We didn't know too much about Cambodia's history before arriving in Phnom Penh, other than remembering buzzwords like "Pol Pot" and "Khmer Rouge" from high school. But our one day in town acted as a crash course in the country's past. We hired a motorcycle driver to chauffeur us for the day and we began with a ride out to the Killing Fields of Cheung Ek. This was one of the Khmer Rouge's most infamous death camps where thousands of men, women, and children were murdered by being beaten to death. After the regime's fall in 1979, the mass graves were cleaned up and a huge monument was built displaying 17 glass-cased levels of bones and remains. Now all you see in the fields are the large ditches, but overall it is an eerily beautiful place--with an occasional shock when you see a scrap of clothing peaking out from the soil.
Those murdered at the Killing Fields were most typically brought from prison known in code as "S-21". Before the Khmer Rouge the building was a high school, but it was converted into an interrogation and torture center under the regime. Visitors can roam the grounds, walk the halls, and enter the classrooms turned prison cells. Some areas have been left as they were, with simply a bed and shackles marking the space, while others have been filled with the pictures and stories of those who were jailed there. It was chilling to think how recently this genocide occurred; we realized that most of the Cambodians we were meeting probably knew someone who was killed by the Khmer Rouge, and some might have been involved in enforcing the reign as well.
Our motorcycle driver took us to happier places as well, like the beautiful Buddhist temple, Wat Phnom, and the bustling Russian Market. This indoor labyrinth of fabrics, foods, and flashlights was much more challenging to navigate than the bee maze in the Cameron Highlands, not to mention much more entertaining. The most expensive ticket in town, at $6 USD, is to the Royal Palace. It's the official residence of Cambodia's king therefore so many buildings are off limits, but there are still many gorgeous temples and stupas to explore. The gaudy Silver Pagoda grabs the most attention with its diamond-studded Buddha and namesake pure silver floors.We didn't expect Phnom Penh to be so beautiful, but it turns out Cambodia's capitol was full of surprises. Though tired of Asian food, we loved the new flavors of Khmer food (especially at Khmer Saravan, where we ate dinner both nights we were in town). The grey skies we'd gotten so used to in Vietnam lifted when we crossed the border and we finally left the oppressive humidity behind. But the weirdest thing was the use of the US Dollar. It certainly wasn't the first time we'd seen prices abroad listed in American currency, but use is so widespread that even the ATMs dispense dollars! It was nice to see our friends George, Alexander, and Andrew again.
View more pictures from Phnom Penh here.