Don’t try to hide the facts by making pretexts this and that, you are strictly prohibited to contest me.
  3. Don’t be a fool for you are a chap who dare to thwart the revolution.
  4. You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.
  5. Don’t tell me either about your immoralities or the essence of the revolution.
  6. While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.
  7. Do nothing, sit still and wait for my orders. If there is no order, keep quiet. When I ask you to do something, you must do it right away without protesting.
  8. Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Kromin order to hide your secret or traitor.
  9. If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.
  10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.
Bou Meng

Survivor Bou Meng

The prison had a staff of 1,720 people. Of those, approximately 300 were office staff, internal workforce and interrogators. The other 1,400 were general workers, including people who grew food for the prison. Several of these workers were children taken from the prisoner families. The chief of the prison was Khang Khek Ieu (also known as Comrade Duch), a former mathematics teacher who worked closely with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. The documentation unit was responsible for transcribing tape-recorded confessions, typing the handwritten notes from prisoners’ confessions, preparing summaries of confessions, and maintaining files. In the photography sub-unit, workers took mug shots of prisoners when they arrived, pictures of prisoners who had died while in detention, and pictures of important prisoners after they were executed. Our guide was around eight during the Khmer Rouge terror, He was separated from his parents who were killed. He survived through some extraordinary circumstances as did his grandparents who subsequently raised him. Two survivors of Tuol Sleng, Chum Mey, who had mechanical skills, and Bou Meng, an artist,were selling copies of their books during our visit.

Long-time AP photographer Nick Ut, who took the “Napalm Girl” photograph during the Vietnam War, shared with us some of his famous war photographs and more recent pictures of Hollywood celebrities. In addition, he previewed some of his photographs taken earlier in the day from Choeung Ek the Tuol Sleng. He has remarkable talent!

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