For my first full day in Phnom Penh I decided to hit up the spots that most visitors to the city pass through, including the Royal Palace, the National Museum, Wat Phnom, the Russian Market and the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. And while touring the city on foot is certainly doable, I decided to hire a tuktuk – a four-wheel, shaded cart hooked onto a motorcycle – for the day to avoid becoming roadkill on Phnom Penh’s busy streets, which could best be described as ordered chaos. (Click on the photo to the left to be taken directly to my Flickr photoset)
When I first arrived here, I was struck at just how many motorcyclists there were in the city as they swarmed around and sped past the lumbering van that picked me up from the airport like schools of fish around a large, slow whale. Motorcyclists and drivers alike are not afraid to go against traffic and edge into busy intersections where motorcyles and other vehicles meet you head on. There are traffic signals, but, based on the number of people who actually stop, they are more of a suggestion than a command; if you can make it without killing anyone, go for it! Luckily, I got a good driver, Mr. Black, who knew his way around the city and who was an assertive and fearless driver.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is the center of royalty for the kingdom of Cambodia and was my first stop on my day-long adventure. I had seen pictures of the palace in guidebooks and on the Interwebz, but seeing the majestic and boldly colored buildings and manicured grounds was nothing short of spectacular. Some parts of the palace are closed off to the public, but what can be seen is still worth the visit. It’s also a good spot to run into other tourists, who you can pick out because of their hiking boots and Lonely Planet guides. One thing I’ve noticed in my short time in Phnom Penh is that the tourists/aid workers that it attracts are very friendly, worldly and socially conscious individuals. That includes an NGO worker from Belgium who I met at the Royal Palace. He said that he and his girlfriend worked for an NGO in Siem Riep and were, like me, planning on seeing the sights in addition to continuing their work in the city.
The National Museum
The National Museum was my next stop. The building that houses the museum collection wraps around a small courtyard and is very similar in style to the buildings at the Royal Palace. The collection itself hosts a wide variety of stone statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities and thousand-year-old artifacts from Cambodia’s long and storied history.
Wat Phnom is a temple in the middle of the city and was my third stop on the trip. The temple is actually in the middle of a large park, where families spend leisurely time in the afternoon, much like the parks back home. Unlike the parks back home, however, you don’t just see human families making use of the open space. If you look up into the trees, or on the hillsides of the temple, you may just spot families of monkeys, just like I did.
If you’re looking for cheap clothes shopping or for a knickknack to bring home, the labyrinthine Russian Market is a great place to browse through. You can spend hours looking through the stalls upon stalls of clothing, tchotskys, bags, jewelry, art, and god knows what else is hiding beneath the tin roofs. If you’re hungry or thirsty, there are also drink and food vendors centered in one part of the market. It was while sitting down to a glass of sweet coffee that I met two human rights workers and another tourist from Belgium. Again, super nice people who did not hesistate to chat with a newcomer to the city.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
A visit to Phnom Penh is not complete without a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which was my last stop on my tour through the city. The four buildings that make up the museum, once home to a children’s school, played host to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge during its blood-soaked reign of terror in the late 1970s. I was privileged to have a tour guide who was not only knowledgeable; she was one of the survivors of the regime. According to her, her family was marched from Phnom Penh to Svay Rieng, a city in the southeastern part of Cambodia. She and several of her family members were able to cross the border into Vietnam. Her father, a sister and a brother were not so lucky. Unlike the families who can find evidence of the ultimate fates of their relatives as documented by the soldiers in Tuol Sleng, and whose photos are on display there, she still to this day does not know the exact fates of her family members. Even now, almost thirty years later, she still tears up when telling her story and telling the story of many others who were tortured to death by the Khmer Rouge.
Many of the rooms in the museum are a grim reminder of those horrors: the walls are unadorned save for a large black and white photo of one of the Khmer Rouge’s victims – this one had his throat cut, this one’s face was bashed in by a shovel – and a metal bed frame. Other rooms have been preserved to show the layout of the small cells. My tour guide said that often two people would be placed in these cells, and would often die there. At one point, she looked down into a cell, spotted a deep red spot, and tried to scrape the spot vigorously with her shoe: “We clean here often, but there is still blood. So much blood, that we can’t clean.”
After the tour, I ran into the Belgian NGO worker who I met at the Royal Palace and another traveler from Southern California who also happened to be from Orange County. The traveler, who was planning on biking around Southeast Asia for a full three months, said that he hoped to raise money and kick off aid projects in the region, or wherever else needed help. Check out his website here.
Visit my Chronicles in Cambodia Flickr photoset.
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About The Chronicles of a BlawgirlThis blawg follows Julie Anne Ines as she continues her law school journey as a 3L in Fall 2011. Learn more about her here. Find/stalk her online profiles using the social toolbar at the bottom of your browser. Email her at ja_ines (at) msn (dot) com. Thank you for reading!
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